The Dog Who Liked Wine

It’s been two and a half years since we said goodbye to our dog.

Lucky was a magical being who, fourteen years ago, introduced a special joy into the lives of our entire family. While I have shed many tears over his loss these many months, a few nights ago the sight of a wine bottle in a recycling bin became one of the first recognizable sign that the stone that had fallen on my heart could be lifted.

I have lived a fortunate life, a life not toppled by the grief that storms across the lives of some people, but a life familiar enough with shadows of loss that I know that grieving doesn’t go away, but rather it changes form. Grief shifts about in our minds and our bodies like the other aches and pains that, as you age, take up residence.

Lucky was a huge dog, a white Labrador large enough to place his paws on the shoulders of my wife and I every time we embraced; a large enough dog that his occupation of the center territory on our bed left a miserly share of space at the outer-most reaches of our nocturnal raft.

Lucky lived a life as an ‘only pet’ and because of his size, his misinterpreted enthusiasm, and poor social skills, he remained isolated from other dogs to the extent that he appeared to have no concept that he was a species different than ourselves.

In this blur of identity, Lucky – one evening late in his life – acquired a taste for wine. My wife had put a glass down and his enormous tail swept it from the table and onto our deck. Lucky quickly attended the spill and expressed his feelings with the full-bodied involvement of his tail, a crisp bark, and a robust licking of his lips.

Following this introduction to ‘happy hour’ on our deck, Lucky was allowed to have licks of wine and sometimes a few drops of wine mixed with water from a plastic glass of his own. Not enough to be harmful – the mere coating of a glass – Lucky’s joy at seeing us open a bottle of wine was reflected in the bounce of his gait and the fixation of his eyes. His pallet did not seem prone to favor whites over reds but he did seem taken – in what was to be his last summer – by a taste of Sangria served up with his favorite hors d’oeuvre – slices of apple on crackers.

Lucky and I walked in the evening near midnight – a practice that avoided encounters with other dogs and one that afforded us an intimacy that could be captured at no other time of day. We had a route of a mile and a half. It traced a path under moonlit deltas of geese in the fall, through choruses of frogs in the spring, past the curious masks of raccoons in the summer, and over the frost-glazed grasses of winter.

Lucky viewed walking as a parade ground ritual and not as a journey of olfactory exploration. He walked determinedly, didn’t wander, and didn’t stop to explore the scents that must have offered themselves to his nose. If I wanted to cut the walk short, he would balk in the direction of our routine, his 115# will determined to complete the course of the march with no deletions of the number of steps.

Undeterred by advancing arthritis, Lucky walked with parade route disciple – until the walks that followed that first clean-up of wine from the deck. All subsequent walks that occurred on the night before our neighborhood’s once-a-month curbside glass-recycling day were to become quite different.

I’m not certain what happens in other neighborhoods, but the bins in our area are stacked primarily with wine bottles. Beer and vodka bottles run a close second; whiskey bottles trail. Liqueurs, brandy, and Bailey’s bottles don’t show up until near the holidays and then – after New Year’s – all forms of liquor bottles become seemingly extinct until the first week of February.

Lucky had ignored the glass-bottle bins until just after those first licks of Pinot Gris. After that experience, there wasn’t a wine bottle in a recycle bin his nose didn’t want to explore. The beer drinkers, the Scotch and vodka aficionados, – their secrets he would dismiss with the straight-ahead gaze of his eyes, but empty wine bottle in a bin became a wonderland of fragrance.

There are a lot of people who drink wine. I wasn’t so much aware of this until – having briskly walked behind a dog who would bear no distractions – I found myself having to tug the will of an enormous dog away from recycling bins.

Until one week ago I haven’t walked the route of Lucky and my nightly journeys since his death. I tried several times in the weeks that followed his death – but my legs only made the distance of a block or two. I tried again seven months later at the end of summer but my feet and my heart made it no further than they had on my first attempts.

