Novelist | Singer
Her eyes are the first thing I see as I pad out from the bedroom in the morning. The frosted lenses follo
w me, so I know she sees something, but I’m never sure how much. Cataracts have overtaken the brown of her retinas – leaving shadowy gray discs. Sometimes I can even get all the way into the kitchen before my movement wakens her. She sleeps much more deeply than before, which was not deep at all. In those days, she could go from snoring to running and barking in a split second. She is my good girl.
Her ears perk as I make the coffee and tuck the cups from last night into the dishwasher. As usual, she has placed herself right in the middle of my path, so I have to coax her to move out of the way before dad wakes up and roars at her. It’s funny – she doesn’t mind it a bit, just drops those ears a hair, does what he says, and then it’s over. I move her mostly so I don’t have to hear it. But I caught him talking gently to her on regular occasions. We both know that she is getting old.
Now her timer is running. If I don’t feed her within a couple of minutes, I’ll hear it. She is accustomed to being a priority and will remind me if I forget or neglect any step of our morning routine. Sometimes she starts soft, yet urgently – a bark that can be heard from the living room into the kitchen. If she is in a feisty mood, however, she’ll skip the intro and commence with a full-on bark – that sharp penetrating Aussie yap that makes sheep sit up and notice. That bark can be heard from the other side of town. It will wake Al up, and I don’t want the morning to go that way, so I give into the demands of the oldest member of our family, my 14-year-old Aussie shepherd Lila.
I grab a fistful of kibble from the canister with the leopard spots and drop it into her bowl. She loves that sound. Now she is up and standing at the entrance to the galley kitchen, the stub of her tail sending vibrations throughout her entire body. Her nose angles higher and just the black rubberish end twitches. How is it possible that she can actually smell the brown, non-descript tablets of chow? They don’t smell much like anything even if I put my nose right above the bowl. Nothing I’d like to eat anyway. She does her 30 second slurp of breakfast and lies down to lick her chops. Now she’ll be fine for the next twenty minutes or so until she decides it’s time for her pills. Two glucosamine chondroitin for her arthritic joints, one Rimydyl for the pain, and one fish oil for general health and a shiny coat. She eats them all with zeal. She started eating the glucosamine when I was gone last winter and she was staying with a friend. Jennifer thought maybe it was her way of protecting HER pills from the other dog in the house. It’s so much easier than the messy peanut butter routine.
After her pills, she’ll hobble to the slider where she awaits release for her morning stroll. For twelve years, she has made the trip down those twenty seven stairs, taken her solo neighborhood expedition, then back up the twenty seven to bark at the screen door for admittance. I’ve always been a bit nervous about her daily neighborhood route, but unable to put a stop to it.
What if she gets hits by a car? What if she runs into some wild animal? What if she gets hold of something nasty, or something poisonous? Over 4,000 times she has made the trip without incident, so odds are in her favor.
Those excursions occupied a wider circle when she was young. Twice she cost me beers at Pratty’s when she found her way down there looking for the hotdogs Cousin Tony used to give her late at night when we stopped in after gigs. “Do you have a dog named Lila?” is a heart-stopping opening from an unknown caller. Perhaps I was negligent. But she has enjoyed a freedom most pets do not, and she deserves freedom, after her punishing first two years inside a crate. That was before she came to us.
I know it’s not over yet, but Lila is nearing the end of her life. Every day becomes a reminder that she is indeed still vital; barking, pooping, sniffing—everything a dog does when she is still full of life. But before she goes outside I find myself helping her more every day as I dress her in her new vest with a handle for boosting, and I can feel that the grieving process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) has already begun. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be caught in the depression stage. There are many days when one look at her will bring tears to my eyes.
What is she thinking? Does she know she is getting old? Does she wonder? Can she feel herself failing? Does she question her fate—why was I able to run before and now I can barely walk?
Dread fills at least a spot of every day as I witness yet another symptom of her advanced years, the hitch in the step, the labored attempts to stand, the increase in water intake. I am not ready to lose her, and wonder if I will be when that time comes. Possibly, I am anticipating the weight of responsibility for being the one responsible for ending her life. How many times have you heard, “Why can’t we do that for people?”
What??? How could we ever bear that responsibility, although with our advanced language skills don’t we make detailed wishes heard? We can ask for the end as a dog cannot. What will I base it on? Certainly pain will drive my actions. I won’t be able to bear seeing her in pain. She is my good girl.
There are things a dog fulfills that I have never experienced from another human being. There is a look unique to a dog, and one that wrenches my heart from my chest. Oh, yes, we look into the eyes of our lovers, spouses, children and even best friends, but the look that a dog delivers is somehow deeper, more meaningful and more trusting. That one look says,
“Do you know my life is dedicated to your safety, that I would gladly give mine for yours?”
“Do you know that I put myself in the way to ensure I will wake and be vigilant whenever you make a move?”
“Do you know that life has no meaning for me without you in it?”
“Do you know I love you more than anything in the world?”
The look is profound and endless. She stares right into my eyes with an all-knowing power of connectivity. There is no embarrassment, no hesitation. It is complete, unfathomable and soul-filling. It is the sweet meat next to the bone. It is the meaning of life itself.
In the past, I think maybe she was not aware of the impact of her gaze. At those times, she smiled and did her frenzied tail dance, butt tucked in, bumping into my leg intentionally. Maybe she is just joking about the gaze. “That’s OK Mom, just blanked out for a second – sorry I was staring at you.”
But now that she is old, the gaze is prolonged and intent, and happens more often. It is clear that she is conveying thoughts; telling me her story. And we both know her story. Where she was born, what she endured in a crate for two years with a shock collar cinched around her neck.
I can hear her saying, “I am here, you are here. Everything is just fine.”
She is not worried. She is my good girl, and though her faculties are impaired, her spirit remains vigilant. And so must I.
In our time remaining, I will find a way to embrace her old age; to ignore the “old” in her and focus on wisdom, trust and steadfastness. I will talk to her and also listen; to her words and her glances until her cloudy eyes no longer see. The ego that often dictates human action cannot derail the remainder of our journey together. And however it goes, we have had a great run.