Alfie used to be my personal trainer. While I was unemployed from January 2009 to May 2010, he nudged me out the door twice a day and gave structure to my shapeless life as an unemployed person. I squeezed the job search and resume tailoring between our walks and I arranged interviews so as not to conflict with our regimen.
In March 2009, Alfie arrived in our family at 15 weeks old, a four-and-a-half pound Jack Russell-Maltese Terrier-Toy Poodle muddle. By the time the snow melted and the salt and grit had washed off the sidewalks in late April, he’d grown to six pounds with legs generously measuring five inches long. He walked as though spring-loaded. Over the next year, he whipped me into walking shape and our outings extended from fifteen to forty minutes. Alfie stopped and sniffed often but he always resumed his jaunty, invigorating pace.
When I rejoined the nine to five workforce in late May, 2010, the training pattern shifted. With a new human schedule to follow and rush hour traffic to avoid, I became impatient in the morning. I yanked Alfie from intense investigation of every blade of grass from root to tip and back. I glanced at my watch every few minutes, anxious to get the walk over so I could dash to work. But there was no hurrying Alfie. I swear he walked into sticker grass deliberately seeking burrs. Stepping into one, he’d hold up a paw, his black eyes beseeching relief, while I kneeled down to twist the Velcro-like balls from his soft white hair. After I’d finished pulling the pieces from between his paw pads, he licked my hand. Filled with remorse at rushing him, I’d let him circumnavigate thick maple tree trunks as he sprinkled his canine benedictions. As we walked home along our well-traveled Sawmill Creek path, I’d look up through the green-arched tree canopy and my anxious heart calmed.
The job I took was hectic and stressful. I joined a team of skilled event planners in a large, medical non-profit organization. We delivered medical education events to academic physicians and residents. I had switched from a slow-motion life of making lunches for my three children and organizing birthday parties, to a high-stakes job among a super-smart, well-educated clientele. Any mistake I made was visible and immediately identifiable as mine. Early in my tenure, I instructed registration staff for a pre-conference seminar sponsored to arrive at the same time as the desk was to open. This resulted in a long line-up of international medical luminaries waiting while the staff turned on computers, hauled out tables and chairs, and generally made themselves presentable. It was as though you’d been invited to a Broadway play and ushered into the actors’ change rooms while they put on their costumes and make-up. I was not fired but I burned with embarrassment and when I left the building later I wanted to keep going and never return.
At home Alfie greeted me, his tail wagging wildly. When I bent to pat him he licked me like I was a raw pork chop. That evening, we walked our usual route along the creek path where he poked his muzzle into mounds of leaves, happy as a truffle pig. Around us the September wind twirled orange leaves, geese honked in the creek, and I slowly released my humiliation.
I’m now retired and like Alfie, I’ve slowed down. We both have gimpy knees and he sometimes needs a lift from one level to the next in our three-story townhouse but he’s still game to walk twice a day, and so am I. Like Alfie, I have some physical limitations – bursitis in both hips and a chronically pinched nerve in my right foot. Fool that I am, I am eager to walk more than I should, and when I do, my foot burns and my hips throb. They remind me that Alfie might be in pain, too. He takes his time when called to walk pulling himself from his bed by the door, slowly dropping his chest to the floor, stretching out his front legs, sending his hips and two back legs up in the air. In yoga, this is the “downward dog”. My physiotherapist has suggested many yoga stretches over the years, but observing Alfie’s approach to his daily exercise encouraged me to adopt his practice. Alfie may have surpassed my age in dog years but he’s still my personal trainer.
After our walks, Alfie trots to his bed for a rest. I unroll my yoga mat, turn on YouTube for my favourite yoga video, and get down to the business of relaxing. At the end, Alfie joins me on the floor in savasana – corpse pose – and he gently licks my nose. I’m pretty sure he’s saying “good girl.”