Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that Dad has died. Next month will be three years since his death. And he lived for 19 years with Alzheimer’s before that. And the truth is his strong, wise, generous, loving, funny spirit is alive and well in my heart.
Nights at 3120 growing up with Dad always included his three evening rituals: 1) Watching the Sports on WCIA Channel 3 at about 10:20 (pre-ESPN); 2) Followed by a walk with the dog(s); and 3) and then playing piano into the night (sometimes until 2 am or more). Winter, spring, summer and fall. Most every night.
I can remember as if it were yesterday he would put on a hooded sweatshirt (or two or three) and get the dog’s leash off the hook by the back door. They would leash-up and go around to the front of the house to head out. And then Dad would do the most amazing thing: Dad and the dog would walk down the steps, down the front sidewalk and when he got to the bushes he would stop. And he would wait. And here’s the funny thing: it always appeared that Dad would let the dog decide which direction to go on the evening walk. It was as though Dad and his companion would have their own silent question: “left or right?”
I remember several times watching them from the front porch. Sometimes Mr. Chips (our long-time family dog) would stop and sit. It was as though he, like dad, was thinking things over. Then Mr. Chips would get up and head out in the direction of left (east) or right (west). And off they would go. Sometimes I would go along their evening strolls. I soon learned that this practice of “which way would you like to go?” continued throughout the walk. Not at every corner, “that would be silly,” I was told when I asked him. Somehow both human and canine knew which were the “turning corners” that would determine the direction and duration of each night’s walk. We’d get to a corner and Mr. Chips would turn left at 21st Street and Dad would say, “Tonight we’re going on the 2 mile route,” or he’d turn right on Richmond and Dad would just nod, “the 1/2 mile route,” or they sometimes head out toward 33rd street, “the 3 mile route.”
The length of the walk never seemed as important as the companioning of the walk. When I asked him about it he said he was much more interested in where Mr. Chips wanted to go.
There are so many things I loved, appreciated and miss so very much about my father. This evening practice was one of them. There was always a special bond between Dad and our pets. The evening walks were certainly a big part of that bonding. But as I look back now I wonder if Dad wasn’t leaning into them as well. It wasn’t that my father couldn’t make decisions. He could and he did all day long. Maybe that was the point. Dad spent every waking hour making decisions while working at the bank, or participating on committees, or while tending to his community as best he could. These evening walks allowed him to defer to his walking companion. Looking back now I believe there was joy for him in just going along for the ride.
Lord knows (and my family can surely attest) I would benefit from this spirit practice. These evening walks of welcoming possibility, his flexibility, and his sense of being open to the process ~ this practice would be good for me. What would shift for me if I patiently waited for a walking companion (at work or with friends and family) to make the decision for what direction to be next? Do I have the patience? Do I have the trust to let go that much?
I’ve been trying to follow (literally) in his footsteps the past couple of nights when I head out our backdoor to walk our dogs. On the nights I’ve tried it, the three of us will get to end of the driveway and I kid you not….K’bu will head left (south) and Emma will head right (north).
Maybe it’s me… or (wait for it) maybe the truth is: I’ve still got a lot to learn from my Dad.
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. A Candler School of Theology graduate, Lesley has just published her second book, Grief and the Psalms: Companioning the Moon for 29 Days (available on this website). She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan and Sam in Decatur, GA.