or, How to Live Like an Animal
The sidewalks in our neighborhood are crowded despite the cold because the experts have told us a blizzard is coming after midnight. The computer models predict a foot of snow, or maybe two, who can say, and everyone in New York City is stockpiling milk, bread, and wine because they won’t dare to venture outside tomorrow. The lone exception to this rule will be people like me. One foot of snow or three, I’ll still have to brave the cold. I’m the chief dog walker for our family. That means twice each day, I suit up and head outside. I’ve walked the dog while dizzy and sick; I’ve walked the dog during tropical storms and two hurricanes; I’ve walked the dog while tipsy, after stumbling home late; and I’ve quietly slipped away when we had guests over to dash outside with the dog. Once during a dinner party, I ignored the dog’s nudges because everyone was having such a great time. This did not end well, and after I cleaned up the mess, I took the dog outside anyway—just to be safe.
I estimate that our dog Sherpa and I have walked 4,800 miles together over the course of the last eleven years. That is the distance to L.A. and most of the way back again. That’s farther than the trip from New York to London. That’s fifteen times through every square foot of New York City. That’s a lot of time to walk, wander, and think about where we’re going—literally and figuratively.
After I discovered my phone was quietly counting steps, I have checked the pedometer nearly every day. According to the counter, I have taken an average of 10,720 steps per day this December. This is almost precisely my average for the year, which stands at 10,424. That’s just under four miles every day. On days when I cross 20,000 steps, I feel particularly accomplished. As if I’ve just hit a high water mark in some video game that I’m playing with myself.
Usually these long distances correlate with deviations from the regular pattern of my days. Not long after I began using the pedometer, I went on a business trip to London, my first U.K. visit. My first destination as a tourist was the Tate Modern, where I wandered among the Sunday afternoon crowds. I walked across the new Millennium Bridge to Westminster Abbey, then embarked on an unscripted foot tour of the city. How like New York I found London, and yet also how distinct. Strolling the narrow alleys near the Monument to the Great Fire, I had the sense that even the oldest buildings of New York City (founded in 1624) would feel like classless nouveau riche in parts of London Town (est. 43 AD).
At the end of the day in my hotel room I discovered that I had walked 28,000 steps, or nearly fifteen miles. Having walked all this distance alone made the accomplishment feel provisional, less than real. Later, I spoke to my wife Raina using my phone’s video camera. You’ll never guess how far I walked, I told her. In the background, my kids jumped up and down and laughed; they moved so fast that the video frames blurred. They were excited by the fact that they could see and hear their dad, even though he was in another city 3,500 miles away.
After we said good night, I lay on the hotel bed and tried to really picture the distances that we were talking about. How far I had walked. How far away home was. How far Raina and my kids were. How far the present was from the past, not just for me but for everyone. How far I had walked in my life, despite not feeling like I had walked all that far, really. In my mind, distances and ages and relative life spans spread out in vast insuperable concentric circles that eventually buried me in sleep.
There are clear parameters for measuring distance, but there is no useful measure of time. I do not mean we cannot measure time. I mean that time does not have a instructive gauge for long or not long enough. It just is. The other day my daughter complained that our dog was getting too excited—she and her brother were playing soccer inside and the dog wanted the ball. I told them that our dog is a senior citizen and entitled to whatever she wants.
“How old is Sherpa?” my son asked.
“She’s 11,” I told him, not for the first time. He is four. He forgets.
The next question was also something he has asked before: “When is she going to die?”
I suspect my mother was the one who explained to me that dogs age at a different rate than people. But I also recall hearing this from Alpo commercials starring Lorne Greene, the white-haired grandfatherly actor with the thundering voice who played Commander Adama in the original Battlestar Galactica, a television show I loved as a kid. In the Alpo spot, Greene declares that a 13-year-old dog would be roughly 91 in human years.
The schnauzer terrier who slept in my room when I was a boy was 15 when he died. No, that’s not quite accurate. Our schnauzer was euthanized at 15, although he wouldn’t have lived much longer. As my parents signed papers, sealing his fate, my brother Jeff and I stood in the vet’s gravel parking lot—the only vet available on Mother’s Day—and I sobbed.
