Novelist | Singer
It never occurred to me that caring for my mother in her last days’ journey with Alzheimer’s would be repeated only several years later. My dear dog and faithful companion Lila has turned the corner into her twilight days. Certainly there are physical similarities; loss of faculties (sight, hearing), loss of mobility and energy, but there are also surprising similarities in how I deal with them—increased patience, grieving episodes long before it is necessary, the ever-present worry about falling.
These are simply parallels, not comparisons. All animal lovers understand that impending loss of a much loved pet is not insignificant. It is not fair to compare the weight of loss. No matter who you are, that becomes an emotional tinder box.
In some ways, I find my relationship with my dog to be a stronger bond than I share with most people. Be honest—who do you have more issues with, your spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend or your close pet? I know the answer to mine without thinking, and it is not because she does everything I tell her to. She’s as stubborn as most people. She’s manipulative. She’s insistent and knows just how to get her own way.
But there is also a loyalty so intense, so consistent that few human relationships can equal. Her life is my life. If I am at home, she must keep her eyes on me, not for fawning, obsequious purposes, but with a devotion so complete that it makes me feel insufficient and guilty at times.
Al knows how I feel. When she was a bit younger, every day when I returned from work, Lila and I participated in a daily greeting ritual of joyous reunion. She was, of course, always sleeping right inside the slider so I couldn’t help but move her or step over her. She wakes instantly and I drop to my knees even before removing my coat. Then the cacophony begins. If you are familiar with Australian shepherds, you know about the volume of their voice. I can bark pretty loudly, but she outdoes me every time, and outlasts me as well. “Mom’s home! Mom’s home! Mom’s home! Mom’s home! Mom’s home!” Short stumpy tail wagging her whole behind, feet dancing wildly. My ears ring with each Aussie yap, but we persist until I stop her with a “Good Girl! Good girl!”
Al tolerates the outburst. Then he removes his fingers from his ears and says, “Why don’t you greet me like that?”
I laugh and retort with the same question. She outdoes both of us.
A dog loves with no memory. Whether you just clipped her nails or pulled her hair accidentally during a brushing, or yelled at her because she shadows you with such vigilance that you turned too suddenly and bumped into her, she is never mad at you. Imagine. To able to sustain a relationship and never be angry at the other individual.
These days, my sweet girl is too old for the boisterous home coming. Now she lifts her head when she finally awakens and perks her ears. She can’t see me, but she knows I am home.
She struggles to a standing position with difficulty, all four feet slipping repeatedly on the floor tiles. She hobbles to me in the kitchen, first lifting her ears, then dropping them when I stoop to pet her. She lifts her nose to touch the inside of my forearm. This is new. She is sensing me in whatever way she still can.
She faltered a couple of days ago and my heart clenched. I remember that clench when Mom would repeat her question yet again.
As I watch my dog thump stair by stair down the back steps to the driveway, I trap my breath within my throat and hold it in until she reaches the bottom. It is reminiscent of when Mom got away during her wandering state and navigated the stairs down to the driveway. Then I would chase her out the door and up the driveway to turn her around. Fear of falling, fear of injury, fear of taking my eyes off her, fear that she might at some point actually make it out of the driveway and wander into the streets with no idea where she was.
Funny, she never worried. Neither does Lila. Neither does my husband. I am left alone in disquiet I can’t seem to shake, knowing in my logical mind that I have no control over the future anyway.
Nothing bad ever happened to Mom in our care. We finally conceded that we weren’t capable of caring for her the way she deserved. So many times since her passing, I have chided myself for my worry, wishing I could have just relaxed and enjoyed my mother’s stay with us. Those months were the most valuable I ever spent with her.
Maybe worry is simply part of a caretaker’s identity. Safety is the caretaker’s responsibility. Maybe there is no need for guilt about bearing the worry. Time is all we have and ultimately, we can choose how to spend it. I still have time with my old Aussie girl.