Loving an Old Dog

A bridge too near
By Ali Shah, November 2020
These days we all need a bridge to another side. And for Ali Shah that bridge over troubled waters was his dog, Wally.

What carries you through these difficult days? A bridge, I’ll bet.

You’ve heard the expression “a bridge too far.” It’s oft-misused to mean “going too far,” but actually means an undertaking too ambitious and probably doomed from the start. Nothing is more inherently doomed than a relationship with a dog.

As coronavirus began coming ashore, my bridge was the same as ever: Wally, an oversized black lab/Newfoundland mix.

Given his affection for strangers and preternaturally quiet nature, he was the world’s worst guard dog. But he was also a certified therapy animal and a serial cheater of death: a kill shelter in rural Virginia, advanced pneumonia while waiting to be adopted, a distracted driver not looking at the crosswalk, a tennis-ball sized lung tumor, high grade lymphoma. He had it all.

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But loving an old dog is like being tied to railroad tracks listening to the train whistle growing louder in the distance. You live every day ignoring it. Just me and him, a family of two, both soothed by the metronomic consistency of four daily walks, the ideal antidote to pandemic claustrophobia.

On a Sunday morning two weeks ago, I took him out for his slow, coughing-but-determined walk down the block. Steps from returning home, he collapsed and curled up on the sidewalk. I knew what was happening. It was the tunnel at the end of the light.

I felt him saying, “This is as far as I can take you, Boss. You’re on your own from here.” He put his head down. I sat on the curb by his side and stroked his back. “You’ve done more than enough,” I said. In a few minutes, he was gone.

Stepping off a bridge onto the far embankment reminds you it’s a temporary thing. The reciprocal love and devotion of the years you spend walking across it echoes in the hideous stillness that comes after, the void familiar to anyone who has said that inevitable goodbye. Eight years and 10,000 walks, far by any objective measure, and yet in the end, a bridge altogether too near.

Ali Shah is an attorney. He lives in Sunnyvale.