It’s after dark and drizzly, and Reggie has come in from his final bathroom break of the night: a quick pee in the front yard a few hours after our last walk. This is how it is when you live with an old dog: you measure your days and nights by the size of his bladder. When Reggie was younger, he would pace and whine when he needed to go out; nowadays, the moment he totters to his feet, awkward on arthritic legs, I hustle him toward the door. Sometimes Reggie makes it all the way outside before relieving himself; sometimes not. This is how it is when you live with an old dog.
When you live with an old dog, you gradually accept things that would have troubled you before, your patience blossoming like an unfolding flower. Another accident? No problem: you keep paper towels and a mop handy. Another bathroom break mere hours after the last one? No problem: you tell yourself it’s healthy to take a break now, not later. Another stint of patiently coaxing a dog who has never liked stairs to make his tentative way downstairs, one shaky step at a time? No problem: you learn how to meditate on each step, lavishly praising each one as if it were your dog’s first. When you live with an old dog, you gradually become accustomed to living your life moment-by-moment, the limitations of your pet’s declining body revealing the breadth and depth of your patience and priorities.
When you live with an old dog, you learn how to loosen your grip on to-do lists and time lines. Do I care about the papers left unread and the emails still unanswered? Yes, I do…but I care more about taking Reggie out when he needs it, cleaning up his accidents, and making sure he’s watered, fed, and comfortable. Do I have time to coax a dog down stairs three to four times a day when I have papers to read, classes to prep, and other work to be done? Technically, no…but practically, yes. Practically, yes, because your priorities shift when you live with an old dog, and you learn how to make time you technically don’t have. Mindful of the length of even the healthiest dog’s life, you learn to take the long view in all you do. “After he’s gone,” you silently ask yourself, “will I care whether I finished those papers, answered those emails, or checked off those other to-dos?” When you live with an old dog, you remind yourself time and again that sentient beings are always more important than tasks. After Reggie’s gone, I won’t care whether I accomplished everything on my to-do list, but I will care that I was fully present for his final days, however many they might be.
When you live with an old dog, you sometimes find yourself getting teary-eyed on an otherwise serene dog-walk because you know these days are precious: one day, you know, you’ll miss the trouble of cleaning up accidents and the glacial pace of coaxing an elderly animal down stairs, one step at a time. “How old is your dog,” strangers will sometimes ask me on our puttering neighborhood dog-walks. “Fourteen,” I’ll answer, to varying responses. Some folks marvel at how good Reggie looks for his age: slow-moving and methodical, but without noticeable graying. Other folks–the ones who have lived with old dogs of their own, I suspect–nod with a resigned expression. Fourteen, both they and I know, is ancient: a handful of friends have lost their dogs this past year, and all of those dogs were thirteen. When you live with a fourteen-year-old dog, you have no delusions: you know nothing is guaranteed, just this walk, this step. It’s the most valuable lesson any old dog–any sentient being–can offer.