My little red Cavalier, Bisou, just turned seventy in dog years, which makes her almost my age. How did she get there so fast? Every day I scan her for signs of aging, as I do myself.
She sleeps more than she used to, and she only occasionally gets the zoomies, which in her youth were her default mode. Her hearing is failing. Unlike me, however, she doesn’t have recourse to hearing aids, nor to cataract surgery, although her eyes are growing cloudy, and if she were human she would be worried about driving at night.
We both languish in temperatures over 75F, so we take our walks early in the morning or after sundown. When I see her panting and looking haggard, I start to wane myself, and we head home, where, after extracting burrs and seed pods from her fabulous “feathers,” I give her an ice cube to chew while I rub one on my pulse points.
I worry about her teeth. Despite daily brushings, she’s had to have several pulled, and for her, dental implants are not an option. So far her muscles and joints are holding up, and she leaps on and off the furniture with relative abandon, but for how long? And when her hips start acting up, will I get her a hip replacement, to match my own? Although this surgery is available for dogs, I doubt that I’ll put her through it.
She was such a wild puppy! At nine weeks, no bigger than a cantaloupe, she would entice my two German Shepherds, Wolfie and Lexi,to chase her. She had a much tighter turning radius than they did, and she calculated her chances of escape to a nicety. If worst came to worst she would dash under a broccoli plant—the super-obedient Shepherds, who had been taught never to set foot in the garden, could be counted on to come to a screeching halt at the edge.
But if they did catch her, she had perfected what I called the “omelette flip,” turning on her back and exposing her defenseless little belly, which would instantly disarm the big dogs.
Inside the house, she flew from sofa to windowsill to coffee table. One day, chasing one of the Shepherds, she tumbled down our steep staircase. I rushed to pick up what I expected to be her lifeless body, but she was already at the other end of the house, pursuing her prey.
One of her pastimes was to get the ever-patient Wolfie to open his mouth wide enough so she could stick her head inside.
I know that he looks ferocious, but it was all her idea. And this is how they looked after she’d finally gotten her wish:
For five years now, she and I have been doing weekly therapy visits at the nursing wing of the retirement community where we live. Bisou’s job is to stare soulfully into the residents’ eyes while they pet her and reminisce about their own long-gone dogs.
The people we visit are usually sitting in recliners or wheel chairs, and because Bisou worries about falling off their lap, I end up kneeling on the floor, holding her up so the resident can reach to pet her. Getting up off the floor has become more and more challenging, so last week, the staff member who accompanies us on our rounds showed up with a small stool for me to sit on. I felt like a medieval queen that day, walking the halls with a page following behind, carrying my seat.
Back home after each visit, Bisou and I fling ourselves down on the bed, physically and emotionally exhausted. We are not what we once were. In my files there is a detailed Advance Directive that I hope will avoid the prolongation of my final days. When Bisou’s time comes, however, she’ll have to rely on me to know when to end her suffering. I hope I’ll be able to serve her well.
Is Bisou my last dog? If she lives an exceptional five more years (Cavaliers, though small, are not a long-lived breed), I will be nearing my ninth decade when she dies. A puppy will be out of the question. Perhaps a tiny dog, one as ancient as I, might do. Or maybe I should content myself with the cat.
Do I want to even think about this stuff? Of course not. But it is the task of this life stage to learn to look unblinkingly at matters that, only a decade ago, seemed abstract and far away. To reflect about death, my own and the dog’s, and then take her with me into the shadowy woods, hoping for a glimpse of the fox–that is the work that occupies me these days.