I walk in Mount Hope Cemetery only on Sundays now. When we first got Violet, our Bernese Mountain Dog, I went every day, religiously. My life was in transition, I was my own boss, and the practice and place worked in so many ways. I’m busier now, and since a crackdown on dogs off leash, I’ve been more hesitant to take the extra 10 minutes to drive over there.
But on Sundays, I’ll sometimes walk there, around the perimeter, and then back home. It’s a 5-mile trip, so you need time, and I take mine. A few weeks back, we had a Sunday that was the last 60-degree day we’re likely to see for a while. Way past a date you could call Indian Summer. It was glorious with the smell of Fall just gone ripe, and a finely angled, brilliant sun illuminated everything.
In the back of the cemetery, overlooked by the University of Rochester dorms, is a field we call ‘the bowl.’ This used to be the unofficial meeting spot for my group of Dog Friends. Fall is intrinsically nostalgic, but I have memories with those people from every season.
I got to know the Music Teacher first, he the “grandfather” of Porter, a goofy, sweet Doberman whom Violet adores. He became and remains a close friend, bandmate, and big-brother figure. Then there was The Professor, a U.R. Herpetologist with a temper and no tolerance for the unwashed who would desecrate the holy property of Mount Hope by driving where they shouldn’t or by poorly controlling ill-behaved dogs. His Black and Tan Coonhound, Ed, became Violet’s sleepover buddy, as we traded dog-sitting services. I’ve never heard another howl like Ed’s.
Then there was the Consultant, a conspicuously interesting man who’d grown up in Hawaii, been a Yoga instructor, and now traveled the country advising charter school startups. The Consultant was in Rochester because his wife, the Resident, was finishing up at Strong. They were both beautiful in every sense, and their regal Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Zoe and Levi, fit them to a T.
The Veteran and I had sobriety in common, and I’m here to tell you that’s plenty for deep things to develop. Like many in recovery, The Veteran had an amazing backstory of crime, punishment, estrangement, and survival. Toby, his Pit Bull, was smart, fun, and super energetic — definitely the winner of the Groundhog Sweepstakes (though Violet got her share).
The Editor, a career Gannett employee who retired during our time together, had a beautiful little mutt called Pookie. People always asked what breed she was, so we made up an answer: Castilian Miniature-Horse Shepherd (note the placement of the hyphen). We concocted an elaborate plan to sell them online.
The Designer had her Standard Poodle, Astrid, and always thought up creative party games to play during the walk. We once invented an entire movie franchise, American Pope, pitting Wesley Snipes’ ass-kickin’ Pontiff against sinister forces.
Her neighbor, whom I’ll call the Survivor — she’d survived but had lifelong symptoms from a severe head injury — had two dogs: Penny, the beautiful and sweet Gordon Setter, and Dillon, a Brittany Spaniel who struggled with his weight (don’t we all?).
The Designer and the Survivor lived almost next door to each other, and seemed to have constant friction. But the dogs got along. Well, to the extent that Standard Poodles tolerate any other creatures.
There were perhaps a dozen others we’d see irregularly, but those eight and my wife and I saw each other, as a group, almost every day of the year, for a solid three-year period. We watched the puppies become adults, the adults become older, the older dogs see health troubles, and Pookie finally, sadly, pass away.
The dogs got the best kinds of Dog Exercise: running, wrestling, rolling in foul things, playing tug-of-war, and being small-time predators. And we all learned a whole lot about each other. An hour a day for three years is a lot of time together. I joked with other friends that my dog walks were my social life. And it wasn’t really a joke.
My relationships with the Music Teacher, the Professor, the Consultant and the Designer were particularly deep. And the Designer and I (like the Music Teacher and I) are still close. But the Consultant and the Resident split up very suddenly at the end of her residency. They sold the house, she moved to Texas, and he — partly to get away from sad associations in Rochester — immediately moved to Colorado. The split was tough — I never spoke to her again — and losing his daily friendship was particularly sad.
The Professor had been tenured recently, and then applied for a job at Kansas, because, he said, “If a job comes up in Kansas in my field, you apply for it.” He didn’t expect to get it, but he did. I knew he was brilliant, and it was a great career move. But boy, did Violet miss Ed (and man, do we miss having a dog sitter around the corner).
The Music Teacher always told us that Porter was his daughter’s dog. We never saw his daughter and assumed this was a bit of a joke. But one day, she moved out, the dog went with her, and that was that for his dog walking days.
When Pookie passed away, the Editor left with her. The Survivor got a couple of tickets and avoided the Cemetery. Shortly thereafter, so did we. And just like that, an era of my life — which I hadn’t really been conscious of while it was happening — had ended.
So much is like this. Something grows under suddenly perfect conditions, and flourishes without much intent. I have a picture of me, my wife, and four friends from our twenties. We were together all the time for a few years, cooking, playing cards, drinking wine, smoking weed, listening to records. Regular, like. It was the center of our social life. And then it wasn’t.
Grief at sudden endings — death, divorce, job loss — is one thing. It has a beginning, which means its process can proceed under a light of awareness. Those things, of course, are worse than losing a social circle. But there is great sadness, nonetheless, at the loss of these periods of our lives we hardly realize are happening as we witness them.
There in the bowl a few weeks ago, all I could see was what wasn’t there: nine people, ten dogs, a whole lot of laughter and a goodly dose of deep human sharing. The autumn warmth, the smells and a certain slant of light took me back to so much passage, days that felt like forever but are really and truly gone. It makes me want to hold so tightly to every moment of connection. It’s not a fear-of-death thing, but rather the Urgency of Now. Because now will never come again, and you’ll miss it tomorrow.