Day 11 - On Fear and Loss

Charles MerrittDec 23 · 4 min read

During the month of December, Buddy will highlight, the Twelve Days of Fearlessness. Whether it is getting up the nerve to lace up your old ice skates with your five-year-old or conquering a halfpipe like your teenage days, fearlessness is not just situational for all- for some, it is a way of life.

rocky
rocky

For months, I was unable to ride a particular stretch of country road on my bike without getting teary.

I live in an old house in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. A few blocks away and centuries ago, Patrick Henry delivered his "Liberty or Death" speech at St. James Church. Our neighborhood has gone through many transformations in our city's sordid history, but what has not changed since the times in which the first documented inhabitants, the Powhatan, called this region home are the hills overlooking the James River.

Some of my favorite regular road and training rides take me eastward, along the roads built to mirror the river basin. I head out my front door, and down to the water's north bank, bearing left to warm up.

Emerging from Richmond heading east, there's a slight hill that will cause me to break a sweat by the top. Actually, let's face it, I am just a sweaty athlete. It's not the hill.

Pedaling along, bringing my heart rate back to normal, I pass the site of the recently-demolished 7-Eleven, a few houses, and then suddenly I'm alongside soy and cornfields, their rows ticking by in even cadence.

In my minds eye, a loping figure is running along with me. His tongue and ears flop carelessly as he bounds along, smiling his big, doggy smile. Like a dream that you know you have to wake from but cling to for as long as you can, I let myself believe that it's Rocky, free from the pain he felt in his last days, running along beside me as happy and goofy as ever.

The first time this happened was not long after we lost him a year ago. I had to stop and get off my bike. I felt absolutely ridiculous, sitting there in my cycling gear, wiping snot and tears away. Eventually, I gathered myself and got on my way. For the next few rides, I was still struggling. But, as I got through the initial grief, I was able to begin to peel back some layers.

The way that you internalize every trait of a being you love and live with is incredible. When I began to see what was happening as more of an observer of myself, I could find some peace in the bittersweet feelings and the seeing of Rocky in my mind's eye. My regular rides became emotional experiments in which I would allow myself to be surprised every time by where Rocky could emerge from a tree-line or some underbrush and run alongside me.

I began to question why and how this was happening. I had experienced loss before, and in human form, and the mechanisms of grief were familiar. The surprise was not that I was feeling this, but that the grief was as pronounced as it was. Why?

Not entirely unbeknownst to me, Rocky had become an integral part of my life. Yes, Selden had rescued him before she and I were together, but over the subsequent years, he'd adopted me, too. Rocky had boundless energy, and he would happily (except for a reluctance to get in canoes, which took some goading) go anywhere with his people. I'm pretty sure that if you look up the generic, "dog" in a dictionary, Rocky's picture would be there.

For a few years, Selden and I were living and working in different cities, Rocky was a companion to me. We'd have "guys' weekends" when Selden was out of town. At times I'd struggle, and when I was especially down, Rocky had a way of sidling right up next to me and leaning his weight against my leg, nosing my palm, and remind me, "Hey, I'm here with you."

I didn't fully understand at the time how much Rocky's affection meant in those moments. Looking back from the vantage point of years passed, I can now clearly see that having his forceful nudges and full-bodied leans against my legs or lap or chest gave me the comfort and security that I needed in those moments. Picking myself up was possible because I had this ridiculous canine companion along for the ride and ready for anything.

Somehow facing that of which I was fearful or by which I was saddened seemed manageable.

The truth about dogs--and pets of most species--is that their entire lives fit within ours. This means that we exist before or after or both without them. Knowing that rationally does absolutely nothing when we must confront the portion of lives after theirs. Such is existence. The forces of time and nature govern all of us.

How, then, am I to feel?

Today, a year after Rocky departed this life, I ride the same routes. I know that when I am collecting myself from the quick uphill out of town that I am soon to reach the fields in their seasonal states, and that if I so desire, I will see his spectre leaping alongside me, and I can conjure in my palm a reassuring nose saying, "I'm here with you."

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