Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Face of Timeless Devotion

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

It’s an unmistakable face, the face of an old dog. The white muzzle, the white hairs in the eyebrows, perhaps a pair of rheumy eyes that may or may not be clear yet still sparkle, even tuffs of white inside the always-listening ears. 
It’s the face we love, only whiter. Sometimes it’s hard to remember when the muzzle was all black or all brown, or just not quite so...white. 
We look at a human being with grey hair and wrinkles and do not immediately think with some compassion that time is pawing closely at that person yet a dog whose face has whitened means only one thing: heartbreak and farewell are surely coming too soon. It is the face of “short-gevity”, a brutal reminder that what we love most deeply and what loves us back most unconditionally soon will greet us at the door no more. 
It’s not to be rude to point that out (not like saying, “Geez, your dog is old. Are you going to put him down?”). No, it’s pointing out the one thing that gives us our humanity, that keeps us humble about our role in a dog’s life and grateful for this strange mix of blessings on four legs. In our dogs, we see that ultimate responsibility for a good life and a good death, for everlasting love and enduring heartache. In our dogs, we see ourselves, our future, the inevitable. If we are lucky, we see this several times in our life.
Aye, there’s the rub. We do this over and over again. Hold an old dog in our arms, say good-bye while dripping tears into that beloved fur, vow to never go through that again, yet in time, the longing for the sound and feel and company of a dog starts tugging on us like a leashed dog wanting to run free. 
My old dog, Stella, turned 10 last Sunday. That advancement into double digits makes me aware that we are approaching the end of the road, miles away or just around the corner I cannot tell. Every dog involves a journey of hope. 
The road we have walked together has not been easy. She came into my life when I was going through a divorce and taking care of a father with dementia, sending her protective instincts and her dominant nature into overdrive. We’ve mellowed a bit over the years although we revisit old battles periodically, the not-coming-when-called-because-this-carcass-needs-rolling-in skirmish most often, but we also create new ones, more benign now that the chaos of youth has given way to the routine of middle age. Every morning I say to her as I prepare food for the younger dog, “Stella, get out of the kitchen. You are not getting a second breakfast.”
In a new collection of essays about dogs by author E. B. White, he writes about his old dachsund Fred, “Life without him would be heaven, but I am afraid this is not what I want.” 
When I look into Stella’s familiar, frustrating face, I am not sure how I will feel when I hold her in my arms and feel her life end. Stella is a larger-than-life kind of dog, in ways both memorable and challenging, and she will leave a gaping hole in our home. I will appreciate her more when she is gone, unfortunately. I am afraid this is not what I want.
My favourite moments these days are those when Stella runs through the field and grins that wonderful toothy dog grin. It gladdens the heart of the companion of an old dog when she wants to play, when she forgets whatever aches in order to indulge in the pleasure of exploring, of accompanying, of being the dog she once was. These moments are also bittersweet; the fact that they do not occur daily reminds me of her age and how it is affecting her body, and I am reminded of the dog who came before her and how we went through this back when. 
But always together, to the very last breath from that white muzzle, holding on to our dignity, and hers, as best we can, the dog more accepting and gracious about her death than we can ever be.

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