If you’re lucky you get 100 summers and I’m sitting here in the waning hours of my 47th.
It’s ending on a real downer. Our standard poodle, Athena, had been strangely lethargic for the past few days. We had already scheduled a vet appointment for this afternoon, but when she collapsed on Saturday night while trying to stand to greet us, we got her to the hospital where she spent the night undergoing tests and receiving intravenous fluids. Even before we left on our lonely drive home, however, the doctor was pretty sure she was suffering from Addison’s disease. It’s likely that she would have died overnight had we not taken her in when we did.
So I waited last night in the waning hours of my 47th summer for my wife and daughter to bring our very ill dog home. I had to carry her up the stairs, this dog who I’ve always compared to the great wide receiver Lynn Swann for her combination of grace and power. She’ll spend the rest of her life on medication, as I understand it, and will need regular steroid injections. According to everything I’ve read, she can be expected to live a normal, active life.
It was a chore to do anything yesterday. I honestly don’t think of myself as a dog person, although I spend most of my waking hours in the company of Athena and her golden retriever sister Waffle, and prior to that with our chow chow Vincent. I often grumble about how much simpler life would be if I didn’t have to deal with the walking, the poop collecting, the grooming, and the over-fawning aggravation they cause our guests. But it hasn’t been a relief to have my dog obligations cut in half. Instead, I’ve plowed through my busy waning hours of summer with a zombie-like tenacity, just trying to continue putting one foot in front of the other. I’m not a dog person, but I guess I am an Athena person, which is interesting if not exactly useful information to have acquired here in the waning hours.
Tomorrow afternoon I install my art show. I spent Sunday morning putting the finishing touches on the easels I manufactured last week, dusting off a few of the older pieces, creating an artist statement, and getting everything packed up for transport. On Saturday afternoon I dropped by Great Stuff in Georgetown to pick up three pieces that have hung there for the past 6 months. Kirk, the proprietor, made it clear that he wants to continue selling my work once this show is over. He’s convinced that as the economy turns around, the art market will bounce back, and he’s confident that people will want to buy my work.
That’s how things work, right? They bounce back from the bottom. I’ve had 47 winters turn into springs as well. In a few days, Athena’s behavior will be back to normal, that’s what the vet says. She’ll regain her old athletic form. In the meantime, I’m spending the waning hours of summer with a dog who this morning tried to go down the stairs on her own, but lost her footing and tumbled to the bottom.
Today is the first day of school – the best day of every school year. Not only that, but with the “slow start” schedule of our two schools, it will be a “first day” for some of the kids for 4 of the 5 days, so I can look forward to that special giddiness all week long. As the children get older, say as old as my 12-year-old Josephine, they’ll come to find a seed of melancholy within the ground of that unmitigated excitement. Transitions are like that. There are always waning hours and the older we get the more we come to anticipate them and use them for the reflective moments they offer. Sometimes I run across an adult who is so enthusiastically focused on the future that she seems to deny the past, oblivious to such things as waning hours. “The past is gone,” she seems to be saying, “Why dwell on it?” It’s not exactly childlike because young children aren’t even aware the past is gone. In fact if you really listen to young children, you learn that the past isn’t even really past.
I’ll remember my 47th summer as the one I learned to appreciate the late, great storyteller Utah Phillips. In his story called “Bridges” he tells of a friend who asks him why he talks about the past so much and chides him for trying to live there.
He answers, “I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it?”
Athena is lying beside me as I write this in the waning hours, licking her bandage where the IV needle was stuck. She is leaping in the air and twirling with excitement. She is tumbling down the stairs. She is chasing a squirrel up a tree. She is collapsing as she tries to rise to greet us. She is taunting Waffle with her superior athleticism, biting her on the neck then running way, laughing over her shoulder.
I’ve written recently that young children remind me to live in the present, but this morning I’m thinking that’s not entirely accurate. It just seems like the present because children don’t have a lot of past to bring to bear. They have little experience with the waning hours. When I bang the drum to indicate it’s clean up time, some of them seem to be surprised all year long. Adults can’t go there and it would be a denial to try.
The past doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, it is the very foundation upon which this moment is built. The past is the very substance of the present. It's the material of wisdom.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to today. Who wouldn’t be? At the same time, I’m aware of the seed of melancholy. My day will be a roller coaster of tops and bottoms as I travel from first days and art shows through vet appointments and carrying Athena up the stairs.
At least these are my thoughts as I sit here in the waning hours of my 47th summer.