The Gifts of an Old Dog

How does one prepare for loss?

Phoebe is getting old.  Her eyes are clouded with cataracts.  Her gait is slow and measured.  She will begin our walks together with sufficient energy and confidence but will suddenly forget the way home and will need to sit down in grassy areas in order to restore her bearings.  I honor our  relationship by pretending not to notice.

After all, Phoebe has been a wonderful friend in the 12 years we've known her.  She played with my older children while I quickly did a load of laundry.  She watched episode after episode of Angelina Ballerina with my daughter so I wouldn't have to do it.  She shared countless meals with us and always expressed her appreciation for the invitation.

Every time I have needed her help, I have only had to call and she would come running.  I owe Phoebe the dignity of aging in her own time.  I trust that she will let me know when she has grown tired of things and we will make arrangements for whatever comes next.

Even so, I am scared.  I keep hoping that I will find a website that says that my particular Labrador Retriever will probably live to be 20.  I pretend that , our significantly younger and more troublesome dog, is actually the cause of Phoebe's agitation.  Mike must have kept her up by roaming the house for squirrels.  Mike must have cuddled up too close to Phoebe at night and caused the elderly canine to be sore in the morning.  But Mike Green did not make Phoebe old.

When I am honest with myself, I know that I have been a very average pet owner.   I have kept my dogs fed, groomed, and sheltered.  They have received attention from doctors on a regular basis.  They have been loved a lot and always tolerated.  Even so, they have given us more than we have given them.

Phoebe joined a family which had not settled upon a community.  She has lived with us at five different addresses, one of which was a condo of under 1,600 square feet.  She spent more time alone than she should have.  We did not always accept her canine devotion when it came in the form of growling at the pizza delivery  man or generous gifts from a neighbor's compost heap.  She was patient with us and we did not always return the favor.

She did not ask for a sibling and we gave her one.  We claimed that she would like having a companion with whom to spend her golden years.  We also knew that we had saddled her with a friend so that we could hedge our bets against a day in the future when we would be dogless.  They love one another but that is mere serendipity.  We got ourselves a spare dog.

So, Phoebe is old but she is still healthy.  She still loves to eat and lie under the dining room table.  She likes having her ears rubbed and her tummy scratched.  This is how we are repaying our debt to her, in tiny increments and many years past due.  It is the least we can offer her.

We cannot bear to predict how long she will just be old and nothing worse, but today she deserves the opportunity to walk outside.  If she forgets where home is, I will let her sit for a while and let her know that I have not forgotten. 

I will let her know that I will always help her get home.

Connie Hartke April 26, 2011 at 01:17 AM
Phoebe is lucky to have you!
Carolyn Lawson Low April 26, 2011 at 03:59 AM
sniff.... please rub her soft ears for me
Tammy Klinefelter Bane April 26, 2011 at 05:46 PM
Such a great article Justine, and I can relate having had a kitty who is now almost 15 years old and has always acted more dog than cat. He has slept with the kids at night, and when anyone was upset, was there to give comfort and more importantly love. I too tend to think that we won't have him must longer, but enjoy each day that he is here!
mTa April 28, 2011 at 12:37 PM
Just said goodbye to my 10 year old lab a few weeks ago. She was with me 25% of my life but offered 100% of hers. Enjoy these days.


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