Hannah, my chocolate Lab, a main character in Where The Trail Grows Faint, will be thirteen next month. Our forays into the woods have changed, although she still shows me that she wants to go by following me to the door in the late afternoon when I get up from working to head out for a walk. She waits expectantly, head cocked and tail in furious motion, for me to say, “Okay girl, come.” When I open the door to the back seat of my car, she backs up and takes a couple of running steps to be able to make the jump. Sometimes her back legs don’t quite clear the seat, but she pulls them up behind her. And I say, “Good jump. Strong, brave girl.” Her gait on the flat trail alongside the little river is that of an old dog now; she walks slowly rather than blasting in open-throttle delight, but her tail wide-wags continuously as we progress toward the swimming hole.
My friend Barb and her chocolate Lab, Maggie, usually meet us at one of the trail heads. The dogs nuzzle faces and check each others’ butts for the news. These days we try to make Hannah’s walks a bit shorter and give her more swimming time. She’ll go after a big stick in the pond exactly as she did when she was a puppy, dropping it at my feet then teasing me by snatching it up again before she puts it down so she can bark while she does her old joy dance: throw it again, throw it again. She retrieves sticks just as she always has: dysfunctionally. She likes to grab them toward one end rather than in the center; if there’s a decent current, the stick acts like a dragged oar trying to spin her around in the water. This can be pretty funny; here she is, this beautiful old girl doing her retrieving job, and still doing it in her idiosyncratic, silly way.
Today she swam so much that Barb and I decided I’d take her home before we walked Maggie another couple of miles. Hannah followed me out of the deep shade of a tree canopy and through an interlude of brilliant sunshine where a thicket of wild roses in all shades of pink and daisies were in the full bloom of early summer. I kept looking back at her, checking her legs and encouraging her along. She still walks with no limp although the vet tells me the arthritis in her right paw is bad. He says she’s a stoic and to take her to the woods as much as she wants to go, to help her keep on keeping on. Strong girl, brave girl.
I think about Hannah often as I work on a novel about an elderly widow. I want to let the widow, Louisa, be funny without having the effect be to make fun of her, to show her frailties, vulnerabilities, and fears without making her an object of pity. What I’m finding is that the ongoing life of an old age character is really difficult to hit squarely and well. Many revered novels with an old person as a principal character are constructed as retrospectives, or focus on life that is happening around the elderly person. The approach of death is frequently a theme. Think about Ethan From, As I Lay Dying, Remains Of The Day, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, Gilead and Tinkers.
But I’m not after a retrospective or the theme of approaching death, although I wonder if increased time in both memories and concern about death accompanies advancing age and needs to be included in a good literary portrayal. Still, my protagonist is rebellious and wry-voiced, at odds with an adult son she loves dearly even as he drives her crazy with ridiculous gifts and tries to thwart her mission to get revenge for the death of her grandson, the victim of a drunk driver. I’ve seen from trying to help family that old age is hard. My task is to show Louisa’s mounting losses, like the losses we will all endure, doubtless in many forms–and the possibility of remaining vital, funny, strong, and brave.
Has anyone read a good novel in which an old person overcomes rather than succumbs?