My English Springer Spaniel, Penny, is about to turn 14.
Penny has persistent arthritis, growing cataracts, frequent ear infections, and a skin allergy that requires us to make her food by hand every week. This month, in spite of the lengths we go to in order to prevent her from doing so, she had a fit of scratching and accidentally damaged the cornea of her left eye.
Now, as a result, she’s totally blind in that eye. Just add that to the poor dog's list of unfortunate ailments. If Candide had a dog... (little literary joke for my Lit Major friends out there!)
A Google search will reveal to those who are interested that the average lifespan of an English Springer Spaniel is also 14. It’s a good thing Penny doesn’t use Google (Poodle?).
Those among us who have presided over the aging process of a beloved animal know that the experience is not for the timid. Aside from the expense of veterinary bills (I recall Penny’s $3,000 knee replacement surgery when she was 10), the aging process is characterized by notable slowing in activity, increased grumpiness, an escalation in the number of naps, and a waning interest in recreation.
The older I get, the more I recognize these symptoms in myself.
However, in spite of the tangible evidence reminding me and Penny which side of the hill she is on, Penny behaves as though the end is far from sight. Then again, this could simply be because she’s half-blind and everything is far from sight. Still, I can’t help but cringe, seeing her limp at times her arthritis is bad or feel troubled at the increasing frequency with which I have to wake her up to remind her it’s dinner time. Once upon a time, it was her job to remind me.
I'm keenly aware of her suffering each time I’m baking her cauliflower or chopping potatoes or cutting up salmon for the weekly slop we prepare for her. In spite of how much I hate to spend my time that way, I wouldn’t trade places with her for anything.
Yesterday, while home alone, I watched Penny sitting by the back sliding glass door, looking through the screen window, presumably working to focus her one working eye on something out there in our yard. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was she was looking at or, perhaps, looking for. Maybe she wasn’t looking at, or for, anything. Maybe she was just thinking, pondering her dog thoughts or canine philosophies or just trying to weigh the benefits or drawbacks of rising on her tentative legs to investigate the uncertain drama caused by lizards or birds or rabbits by the bushes along the fence.
Since her cornea incident, and in the recent months before it, Penny has fought to adjust to the body in which she is trapped. Her mind is still eager to make it all work, whatever “working” looks like to a feeble, but loyal, old dog.
As a man of a certain age, I can relate. Like Penny, I too see a little less well than I used to. I take more naps. I rally against the trappings of a body that doesn’t move like it used to. At some point, like an old pocket watch, we all start to miss a few moments, struggling against the cogs that fail to turn as they used to. And still, like her, I look to what lies ahead with enthusiasm. I think about what’s next and I work to be more defined by what I can do than by the things I can’t (or won’t) do. And, like her, I spend a little extra time contemplating whether an effort is worth it—certainly more than I used to.
But what I also notice is that, in spite of her discomfort, in spite of the protests of her uncooperative, factory-manufactured knees, she still harbors an irrational enthusiasm revealed between lengths of inactivity. She still manages to enjoy the promise of occasional treats, the smell of the summer through the screen window, the cool of the hardwood floor on a hot day, the presence of her family, the value of her life.
And it’s clear to me—clearer than the vision of her one working eye—you may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but old dogs can still teach us a thing or two.
© 2016 Herb Williams-Dalgart