My little red dog Bisou isn’t who she used to be. At thirteen, there is a noticeable dulling of her spirits, a fading of her joie de vivre. There is nothing terribly wrong with her, only a general slow decline to be expected in a Cavalier her age. Her heart murmur has progressed to a level 2, which is not bad considering her breed, but more tests will be performed, and heart medications may be prescribed.
Meanwhile the vet has put her on ginseng, to liven her up a bit. She, who in the past never met a human or a dog she didn’t want to chat with, is now reserved towards both species. Her passion for retrieving balls, while it hasn’t completely left her, is on the wane. Sometimes she looks at the ball, then looks at me as if to say, what do you expect me to do with this round object?
She used to be a little flame of a dog, burning with desire for breakfast, for a game of chase with our German Shepherds, for fun and stimulation and adventure. I can still see her, barely half-grown, practicing distance recalls in the woods behind our old house. She was so intent on racing back to me (and getting her treat), that she would give little yelps of pain as she jumped over but failed to clear the underbrush. Now the only flame-like thing about her is her deep red coat, a reminder of her once ardent self.
If this sounds dirge-like, I don’t mean it to. She is not in imminent danger, and both her parents lived to the ripe old age (for Cavaliers) of fifteen. And lots of dogs with worse murmurs do fine with the proper meds, at least for a while. But the ultimate scenario is constantly before me: in a couple of years I will surely be, for the first time in my adult life, without a dog.
I have had old dogs before, and as I watched their decline I would begin to fantasize about the next dog, the replacement puppy, the longed-for perfect dog. I continued to give the old dog the best possible care and affection, but I couldn’t help scanning the advertisements in the pet section of the paper, which once caused my spouse to wonder if I would be checking out the Personal ads as I sat by his deathbed.
This time, however, it’s different. If I’m lucky, Bisou will be with me until I turn eighty. Of course I will want another dog, but the responsible thing will be not to get one. So in the meantime, I try to manage the remaining months or years with Bisou. And just as I feel her withdrawing—sleeping more, demanding less, foregoing initiative—I can also feel myself withdrawing from her. This may be self-protection on my part, since in Buddhist terms non-attachment is the way to avoid suffering and the key to serenity and contentment.
It is not supposed to eliminate love, however. But how exactly are we to do this? How are we supposed to simultaneously love and not attach to the object of our love? “He that hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune,” Francis Bacon said. My little hostage to fortune will cause me a lot of pain when she goes, unless I can manage the emotional acrobatics of loving and detaching from her at the same time. I’m afraid I’m way too westernized for this balancing act. What is love if not deep attachment, glomming on to, holding fast?
I try and fail to imagine the ideal me somehow treasuring every minute of the countdown with Bisou—her vocal tremolos while I prepare her meal, the bedtime trek out in the snow for a last pee, afternoons reading Trollope with her stretched against my thigh—yet without wanting it to last forever.
For the moment, the herbs are doing their work and she is slightly brighter, more present. We are both enjoying this, she more than I because, being a dog and thus a better Buddhist, she is blessed with the ability to ignore the future—except perhaps for the anticipation of her next meal—and stay with what is right in front of her still highly functional nose.