Anyone who routinely walks a dog knows the phenomenon whereby you recognize other dogs with their walkers, often knowing the dogs’ names even when you don’t know the owners’ names. Yesterday evening I had that experience again. On the sidewalk down by the river, my dog Joey and I paused so that Joey could exchange sniffs with Hannibal, a large black Newfoundland we’ve met before. Hannibal’s owner’s name remains a mystery to me, but based on our brief exchanges of pleasantries and the obvious good care he gives to Hannibal, he seems like a kind and gentle man. He also looks like an interesting man to know, in part because he looks different from me. He’s at least two decades younger than I am, his skin is several shades darker than mine, and he usually wears a rastacap over his dreadlocks.
We chatted a bit longer than usual, in part because several children surrounded us, fascinated by our two sniffing dogs, wanting to know their names and their breeds, trying to see Hannibal’s eyes under his bangs, and wanting to touch the dogs, both of whom delight in being patted and fussed over.
After the children had gone on with their parents, Hannibal’s owner asked me if I had in recent memory seen a woman walking a large white golden doodle. The dog’s name is Dooley. The woman is middle-aged. She too wears a head covering, but because she has no eyebrows or eyelashes, he believes she must have lost her hair to cancer treatments. He hasn’t seen her recently, and he wonders if she is okay—you know, still around and walking her dog and all. He doesn’t use any of the “D” words—death, dying, died—but it’s clear what he’s thinking.
I haven’t seen her. And his question reminded me of a woman who used to walk by my house. She herself never walked a dog, but she often came into the yard to play with Joey for a few minutes. Though I never knew her name, through our brief exchanges, I learned that her husband was at sea for long periods with the Navy and that she was both nursing a sick mother and dealing with cancer herself. And then winter came, followed by spring and summer, and I never saw her again, though I have wondered about her from time to time.
Hannibal’s owner and I mused about these two familiar strangers who had come into—and then disappeared from—our lives. We talked about noticing their disappearance and wishing we could somehow let them, or their families, know that we had missed seeing them and that we wished them well.
Familiar strangers turn up in, and disappear from, our lives in other places as well. Hardware stores. Grocery checkout lines. Post office windows. Carpool lines. The local library. Sometimes we learn the names of these familiar strangers, sometimes not. Sometimes in our passing of one another, some small detail of life is revealed, and sometimes not.
Yesterday my most recent copy of The Christian Century arrived. Imprinted across its cover photo of a person walking alone on a beach are the words, “World’s End — How to Live When Things Fall Apart.” I have not yet read any of the articles addressing that apocalyptic-sounding topic, but it occurs to me that one small but good way to live, whether things fall apart or not, is simply to see one other. Not only to see those we know and love up close but also to see clearly the familiar strangers in our lives. To speak when we can, perhaps to stop every now and then and chat. But always to see, to smile, and to hold them, even briefly, with all good wishes in our hearts.