So I have this memory of John Denver sitting on a cabin porch in a Rocky Mountain sunrise, eating GrapeNuts cereal. I’ve spent unsuccessful hours online trying to prove John Denver did a GrapeNuts commercial, but the memory is there if the evidence isn’t. The reason this commercial stayed with me while it was forgotten by the rest of the world is that the image of wholesome predawn hopefulness is so foreign to me. Even as a child, I was a night owl. I always wanted to stay up with the grownups and got my best ideas for games and projects when it was time for bed.
For me, the predawn stillness before rush hour fumes remind the city of its place is always a little bit ominous. Like Holly Golightly, I am more likely to see the sunrise at the end of a long night than the beginning of a new day. The pale pink glow in the sky burns my tired eyes and speaks of a day whose energy was spent before it began.
Once I received a midnight phone call from my best friend, who had recently moved away. He was drunk and talked of suicide. I spent the rest of the night watching the sky, waiting for the next train to Portland. That was my first sunrise.
In recent years, the night-time vigils have been less dramatic, but more grueling. A toddler with night terrors and a sleepless baby kept me awake night after night, until, like Audrey Hepburn swearing off food during WWII, I quit trying to sleep at all.
This morning I sat out back in the predawn stillness with my coffee and my oatmeal. I watched the crows and squirrels dig around in my newly landscaped yard, the growing light illuminating my fifteen-year old dog as he stumbled and repeatedly fell trying to make it from the door to our new brick patio. Thirteen years ago I signed some papers for Border Collie Rescue and they dropped him off at my house. He was clearly not a purebred, at 65 pounds and well over 2 ft tall at the shoulder. He was completely unsocialized, having probably spent the first two years of his life on a chain in someone’s back yard. He was afraid to walk on the linoleum, and had to be carried into my house past the kitchen. Oh, but that borderline collie was smart.
Within weeks he knew all the standard commands. Eventually he learned the names of almost a dozen toys and could bring the one you asked for from anywhere in the house. In the evenings, my husband or I would say, “Well, you wanna watch a movie?” and the dog would get up and move into the TV room. He would plop down in front of the TV and fall asleep. Somehow, even in his sleep, he could tell when the end credits started to roll; he would get up and go to the back door to be let out before we turned off the TV. Sometimes we would mess with him and drop the word “squirrel” into random sentences. He would jump up from a hard sleep and run to the window. You could almost hear his thoughts, “Where? Where? Lemme at him! I’ll get that squirrel!”
I would stand in the center of the dog park and say, “Go long, dog.” He would take off toward the end of the park and I would throw a tennis ball with the ChuckIt. He knew how far the ChuckIt would throw, and when he got there he would turn around, stand on his hind legs and snatch the ball from the air. Then he would run back to me, drop the ball as he passed and hit the opposite side of the park just in time to catch my next throw.
My kids don’t believe that their fat old grizzled dog who can’t hear you when you say “squirrel” used to run so hard that he would sometimes bring the ball back on bloody feet. He routinely ripped the pads off his paws and tore out one of his front toe nails several times. He never noticed; he was always upset when I would abruptly end our game to drive to the vet to bandage his feet. But he always knew when it was time to settle down, and I wrote my thesis with that dog at my feet.
This morning, after listening to him whine for over an hour, I finally sent him outside at 5 am. He fell off the porch and was afraid to try coming back in. So I made a pot of coffee and sat outside with my breakfast. Weaving from side to side, his back legs like a broken rudder guiding him roughly in my direction, he finally stopped beside my chair and stood whining next to me, his head right at hand-level. I patted him with one hand, juggling coffee and breakfast with the other; he can’t climb into the tub anymore, and it’s too cold to bath him with the hose, so any hand that pats him ends up smelling like old dog.
He wanted to sit down, but the brick pavers hurt his hips, despite the painkiller I had given him at 4:30. Eventually he wandered away, tripping on the single step down to the lawn. He whined a few minutes more before collapsing on his belly in the grass, where he rested his nose on his bent, arthritic paws and fell asleep.
In Seattle, sunrise rarely means a rosy glow in the eastern sky. It just gradually stops being dark, the black night replaced by the gray day.