The Dog Park is nearly empty at this hour. Only one toy-sized, caramel-colored pup prances towards a thrown ball. When he spots a thin black hound also on its way to the target, the little one, like a marathoner nearing the tape, speeds up.
If I had come an hour or two later, more dogs and owners would be swelling the fenced-in lot. I'd hear the barking of giddy dogs competing for airtime with their owners' cajoles. But I'm here now because I know my occasional afternoon sadness won't abate until I leave my apartment and walk the few blocks to lurk at this fur-filled sanctuary.
It is my least favorite Dog Park with its few benches, zero shade, and concrete floor, but I value its proximity. A gravel wedge sits adjacent and the dogs instinctively learn to jump over the small barrier to do their business.
This gathering spot works as a temporary salve, but it can't compete with a real Chicago park, like the one Tommy and I took Buddy our Golden Retriever to every morning at 6 a.m.
Like our Buddy, the Independence Park dogs seemed to be ecstatic to be off leash and able to race, sniff, and tussle with their own kind. As for the owners, in the 14 years we lived in that neighborhood, we watched babies turn to teenagers, older kids go off to college or marriage, and we visited neighbors as they healed or died.
Tommy and Buddy were in the last group. Both, my second husband and our pet died in 2012; dog at 14, best pal at 77. Unable to handle the maintenance or memories of our house, I sold it and its contents and relocated four times before I settled in my current Chicago highrise.
With each move, the idea of again owning a dog would materialize in my dreams and in possibilities. Perhaps I could once again have a twitchy, tail-wagging companion to welcome me home and cradle into the empty space on the other side of my bed. In return, I'd have someone to watch over -- a beneficiary of leftover love and caregiving.
In real life, at one point, I volunteered at a dog shelter. I learned how to wash down their rooms (no cages), prepare their meals, and harness and take puppies for walks. Because I eventually found these tasks tiring, I asked to be reassigned to the welcome desk. I avoided visiting the dogs up for adoption because, like a dieter facing a buffet, my impulse at the time was to snatch them all.
Although pets are welcome in my current highrise, something is preventing my leap. Money tops the list. "There's the adoption fee, vet bills, food," I tell those at this Dog Park who wonder at my presence without the necessary accessory.
My friends, who are not currently dog owners, support my list and add, "You'd be tied down. You can't travel easily. You'd have to leave events early to walk or feed it."
I nod my head in agreement, as if I were a jurist siding with the majority. I am silent with the truth: my travel is limited to short visits with family, my trendy neighborhood has enough walkers and sitters to accommodate all of the dogs in my former volunteer place, and homebody that I am, would welcome an excuse to be the first to leave.
Other pretexts on my "no dog" list, such as lack of a car for vet visits, and the difficulty of winter walks, have been erased by a vet practice that recently opened a block away, and a grassed- and fenced-in dog run an elevator ride downstairs.
I suppose I could easily test out my misgivings by fostering instead of adopting, like tasting a thumb-sized sample of frozen yogurt before committing to a flavor. Fees would be waved, including vet visits, and I could explore my dissents before committing.
Is that the solution? Like a therapeutic trial, I could test a temporary dog to learn if my 3:00 p.m. walks could be curative, rather than proxy. And at the Dog Park, instead of boring my inquisitors with my list of vetoes, I could point out my pup.
"That's mine," I would say, pointing to a mid-sized, mixed breed, male or female, who would play nicely with others, and come when called.
Or, does it make sense to go backwards? At age 80, is it prudent to add responsibilities and debts to fill a time slot once occupied by departed loved ones? I guess the jury is still out.