THE OLD DOG
Once an old dog decided there wasn’t much point in learning new tricks. This conclusion came to it the morning the old dog first noticed a trace of gray around its muzzle. How long had the gray been there, it wondered? Such a change likely hadn’t happened overnight, so how did it escape the dog’s attention until now? On closer inspection, a light graying could be detected on its temples as well. And now that it studied the dome between its ears, didn’t the hair seem to have thinned a bit, leaving patches of pale skin visible where none had shown before? How had these changes also escaped the old dog’s notice? As it tried to prepare itself mentally for another day, the uneasy feeling it might also have missed yet other signs of aging proved a distraction the old dog couldn’t shake. Had its stride slowed or become less assured? Was its hearing, always reliable before, beginning to fail, so that it was spoken to more loudly and more slowly now, as if others assumed it had entered its dotage already? Had it wandered off track when given a single task that it could recall? Was it losing its memory? The old dog certainly didn’t think any of these possibilities were true. Nevertheless, it still brooded over how it hadn’t spotted the gray hair and bald spots and possibly diminished hearing before. Who could think of new tricks at a moment like this, when a lifetime of old and familiar ones might be slipping away from you along with everything else? Not to have a future was a depressing notion; not to have a past you were still master of must be worse. The old dog tried to count off all the tricks it had learned over the years but gave up when it became apparent not that it had forgotten a few but that it remembered every one. It did have a past and a past that returned to it like Proustian recollections over a madeleine soaked in tea. All the way back to its days as a pup, when everything seemed fresh and unexplored, the old dog’s life was there in its entirety, proof against the slights of time that something worth remembering had in fact occurred. It was natural when young to look to the future as an ever-expanding range of lessons to be learned and limits to be tested. The past at that age was always the past of others, the old dog had known, and its weight was the burden of custom. New tricks had promised an escape from those constraints that only the most timid of breeds shied away from. But with advancing years and a future that grew shorter with every breath, the past of others became one’s own past as well. No longer did it feel like it was on a short leash in the hands of the dead. Personal memory became communal as the events of one’s own life stretched back into the lives of others and shared experiences multiplied the years. Being alone wasn’t the same now as it had been when the dog was young and spry, when making your own way was all that counted and “declining years” would never arrive. Now, the old dog reckoned, knowing you’d mastered the tricks of a lifetime meant far more than panting for a few new ones to learn.
Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Grosshans