“Do you want to pray?” my older brother asked, quietly. His question surprised and irritated me.
“I already prayed for him,” I said, angry at myself for crying, angry at the fact that this pet, who was almost the same age as us, was somehow already too old to live.
“I already prayed for him and it didn’t matter,” I said.
“No,” my brother said, “not for him. For you.”
I never knew what to make of this statement. Assuming an engaged deity who could grant my plea, what would I be asking for? To alter the rate that animals age? For time to unwind itself? For the very nature of the universe to change all because of one boy’s broken heart? Such a thing would be the height of hubris. And in the end, he’d have to die eventually.
I’m not sure how our children will react when our current dog dies, or when we put her to sleep, or whatever it is that marks her end. Will my son cry and will his older sister try to comfort him? Will he be too young to understand? Will he be old enough to remember it forever, just as I still remember my first dog’s death?
Sherpa has no idea what to make of the ruckus we make around her. She just takes what comes. If it is time to walk, she walks. If it is time to sleep, she sleeps. She follows my son around because she likes his habit of leaving his food on the floor, where she can get to it. And his readiness to throw a tennis ball for her. He is old enough finally to be a playmate, even if she is too old to have the rambunctious energy that she had a decade earlier. They were meant for each other, perfectly matched, but set on the Earth at the wrong times. Or maybe not. They have this time, after all, don’t they? They have whatever time we have left. This bothers me more than Sherpa. Why is it exactly that we consider humans to be of a higher order than the beasts of the field?
Sherpa is lying on the carpet beside me as I type. Her chest rises and falls. When will she die? Not yet. But the end is closer than the start. She is eleven years, two months, two weeks old. She had an operation just after she turned eleven, a bad one; the vet removed a messy tumor from a place that none of us really want to talk about. The vet said she did her best to clear everything out. But the cancer will come back in the near future. There is no doubt in any of our minds. The end has begun. The doctor knows it; Raina and I know. But Sherpa doesn’t know. She lives exclusively in the present; if there is in her an inkling of what is to come, she does not give a sign. She doesn’t have the mind of a human, and she doesn’t suffer from emotions like dread, regret, and longing. Her heart is simpler, the heart of a beast: a clearer, less cluttered thing. Maybe a better thing. Every moment is the moment that you are in. Every other moment is somewhere else.
Consider all that has happened in the lifespan of this dog. Not just the watershed historical events of the last eleven years, but also the incredible number of people who have been born, who have died. The demographic shifts. Homicide rates down worldwide. More people than ever dying of old age. A safer world on the whole, according to statistics. And yet I feel more anxiety about this world than the one I grew up in.
When we brought Sherpa home, I was 28. I felt still as if I was living in a world run by my parents’ generation. A decade later, so many of my friends and acquaintances are turning 40. The time of blaming adults for the world we live in has passed. We are not any longer able to look to others and say, they made this. The world belongs to us. We have walked through it and shaped it, day after day, and we bear accountability. Starving refugees, broken bridges, battles with jihadists, big media fear-mongering, extremists on the rise: our time.
The dog walks are a constant through these years. So many small things happen each day, again and again. I have walked through many miles of New York, and seen many people: people eating their dinners at sidewalk cafes, people jogging through intersections, people smoking outside bars, people shouting out windows, people kissing, people lighting firecrackers at dusk, people playing guitar for dollars, people in cars yelling at people in other cars, people clutching babies as they cross the street; the world has passed by as I have passed through it. There won’t be another chance, or a more true moment. This is it. Everything that I see and walk past is part of me, whether I like it or not.
Lorne Greene died on September 11, 1987. I remember hearing of his death and not being surprised, because he had white hair and because he seemed so terribly old to me. I was eleven years old at the time. Greene was 72. In dog years, that’s less than eleven. My father right now as I am writing this essay is 72. So is my mother. Neither of them has white hair like Lorne Greene. I shall assume, simply because I want it to be so, that they will live far longer than he did.
