I arrive at the park today later than my unusual hour and discover that my favorite spot is filled with cars and visitors on this mild autumn day. I drive instead to a less frequented lot, pull a small lawn chair from the back seat and take up a station beneath a young oak along one of the many walking paths that surround the dog park.
Various singles and couples come into view walking with determination, aware of my presence but slewing their eyes up, down, to the left, for the “privacy space” must be observed. A couple in conversation pass and the small dog accompanying them has trouble keeping to their pace. In contrast, an older Japanese woman leads a large German Shepherd whose back legs slightly drag as if it was pulling heavy weights.
I see a youngish girl with a beagle approaching the dog park, its tail wagging violently in anticipation. After they enter the fenced enclosure the hound darts from one delectable spot to another as he records what dogs have already been here, their age, weight, species and recent meals – for all of this is data for his superb nose.
The girl sits at the picnic table and talks on her cell phone while the dog bounces before her, impatient and ready to play. But no balls are thrown and so it barks and runs along the fence line trying to coax other passing canines into conversation.
After a few minutes the girl gets up, leaves the dog in the fenced enclosure without a backward look and walks down the pathway. The dog is frantic at being left behind. It runs back and forth along the fence looking for a way out, then leaps three, four feet high trying to jump over the chain links. It howls and barks. When the girl gets further away, the dog suddenly sits and is silent and trembling, its gaze riveted on her receding form.
Is she leaving him, I wonder, abandoning the dog in a place where perhaps someone else will come and take him home? Is he not wanted? As these thoughts race through my mind and my concern mounts, I read the dog’s body language and suddenly recognize the ancient drama being enacted. It is one universal to all tribal creatures – it is the anguish of one left behind, left alone, lost, abandoned.
Creatures of the lower orders are born ready for the struggle to survive but mammals, in particular, have long childhoods in which the protection and guidance of the adults are needed. This dependency is perhaps the impetus that gave rise to the tribe, the flock, the herd in which members must hold together to survive.
The ultimate rejection – for it is in essence a death sentence – is the expulsion from the pack, the closing of the village gate, the turning away of the face. It is a miniature reenactment of that drama that I am witnessing with the dog. It pulls at my heart because I have participated in that story myself. Who cannot remember as a child being separated from the parent and the terror that follows? Or as a parent, leaving a child in another’s care and hearing their cries at being left behind as we walk to the car?
The first moments of our lives marks the separation from the security of womb and after that our life’s journey is a series of meetings and separations. Which role is more difficult to play – the one who moves on or the one who is left behind? The wrench of separation strips away facades and roles and personas, leaving the emotions revealed and buzzing like hot wires under the skin. It is then we realize the truth of our hearts and discover that some endings are final.
But today, for this small dog, the ending is a happy one for after talking to another walker on the path, the girl returns. The dog is wild with excitement as she approaches and re-enters the fenced area. It jumps and circles her, barking with joy at the reunion. Soon another couple with a small dog joins them and play begins.
The park has busy boulevards on all sides and from my chair I hear the steady swoosh of traffic in the background against the more obvious rattle of skateboards, the swish of bicycle tires, the pong of tennis balls, the slam of car doors and chattering of small children. From the grassy knoll just behind me I can hear the slight snore of the street person who is sleeping with his arm around the small but alert dog who will never leave him.