In Lonely Illness, Hope Arrives With Four Legs and a Tail

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jana Lee Frazier, whose writing is familiar to regular readers of this space, has been in poor health of late, and she reflects on finding comfort in nature and a dog who shares her need for relief.

I stand at the top of the steps that lead down to my sister's back yard. It is so quiet, as she is at work, the kids at school. I am left alone here on my own, too ill to venture beyond the confines of her house and yard. I am breathless with the realization that I am like a butterfly caught in a spider's web.

Raising my daughter, keeping animals at the zoo where I worked, I was forever taking the fulfillment I felt for granted, never dreaming I would ever find myself in this place of emptiness, a place scoured clean of meaning and purpose.

I walk slowly down into her garden. I am trembling and achy, already tired before this day has even begun. But there must be something I can do.

My sister's black dog stands by the fence, struggling to lift his leg, his cloudy eyes blind, his nose meeting the wind. I close my eyes and breathe in the breeze. The lovely aroma of leaves released, returning to the earth, fills my nostrils, and the fragrance of spent flowers, well past their prime, and the tang of the last tomatoes ripening in the sun.

He walks to the bottom of the steps, unsteady on arthritic legs, finding his way to me by my scent since his ears are now unreliable. I kneel in front of him. I put my face along his neck, wondering if he can feel the ache in my throat as I swallow hard against him. Old dog. Discarded five years before in a shelter that was later forced to close. Rescued by my sister on a rainy evening just a few hours prior to his being put to sleep. I pull back to look into those eyes, once dark as jet, once as juicy as black cherries. He cocks his head to the side, his huge upright ears sliding sideways, making me smile.

The world doesn't know we are here together on this morning. The long hours stretch ahead of both of us as I reach for the brush in the bucket by the gate. I lift my hand and move it rhythmically down the curve of his crooked back, giving his loose hair to the wind, hoping it finds its way to a nest come spring. His long tongue moves over his broken brown teeth, along his loose lips. He lays his head on my shoulder the way my little girl once did. I put down the brush and hold him tight. His big nose is warm in the hollow beneath my throat.

I get slowly to my feet, go for the mottled ceramic bowl by the mimosa tree, fill it with cool water from the coiled hose and offer it to him. I gather some towels drying on the wall and make a bed for him in the shade where he can feel the movement of the birds flying to and from the feeder. I know there are no more zebras, no more tigers, no more wolves in my future, but there is this one dog. Later, he will need help going up the steps. And I can be here with him now. I can give him my company. I can give him that. And suddenly I feel relieved to realize that there are many ways in this world to earn one's keep.

-- Jana Lee Frazier, Silver Spring


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