ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
When You Know Someone Is Dying
There is something about knowing that someone is dying, right now, while I’m doing whatever it is that I do—making a cup of coffee or tending the stove or writing this or the space in between—that changes things, a turning of the lens to bring into focus what is otherwise a blur, blending into the background of ordinary life.
I know that there is always someone, somewhere in the world, who is dying—almost one every second—but this is different. I don’t have to know personally the one who is dying for it to have this effect. It is enough to hear from someone who does, the small details that make it real, a name, that he has lost the will to eat, or the doctor has said she will not see another spring.
There is a kind of stillness about the knowing that comes with me as Roxie and I walk into the woods. It is sunny and cold, the sky blue above us and the crowns of oaks, maples, and birches empty of leaves. She goes out ahead down the familiar path but then I catch up and she is lagging, her nose working something of interest among the leaves. I wait but not for long before urging her on, “Come on, let’s go,” tired from a restless sleep and splitting wood for the stove and feeling just now unsettled by the latest news of the progress of someone’s dying, and she, in her eagerness to please, to stay with her pack, will do as I ask.
We do this dance of her falling behind and me telling her to hurry up, not to dawdle—I use the word—and I can tell she hears the impatience in my voice as she does her version of a shrug and catches up, loping past, her nose to the ground as if this is her idea and not mine.
I watch her go out ahead and then she stops and looks back at me, not a glance, but a real look, and we hold it between us long enough for it to occur to me what she is doing as she snuffles along, her 300 million smell detectors (compared to my piddling 3 million) mapping the terrain, following the story of who has passed this way and when and what direction. And, when you think of it, as I begin to do, she is following the story of her own life, which I would know if I knew how to listen which, until now, I realize, I have not, not really.
She watches me come up to her and then sits down to receive a scratch. I can hear the silence in the tall trees above us, the leaves scuttling across the ground. I look at her and she at me and then away toward something in the woods that she knows but I do not. There, she says, pointing her nose, and there.
I softly say her name and she looks at me. I read somewhere that dogs don’t like it when you look into their eyes for any length of time, but she has never heard of that. I’m in here, you know, she says with that look of hers, so steady and calm, and I know who you are.
She looks away to drink in the northerly breeze coming down the hillside through the woods. I don’t know why I hear it now and not before, what she is trying to say to me. Or maybe I have a hundred times, with other dogs, long dead and buried on the land, only to let it slip away. But it doesn’t matter. It comes when it comes.
And then I think, of course I know.
We stand on the path and watch the sun disappearing behind the trees, angling through the branches in fingers of light on the ground carpeted in faded yellow and gold with flecks of orange. She is halfway through her second year and yet still acts as if everything is new.
I say her name and she looks at me. What?
A gang of crows sets up a racket somewhere in the woods, chasing out a hawk. Roxie turns her face toward the sound and listens, stilled by a look that says, in this moment, that is all there is. We listen for a while before moving on down the path toward home.
There are a few hazelnuts and acorns still left from what has dropped from the trees, which she is happy to root out and gobble up between bursts of snuffling down the path. Until something else comes along to claim her attention. And, of, course, there is the way she has of attending to my whereabouts, checking in from time to time so as not to let too much space come between us.
Any other time I would probably have taken from this day something about attending to nature, slowing the pace of human life. But that isn’t what lingers in my mind as she lies sleeping beside me now and I write these words with evening coming on, what has lodged in my heart.
Be with me now. It will not always be so.
- America, Love It or Leave It
Photos of Allan Johnson by
- America, Love It or Leave It