The other night, however, the ache of Lucky’s loss resurfaced – as grief does – from seemingly nowhere, and my body’s reluctance to walk our route was not as powerful as my desire to connect with our long-neglected ritual. I headed out into the darkness. It’s been warm. The high pitch of crickets was in the air, the streets were empty because of the hour – and – coincidentally, or as I suspect a plan orchestrated by the Universe – it was glass-bin-by-the-curb recycling night.

I must have encountered a dozen and a half bins along the way, recognizing those in front of houses that had become – because of the sheer volume of bottles, Lucky’s favorites tasting bins. On this reluctant walk, I stopped at two bins in particular. At the first bin, tears threatened my eyes and weakened the resolve of my feet. It was a bin in which Lucky had once flicked a mayonnaise jar aside with his nose in order to get a better angle for his tongue across the neck of a wine bottle. I half-turned towards home but stopped. The memory of a dog who tolerated no shortcuts urged me forward on our route.

Near the end of spring and near midnight the songs of crickets were rising; their rhythm this particular evening matching the pace of my steps. Several frogs joined the songs of the crickets and near the edge of the neighborhood – where a wood begins – the far-off yapping of a coyote marked my arrival at the second of Lucky’s preferred bins and it was at this bin that I encountered the evolving nature of grief.

The best laughs rise unexpectedly from our bodies. They emerge with personal meaning and sometimes revelation. In those moments we do not laugh because of humor but rather that we find ourselves laughing from some discovered feeling of happiness, some suddenly found joy that overtakes our spirit.

My desire that night had been to accomplish the walk; to overcome an impasse that had crowded my thoughts and stalled my steps. Suddenly, however, my intent was interrupted by a quiet laugh that rose from my lungs, and as it surfaced, Lucky turned his body around in my mind and settled itself into a new place in my thoughts; a realm where an unexpected door was opened.

In this second bin, a bin illuminated by a street lamp was an empty bottle of wine with a label that read: Tipsy Dog Pinot Noir – 2006 Crazy Jay’s Vineyard, Edna Valley, California.

Lucky – suddenly strong and vibrant in the presence of the bin – braced his feet to the ground of my thoughts and it would take some tugging to head him back away from that bin and towards the direction of our house.

I climbed into bed when I got home. Kathy was asleep. I laid in the darkness for awhile and thought about all of the miles that Lucky and I had walked over the years, all of the wine bottles he had sniffed, all of the crickets we had heard, and about all of the prints we had made in the first traces of frost. I laid there in the darkness and listened to the soft breath of my wife and thought about – as he had gotten older – how anxious Lucky had become, after our walks, to rest his tired legs in the center of our bed. The memory of his giant body crowding both of us to the edges of the blankets suddenly made me aware of all of the joy that Lucky had brought into our lives and for the first time this memory didn’t arrive as an ache, but instead became a wide smile that broadened my face and settled into my pillow.

We ultimately must lose those beings and those loved ones who have brought meaning and feelings of authenticity to our lives. The losses tear away at fabric of our hours – our days. In its early stages, grief stifles our steps, catches our breath and carries pain to the far reaches of our hearts. But, in this very process of falling, of disconnecting from our life as we knew it – if we allow ourselves to mourn – we begin to heal and bear witness to the life we have lost. Grief then begins to shift – it moves to places in our bodies that suddenly free our feet, enable our hands, and empower our wills. Grief eventually moves enough to enable barriers to fall away. It can enable us to find ourselves standing in the night with our fingers touching an untethered leash that we have brought along to keep the company of our pocket. It can move enough to enable us to gaze into a bin of wine bottles and become reacquainted with a long-muted feeling of happiness.

Grief – acknowledged – moves. It can move from the sharp indentations it has made in our hearts to a different place in our body; often settling into the soft, uplifted corners of our lips, the wrinkled edges of eyes, and the regions of our minds where the joys and gifts of memories dwell.

…and sir, what vintage might I pour a lick of for you this beautiful evening?