The pandemic has changed everything. We’re all adrift, trying to establish solid footing, moment by moment. Usually when there is turbulence in my life, my response is a trail run with my dog. For thirteen years Hawkeye and I held each other accountable; we both needed to run to be sane. We ran paths every season of every year, except the ones where I traded my Sauconys for cross country skis.
Each time we went out, the run began awkwardly while we fought against my resistance and his proclivity to hunt. But then—every time—we’d find our rhythm and we’d run. Glorious, ear-flapping runs. After we blew off steam we’d slow, and that’s where the beauty of Hawkeye came in. If I stopped on the trail to jot down an idea in my notebook he’d wait patiently. If I was struggling with something, he would sidle up to me and take a lean against my thighs, his version of a hug. If I needed comfort, he’d lick my face. If we were celebrating something we’d sprint, and he almost always won.
In the last few years the runs slowed and Hawkeye started trailing farther behind. Then came the fall that he couldn’t run anymore. I tried running ahead of him on the path while he walked, turning back toward him after twenty seconds, but he’d get distressed and that wasn’t good for either of us. I took to sneaking out the back door to get a run in before our senior walk, but he knew. I could tell.
I wasn’t ready to acknowledge his aging, even though my days were burgeoning with his new prescriptions, soft food, and lifting up his hind quarters when he couldn’t do it on his own. But he was still the happiest when we walked. Each trip got slower and shorter until the day when he slumped on the side of the road because his hips merely gave out. It broke my heart. We were only a football field from home and I could see that my husband had anticipated this moment and was watching from the driveway, car keys in hand. He came and picked us up, lifting the big lug into the backseat. He lovingly held my hand on the slow drive home while Hawkeye and I finally admitted things to ourselves. Toward the end of Hawkeye’s days, he was by my side constantly, still hoping to please, still comforting me. I asked him to give me signs when he got where he was going. I’d spent so much time worrying about him that I needed to know he was okay. Maybe he could send me a rainbow, a cardinal, a monarch? Something to let me know he was free of physical constraints but his spirit was still with me? He would arrange it. I could tell.
Then we did the hardest, most loving thing we could: we found a wonderful veterinarian to come to our house, and while my husband and sons and I circled around Hawkeye on his blanket and reminded him of what a good boy he was, he slowly fell asleep. We’re left with a grief deeper than I ever imagined. Paired with a pandemic and general unrest in the world, the days are dark. I need him more than ever.
So I go to the trail without Hawkeye. It’s hard, but I’m doing it. I haven’t seen any signs from him yet, so recently I decided to try something new and pretend he was with me. Don’t tell my family; they already think I’m losing it. But I needed him, his soft rakish head, his nurturing licks and wise eyes. Since my notebook sits empty and my creativity has stalled, I decided to conjure him up.
It worked. It felt like the old days, before everything was fraught. Without the heaviness of missing him I had a lovely, light-hearted run. Pretend-Hawkeye sniffed the trillium off the path, then ran beside me up a hill while I listened to music with my head down. And then suddenly I looked up and Real-Hawkeye appeared in front of me. For real. He was right there, sun shining on his black coat, pink tongue hanging out, pokey white beard, wise eyes. I startled, rubbed my eyes, started to cry. It was such a relief to see him, but it also meant that my family was right. I was losing it. It also meant that I was more powerful than I realized: I missed him so much that I had MANIFESTED him.
It was then that Real-Hawkeye leaned against me. I wasn’t just imagining him — now I could actually feel him. I covered my mouth and cried even harder. I had no idea what was happening. And then, up the trail, I heard a male voice. “Sorry!” he yelled as he ran down the hill. “She gets excited,” he said.
“It’s all good,” I assured him, trying to gather myself and explain why his dog made me cry. “It’s just one of my first hikes without my own black lab.” He nodded. The dog had left my side and was leaning against him now and even though it clearly wasn’t Hawkeye I felt a little betrayed.
After a few seconds the man’s wife joined us. We stood in the center of the path and then they got teary, too. It turns out they were just coming from a vet appointment where they found out that their dog had cancer. There wouldn’t be many hikes left. I shared the name of the wonderful clinic who helped with Hawkeye’s earthly exit and their dog leaned against me one more time. It was a moment.
I’ve been on the trail much more lately, and I haven’t seen them since. I say a prayer for them every time I think of them; this grieving for companions is not for the weak. It occurred to me recently that maybe our meeting wasn’t about me at all. Maybe they couldn’t imagine life without their dog and needed to see somebody a few steps ahead of them on this path. Even if she was losing it.
The trail runs without Hawkeye are getting easier. I try not to pretend he’s there; that kind of power to manifest should be used sparingly. Besides, his joy is everywhere, reminding me that magical things can happen when we’re open to them. Companions, comfort, creativity, and connection are accessible to us down any path we take.