Copyright 2003 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley. First published in The Washington Post as “An Old Dog, Blackberries and Joie de Vivre,” August 13, 2003. Also published in The Bark Magazine and The Valley News.
A high summer morning with a break in the humidity. Everything important and pending will have to wait. I grab a leash and call for Honeysuckle, our fourteen-year-old golden retriever. She doesn’t come. I call again, shrilly, on old-dog wavelength. No response. I round the corner of the house and see her sitting in a patch of sun. I call again and she looks around, trying to pinpoint the sound. Her deafness seems more pronounced since last week. Is that possible?
Once she sees the leash, though, she’s up and at em, prancing toward the wooden gate. She knows where she’s going and what she’ll find and this important business can’t wait a minute more.
I leash her, briefly, as we cross the busy road, and then I let her go. She is a golden streak in the morning sun, high stepping and wagging her way down the farm road as butterflies flutter up from everywhere. She doesn’t look a day over seven.
I watch her dive into the tangle of multiflora rose, bedstraw, thistle and poison ivy. The first time she comes up dry. But when she dives again, she gets the reward she seeks: blackberries. Succulent, sweet, growing up and down the arching canes along the roadside. Honeysuckle is both passionate and systematic in her quest for the ripe ones. Her sniffer is going a mile a minute as she nibbles up and down the prickly stalks, passing over the hard green, pink, and red fruits, saving herself for those that are shiny and black and ready to fall from the vine. She nips them off deftly, quickly swallows and then nips off another.
This seems nothing short of miraculous to me. Here is a dog whose siblings all are dead. A dog who once chased deer for twenty minutes at a time, gave me heart attacks thinking I’d never see her again, and then returned to the precise spot on which I was standing and frantically calling her. This is a dog who now spends up to 22 hours a day asleep. Yet here she is, energetically harvesting blackberries as if it’s the job she was born to do.
Life. What more can we do than establish rituals for each stage of it? How did this old dog get so smart and figure that out? Surely she’d rather be chasing deer. Maybe she does so in her dreams. For now these blackberries seem like the only prey in the world for her.
An indigo bunting sings from a dead branch in a treetop. The wild snapdragon called butter and eggs and the sky-blue cups of chicory flowers bloom along the roadside. Just over the hill I see my neighbors in their straw hats, cultivating their garden with their 1940s’ tractor. A line of oaks and hickories hugs the farm field, densely foliated with all the rain. I breathe deeply and take it all in.
When Honeysuckle was born my daughter Sophie was three years old. Sophie named the puppy. This weekend she will drive herself to the beach. What rituals will I devise to fill the time while she is gone? Gone to the beach, and then, next year, gone to college? Honeysuckle moves on to a new blackberry bush. This one is loaded with fruit. How is it possible for that many blackberries to have ripened since yesterday? As the old dog continues her blackberry binge, I walk slowly down the farm road, watching dragonflies alight and fly, alight and fly. For now it seems like the job I was born to do.