Iain and I shifted our gazes from the man standing beside us toward the entrance to the dog park. A white man in his early middle age had just come in with a beautiful black lab at his side. The other dogs, as is their usual habit, ran to the gate to greet the new arrival, who had no particular interest in greeting them. Sam, as we later found out he is called, held fast to his person's side. All he wanted was for his person to throw the ball! throw the ball! throw the ball!
His person accommodated him, launching a tennis ball over and over across the field, which Sam would pursue with singular determination.
It's not totally unusual to find a dog at the dog park who ignores everything else to concentrate exclusively on retrieving. What was unusual about this pair was the silence with which they executed the ritual. There was no excited encouragement, no plaintive and excited barking. It was a perfunctory motion, steeped in grief.
Dudley, bred to run sprints not marathons, was already lying in the grass, panting after having run around a lot already with Buck. And he is resoundingly disinterested in chasing balls or playing with dogs who don't want to interact in any meaningful way.
But something compelled him to get back on his feet and run with Sam.
Dudley, who doesn't care a whit about running after balls, started nonetheless running after Sam every time Sam went after a ball. Over and over and over. Back and forth they ran across the field, Sam chasing the ball and Dudley chasing Sam.
And doing it with a stamina and intensity I've never seen.
He stuck to Sam like glue, and I was a little worried at first that he was being a pest, but Sam didn't seem to mind.
When Dudley finally could run no more, he came over to us with his "I'm ready to go now" look. Sam's owner approached us and patted Dudley's head, complimenting him on what a handsome boy he is. And then, in the way that dog owners have of talking to other dog owners by talking to their dogs, he said, "Thank you for running with Sam today, Dudley. Sam's buddy died unexpectedly this week, and he hasn't had anyone to play with."
Iain and I expressed our condolences.
Sam's owner kept talking to Dudley, while stroking his head. He told him that Sam wasn't very good with other dogs: "But you figured out how to keep him company."
Dudley, his paws stained green with grass stains and the pads of his feet engorged and red from running, leaned against Iain's leg and stood quietly receiving this affection and gratitude.
Sam's owner patted his head one last time before he wandered away, back to throwing the ball for Sam, who was still going. "Go get it, Sam!" he shouted.
I looked down at Dudley, who was so very tired, and told him what a good boy he is.
There are things I had hoped for and things I expected when we adopted Dudley—but though I have read abundant stories of people who learned something from or experienced something profound with their dogs, that was not one of my hopes nor one of my expectations. I hoped and expected to love Dudley vastly and boundlessly, and I do. But I never imagined how capable of moving me, how able to exhort me to a better self, such a silly, awkward collection of legs and ears could be.
I can be someone who does not run away from grief, or squirm in its presence, but runs alongside its bearers, steadily and tirelessly. I'm pretty sure I could have been, anyway, but it was my lovely dog who made me sure, who made me see, on a Saturday afternoon at the dog park, how easy it is to just Be There.