Fourteen years after Lorne Greene died, I was in the Financial District on a bus headed downtown when terrorists rammed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center. I was 25 at the time. I thought the entire world had gone mad. Maybe it had. Maybe it still is. Maybe I just didn’t know any better, or couldn’t.
Almost exactly three years after September 11, Raina and I received news that a litter had been born with a dog that could be ours, and all we had to do was drive to Maryland to pick up our pup. We were giddy with the idea of having our own dog. We’d been talking about having one for months, if not years.
What does it mean, all these overlapping numbers and dates and ideas and scales of time? What does it signify? Is time itself possessed of a leitmotif—a pattern buried as in the weft of an ornate Persian carpet, the metaphor Henry James once used to describe a supremely complicated work of art? Or is all coincidence just a meaningless echo in the long corridor of decades of living? Does counting or observing a pattern really make a difference if you remain stuck in a prescribed trajectory?
I have written this essay in turns, in spirals. Some parts are older than others. You are reading it as a single piece. It was not put together that way. Right now it is 12:36 a.m. on Saturday, January 30, 2016. Right now I am alive. Right now my parents are alive. My wife, her parents, our siblings, our children, our dog. This should mean something, this shared moment. Certainly it should mean more now than later, when one of that close kin is gone; yet why is it that I know at some point in the future, at some distance from right now, I will look back on this night, a quiet cold one passed happily at home, and think, my God, I had no idea what that world was really worth?
Not long after I first moved to New York, when I was still in graduate school and penniless, I went to a party in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side. The apartment was on one of those side streets that look like beautiful pop-up picture books of Manhattan. I think it was a brownstone near the Museum of Natural History, and the apartment was at the back of a building, first floor, with a loft bed above a parquet floor.
At the party, I met lawyers, actors, and even a doctor who wanted to be a writer. The doctor had just come back from a trip to Gabon, where he was searching for the Ebola virus. You can’t be serious! I remember saying. I could not believe that here was a man who’d been doing something so dramatic and consequential, and then chatting idly with me at a party. I was taken with this world of New York, and unsure how I could ever fit into it.
On the walk home, there was an odd quiet to the street, with cars parked everywhere but no one around. I walked past dark windows where inside I knew people were warm and sleeping. I felt like everyone had a place, but I had no place. I tried to think myself ahead to a period in life when I wouldn’t be worried about how to pay student loans, when I’d finally find a path in a career, when I would feel at long last like I belonged. I should have been happy in the moment, for the great party I had just come from, but already I was anxious about what lay ahead.
So many milestones mark the path to this place, when I know that my life is so very good, and so prone to slipping away. Here is one of those great moments: after driving south for hours on I-95, Raina and I exited the highway and followed a winding road to a farmhouse on a hill. We parked the car and walked up a short grassy path. There were three puppies playing in a yard. The October air was crisp and quiet. The puppies wrestled and barked at us. We had an immediate rapport with the poodle-haired female who came when I pointed. But I was smitten with a wavy-haired male. He reminded me of the golden retriever I’d had as a teenager. Yet the first dog—the female with the poodle looks—kept making eye contact and charging at us.
“I want her,” my wife said of the curly dog. “I want Sherpa.”
I hadn’t been sure til right then. But once Raina put the name we had chosen on the rambunctious animal running and barking around us, there was no denying that this dog was the one we wanted. Like a fact I’d always felt but hadn’t been able to know for certain. We carried our dog down the hill. Once she was in our arms, she was calm, watchful, and eager to see where we would take her next.
Bryan VanDyke's work has appeared in The Millions, Pacific Standard, Carve, The Rumpus, and the New Delta Review. His book-length essay on the nature of illness and recovery, Only the Trying, was published by Dutch Kills Press in 2015. He is the curator for a reading series for emerging writers in New York City. He is a graduate of Columbia and Northwestern University. He lives in Harlem with his wife and two children. He tweets irregularly as @Literotaur.