• Roberta Rathert

My Kayak-Riding Dog

This came from a fellow paddler, “I put a kayak in the Illinois River and knew I could make it to St. Louis. My trip stopped in Panama City, Florida three months later. The next year, I was a bit worried about paddling all the Missouri River and made it. The next year paddling the Mississippi River had me a bit scared but I did it. My point is that you need to be scared of doing it. Being scared and a little intimidated is normal and a healthy part of making the trip.” He wrote this after I conveyed concern about my worry over the enormous trip that is before me. As it approaches, some days quicker than others, I feel shifting points of excitement and hesitation over me.

I examine my life for what is impacted by my going, or my failure to return. Humans like to think the earth will open under the house and suck down everything we put together, if we divert our attention from it. The thinking I put to my absence is too much, and it gives excessive meaning to my very existence and influence.

This afternoon, I look around the room to see where my self-importance lands and there it is. My dog. She follows me wherever I go and, by this, I am often bothered. Yet, I am certain now that she will miss me the most and be truly devastated more than anyone if I don’t return from the river. I wonder if I am deceiving myself.

As dogs go, mine is only just average, or below. It was recently, in her fourth year, that I realized she was not as smart as I have believed. As an Australian Shepherd, I applied to her the breed’s high intelligence and agility, holding her up to it every day since she was a pup. It’s too bad I did this, because she has failed to measure up to my expectations from that first time I saw her at eight weeks old. I admit it, I have expressed quite a bit of disappointment in her short falls, and I am pretty sure she has felt it.

Last week, I watched her more closely. She whines a lot, she’s very vocal about everything; and needs to go out and pee way too much, and drinks large quantities of water because she forgets to stop once she gets going. It is not unusual for her to walk right into things, then yelp when she does it. We have taught her to lay down, which she can do, but she gets back up immediately as if laying down is like a paw shake – once done, its purpose is over. The up-and-down that follows several commands to ‘lay down!’ occurs every evening during our relaxing time. The dog is obedient, lays down, then at once, gets up to be a nuisance, chasing the cat, chewing my shoestrings, or staring me down for her want of something. Anything. So, I wonder, who is less smart, my dog for not waiting where I put her, or me for not teaching ‘stay.’

My constant lifelong disappointment in her, this dog who isn’t who I want her to be, has caused me to miss something. Her connection to me is like gum on a shoe. If I fail to say hello or give a good morning pat, she is relentless with the stare-down or paw on the knee until I respond. She never forgets what she feels about me, just as I have never forgotten how I feel about her. It is just that our feelings have not been mutual.

While I prepare for my lengthy trip with a lot of gear, it has been these days when I look at her with eyes of my absence and her absence from me that has caused me to see her differently. I made her out to be something she isn’t, causing her to fail me every day. But it is I who have failed her, in loving, with acceptance for who she is up until now. My dog, Mildred, is not smart. She lacks focus, loves mischief, and eats whatever is left on the floor. She is a very imperfect doofus, a knucklehead who has accepted my scorn for wanting her to be something else.

I want her to ride with me on my long river trip, but I know she’d take up too much room in my boat, needing excessive food that I cannot carry, and wanting whatever is out of reach. She does not measure up as a kayak-riding dog. I want her to lay in my camps at night, keeping watch, guarding me and my stuff from unknown creatures. But Mildred has never barked at a noise or scared a stranger ever, but only licked them drippy and wiggled in happiness to see them. Mildred loves her comfort and whines when without it. I imagine her wet or muddy, cold and tired on the river trail. She would be too much upkeep for me, so she may as well just stay home.

The one thing I am assured though is Mildred’s heart. It is on all day long, pouring from her eyes looking at me, from her tail as it wags too much when I walk in a room, and in her lumpy unkempt self as she bumps into me every time I go by. I see you now, Mildred, near me in body and heart, loving, remembering, and seeing what I have not seen. You stay home. If I don’t come back, I know who will miss me the most. If I return, I know who will be at the door wagging, overexcited with exuberance to see me. One day I read, “When God put a calling on my life, he already factored in my stupidity.” It’s a comforting thing, for both me and Mildred.

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