The Street in West Cambridge

During my transition from being a Harvard lab technician to a Harvard graduate student in the summer of 2015, I went home to New York for three weeks of vacation. My last day there was sunny and not too hot, but, unfortunately, I spent most of it packing and running errands in a last push to be ready to move into my new apartment in Cambridge.
In the late afternoon, I paused to take Maddy, the English Springer Spaniel who had been a member of our family since I was fourteen and she was eight weeks, for a walk. Just down the block from us, there is a church on a hill with a sweeping lawn that slopes down from the church building to street level, demarcated from the sidewalk by a stone wall. Maddy was quite fond of this wall; since she was a puppy, she had been in the habit of trotting along atop it while we humans walked down the sidewalk. Sometimes, if the day was nice, she would veer off to the right to lounge in the grass for a moment.
On this otherwise stressful August day, the idea of pausing there was also appealing to me, so I suggested to Maddy that we sit on the wall for a few minutes. She jumped up and sat down on the wall, facing the street. I sat down about half a foot to her right. In tacit response, she scooched across that half foot until she was sitting right next to me. This brief, small movement made me smile, and I wrapped my left arm around her back. We sat like that, watching the cars go by in silence, for a few minutes.
Presently, a policeman strolled down the street in our direction, in no apparent hurry. As he approached, he looked at us and his face slowly broke into a smile. Without breaking his gentle stride, he called out as he passed, “Cute pup you’ve got there.”
Maddy raised her ears slightly in recognition.
I said, “Thanks,” as I smiled and gently petted her.
I was lonely my first year of graduate school, before I developed friendships at Harvard. My best friend, Rutendo, lived in Cambridge at the time, but whenever we were not physically together I felt her absence acutely. I lived in West Cambridge that year, which meant that I would start my days by walking down a long, peaceful residential street of single-family homes with beautiful gardens. It was five or so minutes of quiet before I reached the bustle of Harvard Square as I made my way down Concord, Garden, and across the Yard to catch the shuttle to the Medical School.
This morning ritual was reminiscent of Maddy’s way of life; I knew she would savor each breath of early morning air and enjoy the aromas and sights of those gardens if she were there beside me, nimbly stepping over sidewalk broken and buckled from the pressure of Cambridge winters and weeds growing amok. I didn’t so much imagine she was there as sense her presence. In that early morning setting, I did not feel alone.
As I would turn onto Concord Avenue, her strong presence would dissipate amidst the activity and noise of vehicle and pedestrian traffic, but it would not disappear, staying with me for the rest of the day, every day. Maddy’s love for me was so powerful that it didn’t require us to be physically together for me to experience its impact.
I called my mom from Cambridge on the morning of April 24, 2020.
“I dreamed I was home and asked you and Dad where Maddy was. You replied that she was around – I should check her favorite spots. So I looked on the hearth, in the nook of the fireplace, on the couch. But I couldn’t find her,” I whispered, as large tears slid down my cheeks.
“Even though you can’t find her, she’s still here.”
In my anguish, I desperately needed that reminder. Although Maddy never lived with me in Cambridge, I felt her physical absence acutely on the first anniversary of her death, which fell during COVID-19 lockdown. That dream was the culmination of several days of a visceral experience of isolation, in which I would sense her sitting next to me for a moment, only to turn in that direction and find a gaping, empty space.
My mom’s words and the passing of April 24 allowed me to return to the less intense experience of grief that I had experienced over the prior year, during which I had thought often of those mornings on the quiet street in West Cambridge, where Maddy was my antidote to loneliness. There were, of course, countless other times in her life when she was my companion. Yet that setting had resurfaced because, once again, I sensed her presence and pure love in my life each day, even though she was not physically there.