A Gathering of Seniors

My girls are aging. Maia turned 13 on April 9th; Meadow will be 11 in May. At 55, I'm no spring chicken although my brain thinks I'm still 35. 

I've started referring to our daily walks as The Seniors Stroll, or The Old Ladies Stroll.

April 22. Earth Day. It's one of those rare and fabulous sunny spring weekends in Seattle. Flowers and trees are blooming everywhere. The sun shines with warm temperatures (hovering around 70F by late afternoon) bringing everyone outside to bask in nature's gifts.

I take the girls for a stroll. Usually we walk after dinner, but given the "warm" temperatures (anything over 60F is hot to a Malamute, and I tend to agree with them) I decide to take them out around 10 am. We head for Juanita Beach Park.

Often, I can tell by a glance or a smile that someone admires the girls, maybe even wants to meet them. I always oblige, breaking the ice by saying, "Would you like to meet them? They're very friendly." After any such meet-n-greet, the girls are always rewarded with a treat, so they're often more eager to meet strangers than the strangers are to meet them!

The seniors gather at Juanita Beach Park.

As the girls and I continue our stroll through the park, I spy an elderly couple. Among all the park users that morning they catch my eye because he is in a motorized chair, and she is using a walker, carefully following him along a paved path. I watch as he keeps his pace very slow so that he never got too far ahead of her. I first notice them when we are many yards apart. I think, "What an adorable couple." Despite the effort required to be out and about, there they are, moving together, taking in the beautiful morning. I can tell they are discussing the girls. I make sure our paths meet at the junction of two paths.

As we get closer, I smile at the couple. They reciprocate with big smiles of their own. I don't even need to ask whether they'd like to meet the girls, because as the girls get close, both the man and woman slowly stretch out trembling hands for the girls to sniff in greeting. These are dog people.

Up close, I notice that the man's head and hands shake with a regular tremor; perhaps he suffers from Parkinson's. The woman is much steadier, relying on the walker because she's weakened from the usual ravages of age. She's dressed as if she's just come from church: long flowering skirt, white blouse, beaded necklace, and makeup. Very put together. The man is dressed more casually, but still spiffy. 

"I'm Jim," he introduces himself. I introduce myself, and the girls.

"I love big dogs," the woman says, with a European accent. The man doesn't say much, but he's smiling and clearly enjoying touching the girls' coats. "I used to have Shepherds," the woman explains. "People were often afraid of them, but they were so gentle, like yours," she adds as she strokes Meadow's head. We talk briefly about how much dogs mean to us. I then ask them to pose for photos with my dogs, which they eagerly agree to do. After maneuvering their chair and walker across a small bridge to get the sun on their faces, I attempt to get the girls to stay put in front of them - no easy task because they're on a coupler leash, and Maia's aging hip and one bad knee don't enjoy sitting unnecessarily. Jim and the woman are patient, posing happily while I snap a few photos with my iPhone.

"Do you have an email address I can send these to?" I ask. 

"No," the woman says. Jim adds, "We live at the retirement home over there," pointing a shaky hand over his shoulder. I know instantly where they live; I pass their retirement home almost daily when walking the girls, and often chat with the facility's administrator, who has a small dog he takes into the home with him. 

"I'll bring you prints of the photos if they turn out well," I promise them.

We part. The girls and I finish our walk. I can't stop grinning internally. I'm so impressed that they came so far from their home, under their own power, to enjoy the surprisingly great weather. I admire that sort of determination in people. To learn that they love dogs - big dogs in particular - just adds to their appeal. I vow to be like them when I'm old.

I go home and download the photos; they turn out better than I expected. It's hard to get two people and two big dogs in the frame, harder still to get them all looking at me when I capture the image, but I end up with four decent shots.

The girls getting tired of posing.

The next day, I print images of the two best photos onto regular 8.5x11 paper and walk over to the retirement home to deliver them.

Sadly, I don't find the couple. Or the administrator, who I had hoped would help me find the couple. Instead, I end up at the nurse's station. I pull out the photos, and the nurse instantly recognizes the couple.

