We take an early morning walk, the dogs and I. It’s still high summer. Flowers bloom, and leaves, though faded, hold onto their green. A trio of young squirrels skitter across telephone lines and disappear into a cedar.
Daisy is jaunty in the sun of what promises to be a 100 degree day, light on her paws. Rocky’s drag against the pavement; he has trouble “finding his feet,” but his nose still quivers in the air and roots happily in grass tufted at the neighbor’s mailbox post. She pulls ahead and he lags behind, my arms a fulcrum to their needs.
I remember another summer day, nearly 40 years ago, when I sat in a hospital room and watched my grandmother spoon food into her mother’s mouth, my own mother looking on. My great-grandmother had been a fierce presence, and I didn’t know what to make of her—of life—seeing her so diminished, our generational line arrayed in plastic chairs at her side, feeling that it was not so much a row of seats as a conveyer belt that would carry each of us, in turn, to the place in the bed.
Rocky’s legs stumble and I scoop him up, letting Daisy set our pace. He has never been as happy on a walk as she. He’s always been anxious, even as a young dog his tail tucked so tightly beneath his legs it hugged his belly. He’s content to be carried.
“When you get old you become a child again,” my grandmother told me twenty or so summers later. It was sometime after the time she nearly died, after the day my mother and I stood vigil by her hospital bed, one of us on either side of her, soothing her as she emerged from anesthesia. As we stood there, hour after hour, meeting her agitation with calm voices and touch, I remembered the earlier hospital room and thought about how we were all one chair further down the line. Later, on the last day of her life, I wiped her bottom for her, who had once wiped those of nearly everyone I love.
I am older now than my mother was then.
I see another squirrel and think of the friend who has been raising a squirrel the past few months. Her daughter found it huddled on the ground not long into our pandemic shutdown, so near to birth or death (or both) its eyes were still closed. Every day she posts photos and videos of the squirrel they’ve named Lucky, who has grown strong and lively in their care. I remember the three squirrels on the high wire–siblings?–and wonder what Lucky has lost and gained—not that such an accounting makes much difference. Without my friend’s care, Lucky would be dead. The squirrel is, indeed, lucky.
Rocky is alert in my arm, his head moving in response to sounds, shifting so he can see with his good eye. There are birds chattering, a car door slamming, a siren not far from us. We turn a corner and see a neighbor’s chickens pecking in their cage. I stop to take their picture, noticing the clatter of traffic a block away.
My mother used to feed the chickens on her grandmother’s farm, but the chickens were long gone by the time I came around. While my elders sat in the kitchen drinking coffee, I used to wander through hen houses empty of everything but decaying hay, wishing I could have been born earlier, wishing I’d known the farm when it was really a farm.
What is a farm, now? Yesterday Cane sent me a picture of blackberries he picked from vines growing wild along Glisan, a street so traffic-choked it’s hard to make a left turn onto it. “Be sure you wash them well,” I said. “They’ve got to be covered with exhaust.” Yesterday I harvested blueberries from bushes someone else planted in my backyard. This summer I’ve eaten my own onions, parsley, thyme, and tomatoes. Neighbors have told me that my home’s previous owner liked to think of the yard as an urban farm. How many times I’ve wished for my great-grandmother’s knowledge of how to grow and preserve. I am a rank amateur. The bounty I gather now feels like the product of dumb luck and a credit card.
I think of Cane’s blackberries and wonder if my mother’s blackberries are ripe enough to pick. I think of mid-August as blackberry time, not late July. But maybe that’s changed with the climate? I hope not. Maybe August is still blackberry season up home, where I grew up, where marine air keeps the temperatures cooler. This is the first summer, ever, I haven’t made it home. The first summer I haven’t seen the waters of Puget Sound and listened to the gulls, their cries a kind of shelter like no other. My parents are afraid of infection, afraid of what I could bring with me. What are we missing, my mother and I, in these months apart we’ll never get back?
The conveyer belt is always moving.
I remember my children picking blackberries with my mother in my parents’ lower yard, water visible down the hill and across the road, a field where deer graze and coyotes sometimes lurk, and how the night before my grandfather died, my grandma and I and her sister and my cousin walked from my grandparents’ house down to the wild bushes near the railroad tracks and picked buckets of blackberries to make a pie. My cousin and I are the only ones still alive, though we’re both now old enough to be in the age group the CDC considers to be at high risk. My grandpa’s been gone 39 years. It’s been so long since he’s visited me in a dream. My throat closes when I think about how much I miss them all, how much I miss the treasures I didn’t know to treasure at 16.
I put Rocky down again, give him another chance to find his feet. It’s a constant balancing act and judgment call, being his fulcrum between life and death. Yesterday I got an email from my uncle. “I have always been optimistic about your future,” he wrote. “All you have to do is find and follow your whimsy.” My uncle, the former Naval officer, the one held up to me by my grandparents as evidence to prove work their ethic theorems (not that I needed convincing). He is encouraging me to follow my whimsy.
“She’s 7 going on 37,” I once heard my grandmother say of me to one of her friends. What does it mean, to become a child again, if you’ve never really been one? If Whimsy was never your native language? The year I was in second grade, all of my relatives gave me books for Christmas. My grandma was a little horrified that no one gave me toys. I was delighted.
I spent much of the day thinking about whimsy. Will I even recognize it if I find it? I spent the afternoon reading poetry, playing with paints and thread. Is this whimsy? I wondered.
“Maybe Rocky gets agitated because he’s bored,” my daughter suggested last night. She and I take turns soothing him. “Maybe he needs a toy.”
“How would he play with a toy now?” I asked, thinking of his legs so stiff he cannot run, his paws that drag along the ground, his mouth absent of teeth, his one blind eye. He can no longer chase his braided rope and toss it in the air, or chew on a bone or disembowel a favorite stuffy. Still, she has a point, which is why we are on this walk.
He’s still got life in him. I see it in his nose, lifted to interrogate whatever the breeze carries past him, even if he can’t chase it.
Maybe the world can be his toy. Maybe it can be mine.