Updated: Jan 12, 2021
"To love another person (creature), is to see the face of God." ~ Victor Hugo
4:30AM. The day begins with the familiar sounds of birds chirping. No companion's sigh letting me know he'll stay behind as I bound out of a bed warmed by two. No person, and these are not real birds. What I hear comes from what I've begun to see as an odd sort of companion - my iphone. Mechanical, yes, but with the power to cheer and signal the start of these most innocent hours of the day.
What morning brings is in a way ordinary - today's updated checking account record, the weather, the online version of the New York Times, emails written the night before by people who stay up later than I...still, extraordinary as fingertips transport me out of my tiny space into the world alive with ideas and beauty and wonder.
With a first cup of coffee, I read one post from the collection of saved favourites from "Brain Pickings", the blog written by the brilliant Maria Popova. Her commentary on the lives and contributions of scholars through the ages acts as exercise for the mind, priming thought and encouraging the daring I need to write.
I hear another morning sound - the hard nails of my lab, Beale, as he walks across the creaky planks of the old kitchen floor. A few slow steps, he stops, moves...stops again. Unable to form words, he uses sound to let me know he's up, reminding me it's time for a return to the coffee pot next to the cabinet where treats are stored. I go to the kitchen, refill my cup, give him a treat, return to the computer hoping for quiet.
Shortly, Beale walks into my office, this time using a different form of language, the rub of his head against my knee. We repeat the routine. A third and final coffee, one more treat. He settles into his bed until it's time for our walk one hour later.
At about 8 we dress, me in jeans and t-shirt, baseball cap and heavy hiking boots, Beale in his harness and leash. "To the trail", I say, as we pile into the car to make the two-mile drive to the trail head near the river. We park in our usual spot, every morning repeating the same walk into the field opening to the path. I think the familiar sounds and space with little change in number of steps help this blind boy feel oriented and confident.
Once on the trail we mix things up...left or right, what will it be? The route that will take us full circle or a half circle done twice, or do we choose the path cut diagonally through the woods? A slight tug on his leash - he pulls back, expressing his preference in his magical, wordless way. He decides, I follow. Different directions on different days means a new take on the familiar. Who was there earlier that morning - a dog he'd never met or one whose scent he knows? A bear? A doe? I measure his pleasure by the number of times he stops to sniff the leaf, the twig or the bark at the base of a craggy, moss-covered tree.
We say nothing. Our steps match, our speed the same. Lumbering. Like most older labs, he lumbers, belly moving side to side with every step forward. Blindness slows the pace. When you can't see into the distance, maybe you're not driven to rush ahead to what's next, maybe everything is right where you are...in your head, under your nose, under your paws. Maybe he's mastered the art of presence we all struggle to achieve.
As we walk, I think we're like an old married couple. We don't have to talk. We're content knowing where we are, how much we appreciate this place away from computers and phones and people and things that take us away from each other. We know we love each other. We don't have to name what's clearly spoken in the energy of every step. I think about the thousands of books written about love, how to find it, master it, then overcome the suffering when it leaves. Do we say too much? Do we miss the energy of love felt in stillness? With trust there can be silence, allowing the extraordinary language of love to speak for itself. In faith we know silence as reassurance, in its absence, the feared judgment felt in ambiguity.
I wonder more. Does he think of me as his eyes...or is he the leader, the protector? Or, does he know it as a team effort, each doing what we do best. Sight allows me to warn against the dangers of rocks and stumps and tree trunks in his way, repeating the words, "...watch your head", many times in one walk. With a capacity 40 times greater than what's afforded every human, he can pick up the scent of hidden forest dwellers. Muzzle held high, he lets out several deep, threatening barks, telling those who listen we're not to be trifled with.
Most mornings we're alone, no hikers making their way to Georgia or to Maine's Mount Katahdin. No dogs running freely ahead of their guardian. Just us. There are moments of doubt...what if a black bear did suddenly appear? Would a noisy song on my phone ward him off? Or would the bear laugh and do what bears do anyway? In jeans thin and worn with time, I wonder, what if we were faced with a rabid racoon like the story I heard on NPR of a woman saved only by thick ski pants as she screamed into her phone for her son and husband to come to her rescue. Life is full of danger...fear won't drive us away. How awful it would be to miss the sounds of squirrels darting across the crackling brush and real birds talking as the old river slogs by at the foot of the forest.
We keep lumbering - early sun lighting the way, deeper into what feels real, deeper into a shared bond. I know love can be fueled by sight - what we see in the human face, an intriguing shape, the blue of someone's eye's, the warm acceptance of an easy smile, but, love transcends the visible. The bond with this creature who sees only with his heart has taught me what might be the best of love...something pure, no risk of loss when beauty fades or body grows frail. Here we are, one of us can't see and the other goes through life with a dulled capacity for sound and scent, moving side-by-side in quiet rhythm, at least for now, knowing all there is to know.
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