We meet on the stairs


The long trajectories of human lives, some of them blazing, some meandering, are impossible to predict. There are so many intersections with other trajectories, many of them opportunities missed, others surprises that change, stir, and perhaps delight a life that had been plodding.

Diesel’s trajectory and mine intersected about 10 years ago. It was more of a collision. I did not welcome him, but I did not object quickly enough to influence the decision to add him to the family. The graph of our subsequent trajectories would describe a series of collisions and estrangements. As his personality developed and I learned who he was, the years piled up and the lines merged, and I learned to my chagrin that he and I were alike in more ways than I had expected, if I had expected any similarities at all, and that we were in step, one with the other, as our lives extended.

Diesel is not human, of course. He’s a mastiff, about 165 pounds, a hairy, drooly, a mess on every level. He is shy, embarrassed at his mass, I suspect. As time has worn on, he has had a growing interest in infirmities of all sorts. He wishes he had become a surgeon, probably an orthopod, because they are often large, athletic, avuncular, comforting animals. It’s his self-image. When his partner, Teddy the pug, is under the weather, Diesel’s probing black nose is at the scene of the treatment. Push him aside here and he’s butting in there. Stick the thermometer in, Diesel is making close investigations. Shake a pill bottle and he’s reading the label, judging the dosage, an overgrown, unhygienic nosy Parker. And, he has an opinion about everything. That temp is high, he’ll say, submerge him in cold water in the bath. Diesel is not malicious but his scientific bent runs to experimentation, and Teddy is a convenient patient for his studies.

We’ve noticed for a while that Diesel’s rear legs aren’t working right. His right rear sometimes waves around as if it were remembering some swing dancing step it was fond of in years gone by. His left rear sometimes doesn’t pay attention and lands on the top of his toes, not the pads. Sometimes, in his rush to supper or treats he will leave the two after legs behind on the tiled kitchen floor and sprawl in a heap. After years of building evening fires, carrying the wood in with my arms or in an ancient L.L. Bean canvas bag, it occurred to me that there must be wood carriers for just this task, so I asked for one for Christmas, and, lo and behold, it appeared. When Diesel gets out of touch with his two hind legs and ends in a heap in the kitchen, Moll and I use the log carrier to get him up. We slip it under his belly and lift until he reestablishes communications with the rear guard. Teddy watches with feverish curiosity.

Of course, dogs have trajectories too, and I recognized this week that Diesel’s and my trajectories had intersected, of all the unimagined places, on the stairs to the second floor of our house. Diesel has a big bed in my second floor office, right next to the bedroom, and his habit for years has been to spend the night in the office, but not in the bedroom. The snoring, the thumping, the drooling, the 3 am wakeup, all make that impossible. We trudge up to bed, and so does he. The stairs are two short flights, with a landing separating, not very steep. With time, and because of his infirmity, his nightly move up to bed has become slow, stumbling, carefully planned, and occasionally there’s a pause of a few minutes on the landing, for rest. Not that he has any intention of ending the practice, and he doesn’t cry for assistance. He just moves up and especially down at an exquisitely deliberate pace, because he is smart and cautious and he knows things aren’t firing anymore on all cylinders.

I got home from the hospital Sunday after knee surgery, and as I attempted the stairs with a crutch and wavering balance, I knew I would have to imitate Diesel’s care and deliberation for a while. He watched and said to me, comfortingly, you too, huh.

Now, we contemplate the struggle together and observe the security precautions the same way. I do let him go down first, because I wouldn’t want that load slipping down on me from behind. He has asked, shall we sleep downstairs for a while? Not yet, I answered, but you tell me when.