It was late summer, Kya was maybe 12 weeks old and I was taking her swimming for the first time. There was a woman there, maybe in her thirties, with a black lab named Jake. He was eight, she told me. I got in the water and swam with Kya, and she mentioned she couldn’t swim with Jake. She tried anyway and he got so excited he was pawing at her and dragging her down. She joked that she knew him better than to have attempted it. I liked that she knew so much about her dog, and yet I pitied her. Here I was with my brand new puppy, and her dog’s years were mostly behind him. When she asked how old Kya was, I felt guilty. I knew a part of her envied me.
That was 11 years ago.
I’ve thought about Jake every now and then. I only met him the one time, but knowing he was eight years older than Kya, I could think, “Jake turns 10 this year.” Or “Jake would be 14.”
The last 12 months have been the hardest Kya’s ever had to endure. Her stoic regality serves as a disguise for how her age has caught up with her. How the many years of athleticism have left her tired, sore and aching. The years of her life now echo as aches and pains in her senior body.
Coming to terms with this has been difficult.
My heart sinks when she is slow to get up or when she slips going up the stairs. When she knows she needs help getting into the car. When she doesn’t know that if she tries to climb up a rocky hill, she’ll get stuck and need to be rescued.
She’s exchanged her morning eagerness for quiet relaxation, her rigorous play sessions for leisurely walks. And now, as most things do, we’ve reached a point where this story is told again from another perspective. We met a puppy.
“He’s just a baby,” they told me. As if I couldn’t pick that out right away from the way he bounded through the grass and gnawed his own leash when he could coordinate catching it. They asked me how old Kya was, I told her she was 11. “Oh,” they said. And there it was, full circle. I was the woman in her thirties, they were the ones feeling guilty. The puppy barked crazily, rolled around on the ground when he couldn’t keep his balance. Kya maintained her ever-present sense of calm. We walked back home, side by side, at a slower clip than we used to. I wondered if they noticed how in-sync our steps are, how we know where we are going to go by reading each other’s body language. I bet they looked at her and thought about how connected we are, how well-trained and smart and gentle she seemed. How her behavior so strongly contrasted that of their untrained puppy. And even then I wanted to turn back and say to them “don’t pity me.” Don’t feel sad for me for living this life, with this amazing creature as my friend. Who nestled in beside me whenever I was sad or in pain. Who can carry on a conversation with me without speaking the same language. Whose graying face tells the stories of the places we have been. Don’t feel sorry for me for sharing all my secrets with her, for holding onto her when I was most vulnerable. No, don’t feel bad for me at all.
But I did feel envious, maybe not of them but of a younger version of myself. If I could go back and re-live these 11 years with Kya, I would. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s taught me more about friendship than I’ve learned from any person.
(These photos were taken April 30, the day we put the crib together.)
Yesterday she stood still for a brief moment in the yard. Her eyes were pressed closed, her snout in the air. I watched as she inhaled the smells that rode along the wind. I tried to imagine what was going through her head, wondering whether, like me, she is trying to enjoy the time she has left. The baby was crying upstairs. I was in a rush. But I let Kya stand there, regal as ever, breathing in the summer air. And I let myself escape my life for a moment to watch her. My wise, beautiful girl.