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December 11, 2004

Singing for Zeke

On my hike today, I watched a pair of red-tails circle on a thermal, keering loudly to one another. A hundred feet below, Steller's jays called back and forth: raucous cries of alarm when the hawks came too close, their joyous staccato chip when the danger receded. Further down the road, I was sure I heard a Swainson's thrush - until I remembered the time of year. Orange newts walked the roads in search of mates, and the nearest Swainson's are in Central America.

I love so much to listen to the songs of birds. I wondered whether they might want to listen to me. I began to sing: a Kate Wolf song, Unfinished Life. Predictably, the birds nearest me flew away - I expect out of fear of humans rather than critical disregard for my skill or Kate's catalog. Or maybe that line about the "wounded bird" scared them.

I sing to Zeke every day, just about, and have for almost fourteen years. Nonsense, mainly, about the squirrels as we walk past them or about his bad breath or dirty feet or general fuzziness, little childish jingles that half the time I don't even think about while singing: Clarke emulates lark. Aside from those people that happen by without my seeing their approach as I sing to Zeke, and at whom I blush crimson, few people generally hear me sing. Twenty-four years ago, I stood on stages with a cheap guitar and sang angry folk songs to barrooms, coffeehouses, and the occasional demonstration. These days, I sing with Becky in the room about twice a year. That's about it.

Which is why Becky raised an eyebrow about eight years ago when I took my guitar along on a day hike with my friend S.

S. was a writing colleague who volunteered a fair amount of work on the magazine I edited. We were sympatico. We hit it off. Far too well. I fell into a hole, spent far too much time with S. for a few years, Becky waiting less and less patiently for me to come to my senses. A weekend would arrive, and the phone would ring, and I would suddenly have plans with S. for the day. I neglected to sustain my relationship with my wife.

In short, I was a jerk.

Even ignoring the fact that I was married, there was something about my too-deep friendship with S. that was profoundly wrong for me. A harsh word from her, and a few days of silence after, and I would crumple into profound, intoxicating depression. Once in a while I'd weep. Zeke would get up, sidle away, find another room to be in. He has never been able to tolerate either of us crying.

My time away from Becky was time away from Zeke as well. He saw very little of me those years.

Five years ago next week, S. met a handsome, talented artist, fell in love, and told me. I was livid with jealousy, to the point where S. suggested we not speak for a couple of weeks. Hearing the news, Becky suggested it must hurt a great deal, as I'd obviously been in love with S. for years.

I admitted it to her. She was right. I was in love, and I was grieving. My admission brought years of Becky's suppressed hurt to the surface, and in those next few days our marriage nearly ended.

The crisis was over remarkably quickly. We spent the last hours of 1999 in a remote cabin in the Trinity Mountains, watching bald eagles and fog play about the forested slopes. I put my friendship with S. to an end. We saw a shrink. We talked things out. We are stronger now, and Becky has forgiven me, and I have almost forgiven myself.

But it is those first few days I want to talk about, when Becky and I would sit in our bedroom and rage and weep and scream and grovel. It went on for days, four in the morning and three in the afternoon, gentle teary reconciliations followed by great gales of wounded fury, me moaning in abject shame as sobs came out of the shower to which Becky had retreated... and our timid dog Zeke, who would hurry out of the room when I cursed after stubbing a toe, reacted in an astounding manner to all the raw emotion.

Already an old dog even then, it was as if he had waited his whole life for this chance to prove himself. He was stalwart. He was brave, and he was steadfast. He stayed between us, some part of him touching us at all times as we argued, and though he trembled at the angry words - oh, how he trembled - he did not falter.

Without him, our hurt might have spiraled, our words turned bitter. But we sought to still his trembling as we fought. We kept our anger in check. We owe him our marriage, as surely as if he had raced into a burning building to drag it out by his teeth.

I sang to him in earnest the next few months, cradling his head in my lap.

The problem with dogs is that they live just long enough that one day you can no longer remember your life without them. This year has seen Zeke fade a bit. His hips, his back legs grow weaker, his eyes misty. He is surprised when we walk into the room: his hearing has faded, and he cannot hear our footsteps. In the mornings he is still his old self, bright and ready to go to the park. Within an hour, though, he is asleep, and stays asleep all day. He no longer accompanies me on long hikes. The climb up the hill to our house is too much for him, some days. He was always surefooted and precise of step, a tree-climber. Now his back feet trip over curbs as often as not.

We walked in the rain the other night, me singing to him about the puddles and his muddy feet, and he was opaque, preocccupied with the meter in front of him. I called him, still singing, and he didn't respond: no glance, nor flicker of ear. I realized he had not heard my singing to him, and that he may not have for some months.

I knelt: he came to me. I buried my face in his fur. There is always a bright side. He could not hear my choked sobs.

This is the last in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 11, 2004 09:34 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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That's a good dog.

Posted by: Dave at December 12, 2004 09:36 AM
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what a spectacular fellow he is. they are so much better people than we are. the worst cruelty is that we outlive them, the blessing is that we never forget them.

Posted by: Anne at December 12, 2004 09:37 AM
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I think, Chris, that you're almost a good enough writer to do that dog justice. Almost, but not quite.

(And I say this whilst wanting, as usualy, to wail my own frustration with your posts. They're too much. They're too beautiful. They're too real. They need nothing by way of response, and they need everything.


Posted by: Siona at December 12, 2004 12:35 PM
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Tito is 15 now. I talk to him more than to anyone else, not that he listens or can even hear anymore. I know all of what you so elegantly write. There are some hard days coming, but each additional morning is a treasure.

Posted by: OGeorge at December 12, 2004 01:17 PM
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Long ago, I stayed in a terrible marriage much longer than I should have because I couldn't stand to part from our dog, who comforted me every time I fell apart with rage or grief or confusion. This was a beautiful conclusion to a set of beautiful posts, Chris, and it made me cry all over again, about that different kind of love that animals give us and we try in our big, clumsy, language-laden human way to return. Thanks for using those words so well to tell us about it. And, Chris - listen to what he's telling you - forgive yourself.

Posted by: beth at December 12, 2004 01:58 PM
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The question is whether I shed tears this morning because of the beauty of your writing, the unmeasurable gifts of a dog, or the echo of my own past.
To love is to acknowledge that it is all both transient and forever. Damn the grief that goes with that, its almost enough to knock us off our feet, and yet it is what we must face to continue standing.
Thanks Chris.

Posted by: susurra at December 13, 2004 09:46 AM
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i am more appreciative, each time i read you, of the craft you bring to your words. this one offered so many layers, shot through with feeling. such personal sharing. rare. a mirror of a past experience of mine, held close, sadly, fondly, privately. and a dog, here in the forest with us, fading into shadow. thanks, again, for the few minutes spent with you. and thanks to anne for introducing me to your cyberself. -- ric

Posted by: ric at December 13, 2004 07:41 PM
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