In 1991 I met the best friend I’ve ever had. In 2007 he died.
In the years between my life changed utterly and in ways I have yet to fathom. It’s been more than a year since I last walked with Zeke, more than a year since I last looked long and lingering into his cloudy eyes, and yet despite that irrevocable and increasing distance I am still learning from our friendship. Skeptical and hardheaded materialist that I am, I nonetheless still walk with Zeke every day.
It’s not that I think he walks with me. I don’t have any reason to believe in an afterlife, for people or for dogs. He has ceased to exist, aside from that part of him held in the memories of those who knew him, and that part of him slowly leaching into the subsoil of the garden he loved.
But I do still walk with him, in much the same way that a man whose arm has been amputated will flex his missing fingers. Zeke has become a phantom of a limb I didn’t even know I had until November 4, 1991. He insinuated himself into me, and I into him, and feeling his presence though he is manifestly not there I again feel whole, the way I was, at least for a moment.
Of course, that feeling passes.
The textbooks say that people who live with dogs tend toward lower blood pressure, and reciprocally, since Zeke has gone, mine has certainly gone up a bit. There are plenty of possible, commonsensical reasons for the correlation between dogs and cardiovascular health, chief among them that dogs can prompt both exercise and relaxation in their people.
I wonder, though, if there isn’t something more deep-rooted at work here. I wonder if it might not be the case that without a dog in the house, many of us just don’t function optimally in the most basic biological sense. A person can be deficient in vitamins and exercise, in protein and iron and other minerals. A person can also suffer canine deficiency; can have trouble sleeping and suffer a less well-regulated metabolism; can fail to thrive, decline, waste away.
Fifteen thousand years we’ve lived together, or so goes the current thinking. Dogs diverged from their wolf ancestors about 100,000 years ago, so our partnership may in fact be far older, may in fact date to approximately the time our ancestors finally shoved our Homo erectus cousins over extinction’s cliff-edge. But let us take 15,000 years of companionship as the authoritative figure. There have been as many as a thousand generations of humans since then, and 15,000 generations of dogs. Dogs have diverged markedly from their wolf cousins under our influence. Our own divergence from our origins under the influence of dogs is less obvious, but every bit as profound. People and dogs have gone through fifteen thousand years of sharing food, of mutual scolding, of training each other. Fifteen thousand years of shared triumphs and disasters. Fifteen thousand years of fine-tuning this symbiosis. We have evolved together. Neither species would be what it is were it not for the other.
Is it any surprise that we feel so enmeshed with them, at least when we deign to pay attention? Zeke could wake me from a sound sleep by staring silently, his desire fully infiltrating my heart. A thousand times, in play, he would lunge for my face and snap, his bite strong enough that it would have disfigured me if he had not stopped short by a quarter inch. And I never flinched once, even when his whiskers grazed my face. I trusted him implicitly, and he me. On his last night, the pain of his arthritis grown more than the drugs could mask, I lifted him the wrong way and it hurt him, and he clamped his jaws around my face. It was the merest touch, tips of his fangs resting softly against my eyelids, and then he pulled away. Even in his blinding, terminal agony he would not harm me.
Except that he did, that next day. And thus began the final and lasting proof of our intertwining: with him gone, I found I had misplaced the boundary between us. He took pieces of the two of us with him I had thought were mine, and ceded other territories in turn.
Zeke was among the luckiest of dogs. He was well cared for. He was comfortable. He lived a long life almost free of serious illness or injury. And he was sometimes taken for granted, an occupational hazard of being so steadfast, so trustworthy. While I never for a moment in more than 15 years forgot how much I loved my dog, I count myself as lucky that I came to realize, late in his life, just how profoundly he had affected me.
This sounds like hagiography. It’s not intended as such. Zeke was often annoying and usually demanding. He was, after all, a dog: two feet in the human world and two feet in the wild. Like many dogs he did not fit cleanly into either sphere. But he was a bridge between them. I write about wildlife and nature, have been fascinated by and attuned to the non-human world for decades, and still, having lost Zeke, I struggle to reach that wild world as fully as I did by his side.
This is an excerpt from CHRIS CLARKE’s new book, Walking with Zeke.