ALL set for the airport. I give you a hug. You smile and say: ``Honey, have a good meeting. But while you're away, think of me being wonderfully alone in our home. It will be only the second time in 25 years, you know.''
Your words keep coming back to me as I'm lifted into the skies above Toronto. I picture you down there by yourself with your thoughts and your books and the cats.
But when was the other time? It must have been that occasion some 10 years ago when the children and I had taken off somewhere.
You had the house all to yourself then - with your books and the cats. No, I'm wrong. There was Duchess. In those days, our old basset hound would have been right there at your side.
As an ``orphan'' from Canada's Humane Society, she had waddled her way into our lives. I dare say bassets are the only breed of domestic animals that occasion a chuckle before they inspire affection. Duchess was actually more bovine than canine! But in your eyes she was beautiful. You could think of no sweeter paradox in the canine family than that rare compound of mournfulness and charm that is a basset hound.
As you know, I have always contended that our inner life constantly requires a solitude that is not to be invaded by demands - human, feline, or canine. Am I sounding a little selfish? That counts for women as urgently as men.
I always remember being faintly suspicious whenever I came across you smiling out of silences - with Duchess at your side. I couldn't fault you for smiling, but I suspected it had more to do with the blessings of canine companionship than with the sanctity of solitude.
There must be a rhythm in our lives. I remind myself that the lives of the Biblical prophets contained a rhythm between mountaintop and market- place, between synagogue and wilderness. Times when they were triumphantly alone, times when they were sorrowfully alone, and times when they bore their mission vigorously among friends and enemies. The rhythm between solitude and sharing was always present. And there is no record that any prophet ever set forth with a hound at his side!
But now the thought of you alone with the animals throws this reasoning to the wind. You have never made the mistake of confusing aloneness with loneliness. For you, solitude is inclusive, not exclusive. You have found a way of uniting the beauty of aloneness with the beauty of sharing, some melding of human silence with canine and feline presence.
As the jetliner takes me over Milwaukee, I continue to wrestle with my thoughts. Is there, after all, an equation of home life that I have been missing entirely?
I remember the link between humor and pathos in your life. There's no denying your compassion for all waddling things. And whatever involved our hound in those days never seemed to fall short of the bizarre. A basset on a bed? A basset on a toboggan? A basset in a canoe? You always saw to it.
But then there was the time when, on one of her walks with you, Duchess waddled her way into the river. It was swollen with flood water and in no time the current had swept her 50 pounds well away from the bank. She struggled pitifully upstream to get back to you. She made no sound. Her tragic eyes never left yours as her paws thrust vainly against the current, those immense ears floating apologetically on the water.
Suddenly you saw what you had to do. You began running downstream along the bank until you got ahead of her. As her eyes followed you, her body turned with the current. Then she was swept inward toward you. You ventured a step or two into the river to catch her. Finally, she reached you, overcome with exhaustion and joy.
DUCHESS is no longer with us, but there's something in all this that I'm just beginning to grasp. I'm reminded of a verse in the Psalms - a metaphor that keeps resonating in my thought: ``Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other'' (Ps. 85:10). In the same way, I'm seeing at last that, for you, solitude and sharing ``are met together'' - that somehow they have been brought affectionately into a single reality.
But what kind of inner life can make this possible?
It seems to me that there has to be enough silent yearning, enough struggling against the current, enough simple, unwavering loyalty - to enable us to hold our gaze relentlessly to what we love. This is your achievement. It is something I must learn more fully from you.
Now here I am on my way back to Toronto after a mere two-day absence, hoping that my return is none too soon. As the plane touches down, I believe I'm a little closer to understanding your fondness for being ``wonderfully alone.'' I begin thinking about ways in which that need can be met fully and frequently. More thoughtful absences on my part? Another basset hound?