Mowgli the Bernese Mountain Dog celebrated his 6th birthday last month and, cliché as it sounds, I just don’t know where the time has gone.
I do know, logically. But my stomach tightens and my heart races when I can’t account for each moment of every day we’ve spent together. It’s not guilt, exactly, although I catch myself retracing my steps in the hallway when I pass him without stooping down for a belly scratch, conscious to a fault that every nanosecond together is precious and fleeting. Traffic lights turn green at intersections and car horns blare while I’m cringing to lock eyes with his. They are big, expectant eyes. A whale’s eyes. Or a gorilla’s.
In his eyes I cannot fail so I am determined not to fail those eyes; which, paradoxically, means I fail daily. His standards are impossible to meet.
It’s the wretched elephant in every dog-lover’s room, according to the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote: “It is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.”
As I write this, he’s lying at my feet, occasionally lifting his head to see how far along we are in the workaday grind. “Still typing?” he inquires with a raised, caramel-covered brow before groaning audibly and collapsing back into slumber. He’s been coming to this newspaper office since he was an eight-week-old puppy. The tapping of a keyboard scores the meter to our days, the padding of feet or the schussing of skis measures the tempo of our evenings.
He is strong. His tri-colored coat gleams in a shaft of sunlight. His legs are taut as bridge-support cables. His affection is immense and invasive and too often uninvited. He is six.
Even though I’ve mostly renounced the traditional Aristotelian concept of time in favor of a less-linear construct — a constellation of emotional experiences that shape our identities as opposed to a “numeric value of change” — there’s something about counting dog years that I ‘ve always found deeply unsettling, particularly when considering the lifespan of a Bernese Mountain Dog, even one who regularly runs 45-plus miles a week and behaves with puppy-like exuberance.
There’s an old Swiss aphorism about Berners — “three years a young dog, three years a good dog, three years an old dog; and everything after that is a gift.” Well, Mowgli has been six years the best dog and clearly defies this pseudo-Swiss philosophy, proving that the Land of Milk and Honey ought to stay in its lane and stick to chocolate and yodeling. Further, the far-too-short mortal coil of canines has been on my mind after reading a friend’s heartbreaking essay about losing his dog this week.
My family has always kept dogs. When I was born, I joined three big sloppy dogs at my parents’ home — Baloo, Barney and Bogey. I was baptized in tongue baths.
Only Baloo followed us on our move from Illinois to Minnesota (the “Jungle Book” tradition continues today with my parents’ Sheepadoodle “Louie” and my sister’s Newfoundland, also “Baloo”), and while I cherish my memories of the original Baloo, I was staggered by the quiet trauma of learning that he’d died.
I recall the evening in technicolor detail. I was playing in the driveway with my neighbor, Noah, both of us tearing around the blacktop in Knight Rider pedal cars when my mother called me inside to share the news. As I absorbed the weight of his forever absence, an eternity might have passed. When I turned back to the driveway, Noah had left, and the sun was setting over my toy car.
Where does the time go?