"Oh! What great photos! Are those your dogs? Yes- that's Jim. And Brunie," the nurse says. I think to myself that maybe Brunie is short for Brunhilde, which would jibe with the accent I heard. 

"Are they married?" I ask. Observing them at the park, and the tenderness they showed toward each other, I assumed they were married. "No," the nurse replied. "They're just good friends."

The nurse promises to deliver the photos to Jim and Brunie; one for each. She's tickled to think how happy they'll be to get the photos. I'm bummed I won't get to witness their delight, but feel good that my small gesture will be welcome.

I leave, hoping that the girls and I will see Jim and Brunie again someday soon, at the park.

Dogs allow us to make connections - no matter how fleeting - with others that uplift and inspire us in unexpected ways. I've often thought of the girls as goodwill ambassadors for their breed. But more than that, they open doors for me, allowing me an easy way to connect on a brief yet enjoyable level with so many people - like Jim and Brunie - with whom I'd otherwise never exchange more than a friendly nod.


UPDATE (May 2, 2012): The girls and I take our evening stroll a little later than usual today. As we meander through the park, I see an elderly woman resting on a bench, her cane beside her. She's watching us as we move slowly toward her, a smile more in her eyes than her mouth. A short, stout woman, she's bundled in a coat, a scarf covering her head; thick wool socks and Ugg-type slides on her feet. I think to myself, "Babushka." I can tell from her appearance that English isn't her first language. I almost walk past her, but one last glance her way and I see a wistful look on her face. 

"Would you like to meet them?" I ask loudly enough for her to hear. A smile adds more wrinkles to her weathered face. The girls pulls me her way. As the girls get close enough to sniff her, she starts reaching out to pet them, then quickly pulls her hand back a bit and looks at me. "Is okay?" she asks in broken English with a very thick accent. "Yes," I assure her. 

She puts both hands out for the girls to sniff. She then puts one hand on each girl's head, pets them simultaneously, and literally giggles she's so pleased. I point to Meadow, who's closest to the woman, and say, "Meadow" then point to Maia and say her name. This confuses the woman, she's not sure what I'm saying. "Boy and girl?" She asks, and I explain no, both girls. That makes her giggle some more. "Old?" she asks. "Yes," I say. "Thirteen and eleven," I explain, keeping it simple. "Oh!" she responds, clearly understanding this means they're old. "But like you," I say, smiling, "they're out and about, enjoying the day!" I'm not sure the woman fully understood more than "like you" but she laughs and doesn't seem to take offense.

"Thank you; thank you..." the woman says and she smiles as she gives the girls one last pat. We say goodbye.

Continuing on our way, the girls and I cross the street. We wander through a small urban village because it's safer than the busy road with no shoulder. Scanning the sidewalk ahead, I see someone in a motorized chair. As he gets closer, I see a big grin on a man's face topped with a bright red baseball cap... it's Jim! He makes a beeline for us, then stops. "Thank you for the photo!" he says. Jim's head sways as he talks, like the actor Michael Fox, who has Parkinson's. "It came out really well," he adds while stroking Maia's shoulder with his hand.

"Yes," I say. "You had a nice smile on your face, but your friend - Brunie? - wasn't smiling so much." Jim laughs at that. "Well, she's German," he says with a wry grin, his head continuing to sway back and forth. "Very stubborn! But I'll smile any time you want!" Jim says he hopes he'll see us again, and I assure him that we walk every evening, so the chances are good. With that - and one last pat on Maia's back from Jim - we part.

I'm beginning to wonder if my old dogs are attracting old people to us. Sort of like how infants and toddlers instantly recognize and seek out other infants and toddlers, or puppies seek other puppies to play with. Age seeks similar age, in humans, and in dogs. Perhaps its also true across the two species: old people are drawn to old dogs.

In any event, it always makes my day when just touching the girls can make someone else's day brighter.

Rebecca WallickComment