Got glasses?

Today J and I went to the eye doctor for a routine checkup and new glasses. Although I’m able to read with my old glasses, the doctor decided it was time for me to get either reading glasses or progressive lenses: apparently I’ve been straining to read, and print did indeed look much crisper and clearer when he put an extra set of lenses in front of my eyes.

Umbrellas

Since I tend to multitask when I read, I opted for progressive lenses rather than reading glasses: I’d prefer to use one set of glasses rather than two, and progressives will allow me to read while watching TV or alternate between looking down at my laptop and up at students in the back row of my classes.

May flowers

Moving from regular to progressive lenses is yet another reminder that my body is doing what comes naturally, which is grow older. When J, who is two years older than me, got progressive lenses a few years ago, he predicted I’d follow suit. I remember the acclimation period he’d gone through when his new glasses arrived and he walked around for a week or two tilting his head up and down, trying to find the exact angle where close, medium-range, and distant objects were clear. I know, in other words, what I’m getting into.

Psychedelic dinnerware

I’ve worn glasses since I was a child, so I have little vanity when it comes to eyewear: I grew up, after all, hearing the saying “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Now that I’m firmly entrenched in middle age, I’ve grown accustomed to being invisible: I can’t remember the last time a man of any age made anything remotely resembling a pass, and I can’t say I miss it. Reading is one of my favorite pastimes, so I don’t mind wearing whatever kind of glasses it takes to make it easier.

The photos illustrating today’s post are at least ten years old. I took the top photo in June, 2008, and I shot the other images through a kaleidoscopic lens in the ICA giftshop in May, 2007.

Reggie closeup

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.

Let sleeping dogs lie

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.

Sleepy dog

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.

Reggie enjoys a car ride!

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.

Ashuelot River from footbridge

The Ashuelot, like any river, has two sides, and last Wednesday, Reggie and I took a quiet walk on the wild side.

Tattered and turning

I typed that opening line because I liked the music of it in my head, then I did a quick blog-search to review the other times Reggie and I have walked along the Ashuelot River. Sure enough, I’ve used this opening line before, more than six years ago:

The Ashuelot River, like any river, has two sides. You can access the east side of the Ashuelot River by parking in the lot for Blockbuster Video on West Street, where you’ll find the river tumbling over a dam right behind the long-out-of-business Taco Bell. There is a landscaped park on this side of the river which culminates in a smooth gravelled fitness path. This path enters the woods and skirts the river all the way to Route 9 on the edge of town, where it crosses the river on a walkway and then snakes under the road toward Wheelock Park, where it ends.

Dried Queen Anne's lace

They say (and I’ve blogged) that you can’t step into the same river twice, and indeed the wild side of the Ashuelot Reggie and I revisited last Wednesday is not the same river we walked six years ago. Blockbuster Video has gone out of business (although locals still refer to its parking lot on West Street by that name), and the long-forgotten Taco Bell is now (and has been for years) a successful Starbucks. More importantly, both Reggie and I are six years older than we were the first time I blogged the Ashuelot River’s wild side, and although I don’t feel substantially worse for the wear of six years, Reggie’s changed. Last Wednesday Reggie and I walked on the wild side of the Ashuelot–the side that doesn’t have smooth, improved paths, where fewer dog-walkers, cyclists, and joggers go–because the paths there quickly peter out into underbrush, and as slowly as Reggie walks these days, I’ve learned to measure our walks by depth rather than length.

Buckthorn

When Reggie was younger and more energetic, we’d walk from the so-called Blockbuster parking lot on West Street to the underpass of Route 9 and back without a second thought: that was a moderate, easy stroll for us. These days, Reggie walks far more slowly, and he spends far more time stopping to rest and sniff: it’s impossible, I’m learning, to hurry an old dog. Reggie and still take our morning (and sometimes evening) walks around the neighborhood, but now that Reggie’s more than thirteen years old, we take those morning walks much more deliberately. We aren’t in a hurry to cover ground; instead, we’re intent on appreciating the ground we cover.

A few weeks ago, for example, Reggie and I went to Goose Pond, where the two of us have walked (and Reggie has waded) many times in the past. I knew it was unlikely we’d make it all the way around the pond, a walk that took us a few leisurely hours in the good old days when both of us were younger, but I figured we’d have a good time walking to the pond and back, if not further, and I was right. This time at Goose Pond, Reggie and I took our good, sweet time walking from the parking lot to Reggie’s favorite wading spot, where he muddied his paws and sniffed while I did a quick scribble-sketch in my journal: walking with a pencil and sketchbook, I’ve learned, is something that goes quite naturally with walking an old dog. When we both were done, Reggie quite naturally turned back the way we came, toward the car, as if to say “That’s enough for today, Mom,” and indeed it was. We squeezed an entire pond’s worth of looking, sniffing, and appreciating into a slow, half-hour walk there and back, and nothing more was necessary.

Sumac leaves

This summer, my upstairs neighbor in Keene had to put her thirteen-year-old German shepherd to sleep; this past week, one of my teaching colleagues said goodbye to her similarly aged Basenji. Each of these and other losses remind me that any time spent with an elderly dog is golden. For the time being, Reggie’s spirit is strong even if his energy is diminished; for the time being, we’re not yet ready for talk of the rainbow bridge. Still, I’m not naive enough to think that time won’t come, eventually; as J mentioned when the film version of the book Marley and Me came out, “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.” When you know where the winding path you trod leads, you can make a conscious choice to enjoy every step as a time to cherish and reflect.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Reflect. I’ve been remiss when it comes to posting recent pictures of Reggie, so let me make up for that by linking to a lovely set of photos J took with Reggie in our backyard this past spring: proof that the Old Dog is still pretty damn handsome, and very experienced when it comes to lounging.