Last Lick: How I met my dog
It’s four in the morning and cold and dark and quiet. I am sprawled on the family room carpet in flannel pajamas stroking my dog, Buddy. He now sleeps on the first floor because he can no longer climb steps. Sometimes—more and more now— he may awaken in the early morning hours, and I will hear his whimper and the sound of his nails pacing on the hardwood floors in the hallway below. That’s when I slip out of bed and into my robe and pad downstairs. My reward is Buddy’s low groan of contentment, the soft warmth of his fur nuzzling against my heart, his paw curling under his neck as he falls back to sleep.
I do this because Buddy is very old. He was 19 on March 1, and my husband and I are pretty sure this will be his final year. I also do this because I love this little creature with an intensity that sometimes surprises me. Buddy is a rather odd-looking “mutt” with Golden Retriever coloring, a German Shepherd-like muzzle, and a bushy tail. He is about 17 inches tall and weighs 23 pounds, down from his earlier weight of 35. With his thick fur and lumbering walk, he resembles a caramel-coloured bear cub. Due to advanced age, Buddy’s hearing loss is almost complete, and his eyes are cloudy with cataracts. He is sometimes disoriented, staring for long periods at nothing in particular. His hind legs are weak, and he has difficulty navigating even the single step on our front porch. He startles easily.
We adopted Buddy from a local shelter almost 16 years ago when he was already three years old. He had a few behaviour issues; while Buddy was lovable and loyal with us, he was sometimes unpredictable with others. He had an aversion to squirrels, most other dogs, many children, and some men. I would walk him warily, alert for anything that could provoke incessant barking and pulling. But old age has mellowed Buddy. He is now too frail to cause a ruckus. His walks around the block are slow and tentative. Sometimes, he may allow a very brief nose rub from Molly, a frisky yellow Lab who treats Buddy with tenderness, perhaps sensing his age. He has become the grand old dog of the neighborhood: a little dotty, but regarded with affection and some curiousity.
Despite Buddy’s age and ailments, there is still life in the old guy. His appetite is healthy. Although almost deaf, Buddy somehow knows when the refrigerator door opens and he waits for a handout. And when we ask, in a loud and lilting pitch, “do you want to go for a walk?” his tail wags and there is a bounce to his gait.
Some time this year, we expect that Buddy will let us know that we need to let him go. He will let us know when he is in pain, and when he no longer wants to walk or munch on refrigerator treats. He will tell us when these small but significant joys pale in comparison to his infirmities. When that time comes, we will say goodbye to our dear and constant friend.
My husband and I will grieve and we will miss Buddy deeply. But we also know that when you love a dog, you must come to terms with loss. We accept this as a small price to pay for the years of devotion he has freely given us.
Much has been written about the human-animal bond, and the role that animals play in our lives, their loyalty, companionship, support, and, sometimes, heroism. Our pets also fill an important need for connection with something beyond the minutia of our daily lives. They lift our spirits. They fill us with grace.
I am moved by a comment made by Chief Seattle when faced with the loss of his tribe’s land more than 100 years ago. He said, “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.”
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