The night my old dog Roxy died started out warm, crazy warm. Things out of balance can’t remain so-whether it’s the weather, lousy sail trim or your own soul-and so early that evening a cold front arrived, violent and windy, to set things right. Atmospherically speaking at least. Roxy headed out into the bluster for what I thought would be her usual slow, studied circumnavigation of the house, a stretch of the old bones. It was the last time I saw her alive. The night grew bitter cold, and all our searching was in vain. The next morning I found her at the bottom of a steep ravine behind the house. The wind was still blowing, and her long black fur rippled and shone in the bright morning sun.
It was Thanksgiving, and we were going for a boat ride. Roxy was not a boat dog. She might have chased a seagull or two into the surf back in her youth, but water was generally suspect. And boats? Forget it. She preferred loafing in a patch of grass, watching me garden. She probably wished farmers had adopted her, not sailors. So I knew she wouldn’t be bummed about missing the trip to my brother’s house on the Little Wicomico River, not even on our friend Mike’s big, comfortable deadrise.
But I would miss her.
You know your friend is a good friend when you show up at his boat, staggering with grief, and he hugs you, tells you it’ll be okay, fires up the diesel and gets the hell off the dock. And I knew he was right; it would be okay. Even though all I wanted to do was curl up in a corner and cry, my wiser self knew that the best thing would be to get out on the water, even if there was ice on the deck and the wind was a banshee out of the west.
Why is that, do you suppose? Is it because earth is, as Shakespeare said in one of his sonnets, a sullen place? And maybe the water offers us a kind of clarity and peace that’s hopelessly elusive in the noisy rush of life on land? Is it because when we’re on the water we are required, simply by the nature of the environment, to pay so much more attention? The Buddhists call it mindfulness. I call it not wanting to drown. After all, we don’t belong out there; we’re not fish. (Although the wife of a single-handed circumnavigator friend of mine told me once that maybe the best explanation for why her husband did what he did was because we all came from the sea; he just wasn’t ready to leave it yet.) Is it because it just feels better to be challenged in a visceral, physical way-say, when you’re smashing upwind, soaking wet, freezing cold and swearing out loud-than it is to sweat over a bank statement? Or is it because, in our safe little seat-belted minivan lives, we need to know that things can get dicey, that we can still be scared.
I’m not sure. I think about it a lot. I thought about it a lot that Thanksgiving Day that started out so rough and windy and then became sparkling and calm, the Bay in its serenity letting me let my old dog go.