My mornings start at 5:30 AM if I can convince my dog, Gus, to sleep in. The moment I make the slightest movement, I can hear the little thump on the floor when Gus leaps off the bed. Gus, a little 12-pound Maltese mix, can hardly contain himself, and he can’t stop making excited barks and spinning around the room. After all, the BEST DAY EVER has begun. The breakfast waiting for him downstairs is going to be the BEST BREAKFAST EVER (even though, of course, it is the same breakfast that he has had for the last five years). Bunnies and squirrels, and dog urine scents await in the nature park, and of course, snuggles, lots and lots of snuggles. Perhaps there will even be someone on the nature trail to pet him. OOOh, the possibilities.
I place him back on the bed and try to sleep. He sits over me, motionless, his soft brown eyes trying to catch mine. He has my number. After all, why should we wait to begin this glorious day.
I have had many dogs in my life, both as fosters and my own, but I have never had a dog with as much joie de vivre as this little guy. And at such an early hour, sigh.
By 5:30, it is hopeless. So I roll out of bed and begin my morning routine. Despite his advanced age and heart condition, Gus’s excitement and enthusiasm overwhelm the bedroom. He bounces back and forth between the bedroom and bathroom, spinning in excitement. Let’s get this day started!
My other elderly dog, Annie, had hoped that this might be the morning that she gets more shuteye…but she can’t contain his enthusiasm either. She is patient. The two have been together for years and have helped each other learn to trust. He gives her comfort; she gives him someone to boss around.
Gus’s body is too long for the steep stairs, so he bounces down diagonally like he is riding a pogo stick. Annie, always a fancy mover, shows more grace and balance, but is no hurry. Her breakfast will be there.
The next part of our routine is one of his many favorites. BREAKFAST followed by a dental TREAT, the most delicious one EVER. He inhales his breakfast without bothering to chew while Annie sniffs delicately and slowly approaches her food. After gulping his meal in 30 seconds, Gus sits next to her and eyes her bowl, hoping for a diversion. Annie is a very slow eater, and there are no treats until she finishes. Maybe something might cause her to look away and he can sneak in a couple of bites. Gus is on a strict diet because of his ailing heart, she is a 16 year old with a 7-year-old body.
Gus’s next pleasure awaits if I can just sip my tea a little faster. Like Annie, I seem to be unaware of how amazing this day is going to be.
It is a warm, humid, summer morning. In the past, I might have dreaded the hot, sticky day that follows. But now I absorb the sensuousness of the morning, the afternoon will come soon enough.
The clouds to the west are an ominous grey, hinting at a brief rain shower to feed my thirsty garden. The warm air envelops me like a womb, the cooling breezes swirl around me as we begin our walk to the nature trail. Distant chimes tinkle like school bells of old, telling us to wake up, a school day awaits. Today, they offer only a quaint memory.
On our way to the trail, the bunnies, eyeing Gus and Annie, become motionless. Gus is low to the ground, so his vision is limited by his height, but it is just the right height to spy bunnies and squirrels. The bunnies remain stationary but not frightened, they have learned not to fear leashed dogs.
At the nature trail, the squirrels dash up the trees and taunt the dogs as we stroll by. Gus lifts his head, periodically, sniffing the trail for the scent of people who want to pet him. Because in Gus’s world view, everyone wants to pet him.
I stop at the covered bridge to absorb the stillness of the morning while I scour the waterscape. I can hear the Pterodactyl squawks of the Great Blue Herons in the rookery above. This is the time of year that there is a lot of racket in the rookery, and I suspect that the chicks are now teenagers; and the battles have begun. In the creek, I spot a muskrat with reeds in her mouth, leaving a shallow V-shaped wave in her wake.
The gentle breeze now swirls with a light metallic scent. Maybe the darker cumulus clouds will bring a morning shower.
A pair of bluebirds are perched on the electrical wires above. What is it about bluebirds that make us smile? Maybe it is their song, their beautiful blue feathers, their orange chests, or their pudgy little bodies. But I never tire of watching them. They are blessedly abundant on the Eastern Shore.
A mated pair of cardinals fly across the asphalt pathway on the other side of the bridge, showing off their bright red feathers, reddish beaks, and their crowns. If I am lucky, I might see a bright yellow male goldfinch or perhaps the most of beautiful of birds, a male indigo bunting. He claims his territory at the very top of the tallest tree warbling his scratchy music box song.
Gus desperately wants to run, another one of his FAVORITE things. If he could, he would run as fast and as far as he could. His favorite game is self-invented, called “come on, Gus.” When he is home and off leash, he waits for me to realize that he is no longer following Annie and me. I turn around, crouch down and call “come on, Gus.” He races at top speed and jumps into my arms, or if he is feeling his oats, at the last minute, skirts around me and circles back. World’s best game.
But soon I can hear the tell-tale cough. Gus has an enlarged heart, congestive heart failure, and he is already past his life expectancy for this illness. I think that it is appropriate that this is his nemesis. His heart is just too big.
Gus was the dog that I adopted out of kindness. He was a nasty, biting, snarling, angry middle-aged boy who had been in the wrong home for him. The shelter convinced me that he was unadoptable and only someone with my expertise could take him. So I did him a favor.
HARDLY. All of that nasty behavior disappeared as soon as he felt safe. In turn, he changed the trajectory of my life. When PTSD episodes emerge from my past trauma, he jumps up on the sofa to snuggle. He has brought my daughter and me closer, his loving soft, brown, doe-like eyes melt our hearts, every time.
But it is time to go back home, to keep him around as long as possible. So I inhale the moist, soothing air, shake my hair in the breeze, and focus on the symphony of the birds (trying to tune out the discordant rhythm section of the squabbling herons). Smelling the newly cut grass, the scent of the occasional non-stop rose, I close my eyes and slowly breathe in the summer morning.
Gus is now sitting next to me; he knows it is time to be picked up. As I lift him, his eyes search for mine. His eyes are full of love and gratitude and trust, but mostly gratitude. Every day, he thanks me for inviting him into my home. I smile back and give him a little kiss on his head. His soft, fluffy white body snuggles in, and he rests his head on my shoulder. We head back home as Annie trails respectfully on the leash.
It doesn’t matter what the humid day will bring, I am living in the now, enjoying this beautiful summer morning, filled with bright colors of green, red, yellow, blue, and white, the symphonies of songbirds, the encasing warmth of the breeze. Clutching onto my 12-pound teacher for as long as I can.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.