“In a year you’ll be old enough to vote and the world will be a better place for it.” I tell that to Riika who regards me with her amber eyes over her gray muzzle. She’s stone deaf, has been for a couple years. She still pays attention, head up, ears cocked back, eyes showing cloud but still sparking with life.
She lies on the seat of the truck feeling the rhythm of the road in her old bones. The day is sunny but there is chill in the air. It is a Sunday afternoon. We are going, her and I, to the woods.
She meets my eyes across the short span of the truck but on this day the span is measured in years. It is her seventeenth birthday. Against all odds. Against all odds of a dog her size and breed living that long. Against the odds of surviving cancer surgery, ACL surgery, multiple tangles with porcupines, of years of running unbounded in wolf country. Seventeen years of a wild heart and a drive to hunt and a loyalty to us that is beyond words. Seventeen years.
Now we drive out of town on a late winter day to the fresh air of pine woods and frozen lake and field, our birthday celebration. She and I; just the two of us. Sally stays home with Thor and Fenway; barking at the door, the two dogs, as I usher Riika out and into the truck. Riika and I go to the woods to walk and to honor her birthday.
I don’t know how she does it. At home she is always slow, often achy, limping on a bad leg, moving slow up the stairs, no longer able to jump from floor to bed (we put a footstool next to the bed and she uses that to go from floor to stool to bed). She is tentative in the backyard, unsteady on the ice of winter. In the house she looks old.
In the woods it all fades away. In the woods and in the field the years fall like leaf off November tree and she moves with energy and vigor as if the air itself is a balm for age, a restorative that makes an old dog shed the years.
She hunted this past fall, against all odds, hunted with enthusiasm and vitality, hunted the mild days of September thru the chill of November to the last day of December when the grouse season closed and we could hunt no more. She hunted with the passion and the drive that has marked her days for seventeen years. We saw few birds, shot none.
I never had a more rewarding season.
Now we pull to the side of the country road and I lift her from the truck. I ease her to the ground, let her get her feet set and then take my hands off. She stands, takes in the air and the scent and then turns to the woods. There is a snow bank too tall for her to climb so I pick her up one more time and lift her to the top the bank, put her to the snow.
The snow has crusted over and it bears our weight. We walk away from the road, across a small opening and then down a steep slope to the lake. She moves ahead of me and I think to myself that if you did not know her age you would never guess it from the way she moves, light on her feet, confident and bold.
We spend an hour on that afternoon, my old girl and me. We walk the edge of lake ice, push into the swamp along the shore, Riika ahead of me, passing through sunlight and shadow, fully engaged in the scent she alone can sense. Silent trees stand as stark witness to our efforts.
In the field she is a different dog and I am at a certain level amazed that she can still do what she does. And on another level I find in her inspiration; it cannot be easy for an old dog on achy legs to move as she does.
She has failed this winter. She has gotten finicky in her diet; one day she wants chicken, the next bacon, the following morning no appetite at all. Her weight slides lower, a gradual attrition of age and the simple reality of a very old dog that is on the long slope down. Where once she had thick muscle across her haunch she now has bone. The firm muscle gone now to a hard line of bone beneath the skin, a jagged ridgeline that marks the outline of her back. To run your hand along her back is an exercise in skeletal design; vertebrae stand proud, muscles receded.
But in the woods she comes to life, in the woods she can run, she can hunt, she can return to what she is; her old eyes bright with life force. Against all odds.
We spend an hour on the snowpack in the high sun of late winter on a day that is not memorable except in our eyes: Riika’s seventeenth birthday and in that a modest celebration is due.
We climb a gradual slope to the road and she begins to lag. I wait for her. She is tiring. She turns to face the west and the afternoon light catches her and she stands in the glow, head lifted to the breeze, looking regal in the golden light. Then we turn and walk the remaining distance to the road and I lift her from the high bank to the roadway.
She turns to look at me and I point to the truck. She walks to the door, l lift her up and on to the seat. She sits, looking out the window then settles and curls up on the seat and looks at me. Birthday girl. Seventeen years old. Against all odds.