If this is our last summer…

Life with an older dog


My bulldog, Diamond, is 10 1/2 years old. This is well past the average life expectancy for the breed. While I wish I could say that what I feel is gratitude for the longevity of this most trusted companion-cum-soul-mate, that’s not a true statement.

No.

The true statement goes like this: I am paralyzed by the dread of losing her. I am sick at the thought that this is our last summer together.

I’m a glass-half-full kinda person. Always have been. And that is way more remarkable than you can imagine.

I come from a long of doomsday types who have predicted everything from financial ruin (“There will be another Depression. You wait and see!”) to genocide (“You think the world would hesitate for one minute to get rid of the Jews again if it has the chance? Guess again!”) and everything in between. (“We’ll never get a parking space.” “We’ll never get tickets.” “We’ll never get a table.”)

I’m the one in the family who has left a six-figure career, believing the universe would provide and, more to the point, feeling certain I’d find my way. I have been right thus far.

I say all of this because it’s important to set the stage. I am NOT a depressive type.

And. Yet.

I am consumed by fear — and panic — about Diamond’s death. I think about it way more often than I suspect is healthy, looking for signs of deterioration as fervently and as assiduously as I check her ears and folds for ticks.

I see how her eyes are now cloudy. The vet tells me she can see but only during the day. She is blind at night.

I count the few remaining teeth, the others pulled because of decay.

I observe how she limps.

I hear how she groans when she gets out of her bed in the morning.

I clock how many times a day she has accidents in the house if I’m not on hand to take her outside for a quick spin.

I notice how her hearing fails her. Sometimes she hears nothing and other times she hears phantoms and ghosts, barking to beat the band.

We know when we get them that if all works out it will be a limited gig. We will, if the odds are right, outlive our four-legged BFFs. And, at the time that we’re cheerfully making that bargain with the devil it seems sensible — and far enough off in some future tense — to make sense.

But seven or eight or ten or twelve years is nothing in the grand scheme of things. And before we know it our puppies are adult dogs and our adult dogs are outliving the actuarial charts. And the vet is saying something like, “We will have to talk about the quality of life.”

I travel every four to five weeks for work. Diamond stays at home with a babysitter, a wonderful woman who loves her and plays endless rounds of ball-y ball ‘neath the dining room table. Every time I go away, I pray — I pray — that nothing will happen to Diamond. That she will be okay until I get back.

I’m writing this as much to understand what it is and why I am feeling it so profoundly as to stake out a little bit of ground for the childless, like me, who love our pets so much that others find it anything from indulgent to unhealthy.

Diamond represents everything I know through experience rather than through theory about parenting. She is my maternal experience.

I’m not saying I am my dog’s actual parent. Take heart. I do understand that I am not☺ I understand it is unlikely (read: impossible) that she suffers from a weakness in the kidneys just because I do, as did my parents before me.

I have buried dogs before. I had to put down my little Chuck when he was only two years old. Wait for it. He had incurable kidney disease.

I thought I would die from the pain of putting Chuck down. The panic that rose, like bile, in my throat, was terrifying. And lasted for weeks. I pulled through it because I had to. Because life goes on. And because Diamond, who was already eight years old at that time, needed me.

When Diamond goes, I will be alone in a way I haven’t been in a very long time. And this time there will be no other dog in the house when I come home from the vet’s, leash in hand and time stretching before me like a chasm. I will be in my mid- to late-fifties. Missing her. Mattering to and needed by no one. Well, that’s the fear, anyway. Free to work 22 hours of the 24-hour day. Jesus. I sincerely hope not.

I’ve made a promise to Diamond. A promise I will keep no matter what. I’ve held her chin, sometimes with a bit of pureed pumpkin still on it, and tilted her face and said:

“It will be about you. It will be completely about what you need. Okay? I will NOT be selfish. If you are in any pain, I will do what needs to be done.”

I mean it, too.

I try to push past the dread, but it’s always there. I’m aware that this may well be the last summer. She loves to sit on the porch with me, letting the breeze catch her little white hairs. She sleeps a lot. I work with one hand petting her head, scratching her back.

I fight the urge to cry.

It will hurt like hell when Diamond is gone.

When she’s a star in the night sky, like Chuck, and I intone that childhood prayer:

“Star light/star bright/first star I see tonight./I wish I may/I wish I might/Have the wish/I wish tonight.”

My wish will always be the same: May all dogs go to heaven. May they wait for us. And may they greet us with figure eights and doggies dances when we arrive.

In the meantime, summer is here. I am determined to make it a stupendous one. For Diamond. Days on the porch. Some extra pumpkin with the kibble.

And a cookie in my pocket at all times.

It’s not much. But it’s a plan.

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