On a golden Sunday early in November, Hashawha called to us.
The environmental center seven miles to the north of our home had long been one of our favorite hiking areas. Trails ran like ribbons over the rolling hills, and on Sundays, when the outdoor school at the site was closed, it was quiet. A place for the soul to recharge.
We filled the water bottles, put Greta in the back seat and drove out.
There was the familiar trail, the pines and oak trees, the huge sycamores down by the stream, the painted triangles of wood nailed to posts to mark the yellow trail. All the dogs that had shared our lives had accompanied us on hikes around Hashawha. Each time we walked there, we walked with a pack of ghosts: Angie, nose bent to the task of finding a groundhog, or whatever her nose might turn up; Angel, the only one who stayed on the path and never ventured into the woods; Vulcan, always alert in case something threatened us and he needed to take action, and Snoopy, the epileptic beagle who could never be called off a scent and would run until he could run no more.
Now it was Greta’s turn. She charged out of the car with ears forward, put her nose to the ground and swung her tail in delight, shouting, “Look! Look!” at all the wonderful new things she detected.
She tugged on the leash, and I would have run with her, but I didn’t because Ron couldn’t. I had not yet started training her to come when called, so I could not let her off the leash. If she was disappointed not to be free to run, she didn’t show it. I don’t believe she was: dogs see the glass as half full. She was out in the sunshine with her pack, filling her nose with scents of beaver and deer and foxes.
Ron had always pushed me to go further along the trails, to take the 4-mile loop over the hills and down to the stream at the border of Hashawha rather than the shorter middle loop. But on that day, he did not protest when I said, “Let’s go for the middle loop.”
The thing was, Ron didn’t look sick. Except for the incision scar along the side of his skull, he looked as he always had. Cancer just runs through your body helping itself to whatever it needs to keep growing, and outsiders looking in can’t always tell what’s been stolen. I never forgot, of course, but I didn’t realize how much effort it took for him to appear normal.
When we reached the top of the second hill, I stopped and looked at Ron. He was sweating heavily. The day was not warm, and we had not exerted ourselves that much. I understood that men can’t say, “I can’t make it. Got to stop.”
But it needed to be said. I said it. “This dog is dragging me. Let’s stop and rest a minute.”
We sat on a log in the quiet afternoon. Greta eventually gave up tugging on the leash and sat down to wait for us.
“I want to remember this,” I said. “I want to remember that on a day when the air was clear and the sky so blue you could dive into it and swim, we walked here in the sunlight together.”
We took it slow going back. Fortunately, Ron was able to walk down. I could not have supported his weight to get him down out of the hills. What would I have done? I would have thought of something. I don’t know what. Sometimes life makes you figure these things out by dumping them on you. When we reached the car, Ron sank into the seat. He did not speak on the way home.
He would not see Hashawha again.