By Sage Cohen
There is a woman in my neighborhood who walks.
13 years ago, when I was new in my house, my two young, strapping dogs jumped her two young, beautiful dogs as they were passing by and we were getting into the car.
In this shocking and unprecedented moment, something deep down in our tribal animal brains was decided. Our packs were enemies. This woman was angry with me. Very angry. I took her anger and made it an armor over my own heart.
We kept walking.
For years, we navigated carefully around each other, crossing the street when we saw each other coming. We were the two most loyal and loving dog people of the neighborhood, scarcely containing our lunges and growls.
Maybe a decade into this carefully cultivated distance, one day this woman’s Malamute was not walking with her. Just like that. He was gone. This hammered hard on the armor of my heart. Every day after that I witnessed her one-dog walk with her stately Rhodesian Ridgeback, my heart percussion of grief for her loss continued.
Soon thereafter, when my soul dog Henry who had carefully walked one step behind me for 13 of my happiest years made his crossing on his short, curvy, atrophied legs to the other side, I too transitioned to a one-dog pack.
For the next several years as we all slowed and aged, our diminished packs remained in steadfast opposition. We continued to keep our distance. Until the day I was driving the slow, winding road to my boyfriend Mark’s house.
Turning a corner, the landscape expanded to wide-angle. As her familiar shape, gait, and visor clarified, my neighbor who loved her dogs as much as I love mine came into focus. She was walking alone.
My longstanding enemy had become a no-dog pack. I burst into tears.
This stranger’s loss was my loss. Her solo walks, which I witnessed many more times on the drive to Mark’s house, were a music of grief and gratitude. I wondered if I ached for those missing dogs of hers as much as she did.
As my own one-dog walk slowed to a one-block, unsteady shuffle with my fierce but feeble elderly Hamachi, I imagined my neighbor and me impressing into our respective pavement our grief for all the love that can only accompany us so far before we must return it to the earth.
The evening after I launched Fierce on the Page at Powell’s City of Books, one of the most important rites of passage of my life, it was Hamachi’s 13th birthday. I was driving to Mark’s house for dinner. My son Theo was in the back seat educating me about his Pokemon Go strategy. As we slowed down for the big curve along the golf course, there she was, my beloved enemy. Walking a new dog. A large, yellow lab. I gasped as a wave of tears erupted in me.
Theo wanted to know what I was crying about. When I explained that the woman I’d been crying about for months because her dogs had died now had a new dog, and I was so happy that I was crying, he took the same kind of polite interest in this nonsensical explanation that I take in his Pokemon tales.
We drove on in silence.
In my lifetime, I have released four beloved pets back to whatever kind and generous force had brought them to me. And I have also released four beloved books into the world, experiencing each publication as a kind of loss of the love that had so thoroughly engaged me in generating and finishing them. Each animal, each book a companion whose journey in my care was complete.
I have come to understand that this is what love asks of us. To give everything we’ve got. To be willing to lose it all. To cry so hard for our enemies that we can no longer discern whose pack is whose. To give our attention entirely to the ground under our feet, the dog or writing project whose company we cherish in this moment we have been given. To receive the enormity of grace, even as it is slipping through our fingers.
Sage Cohen is the author of Fierce on the Page from Writer’s Digest Books, and three other books. Her prizewinning poems, essays, fiction, and how-to articles have appeared in a wide range of publications including Rattle, Hip Mama; The Night, and the Rain, and the River; The Truth of Memoir; Cup of Comfort for Writers, and Writer’s Digest magazine. Sage is a graduate of Brown University and the Creative Writing Program at New York University where she was awarded a full fellowship. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her young son and a menagerie of animals.