old dog. no tricks.

Coming in from walking Ruby, she hesitates when we get to the house as she contemplates the steps that await her. She occasionally stumbles or loses her balance lately and needs a gentle nudge to make it back inside. She’s slowed down so much that a walk around the block can take a half hour and tire her out. “Slow down and smell the roses… and everything else” is kind of the unspoken motto of hound dogs, with their heightened sense of smell, but I wonder if she’s compensating as the rest of her declines, from cataracts in her eyes to arthritis in her hips and hind legs. Each new scent gets a long consideration as she breathes in the lingering odors of other creatures.

These languid strolls remind me of outings with B as a toddler, when it could take an hour to walk up the street to our Brooklyn apartment. He’d examine every gate, climb up each stoop, counting steps until he reached the brownstones that lined our block. I admit I spent many of those walks in silent impatience more than appreciation of his fleeting youth, the exploratory phase he’d soon outgrow as he transformed into a little boy with places to go – racing up or down the street eager to get to the playground or park, or a friend’s house. How quickly he went from a baby with all the time in the world to a person with somewhere to be.

With Ruby it’s all the same few familiar streets and the destination back home for longer and longer naps; more following us around for reassuring pats on the head; less space to occupy as she no longer goes upstairs, the 12 steps to the second floor more than she can manage anymore. Soon we’ll need a ramp to get in and outside. It’s not surprising given her age – it’s hard to say exactly (her rescue people estimated her age at 2-3 when we chose each other) but translated into people years, she’s in her early 90’s, but alas, not aging nearly as well as her Zeyde, who is in fine form at 93.

Watching Ruby in decline is difficult and a new experience. Both of our cats deteriorated swiftly; by the time they were symptomatic it was too late: for Ginger, failing kidneys and Satchmo, tumors that metastasized throughout his body about a year after Ginger’s demise. Both found hiding spots in the basement, a cool dark space to be isolated with their suffering, which manifested as a cross between a cry and a moan that was devastating to listen to. We’d go down and talk to them in soothing tones, telling them again and again how loved they were, how much we cherished them and all they had brought to our family, trying to ease the suffering as best we could with words and water and gentle petting of their wasting bodies. Fortunately that time of great pain was brief. There was no kitty morphine or heroic measures to extend their lives. Both cats died in my arms, humanely put to sleep while I cried with sorrow and gratitude.

Ruby is another matter. She’s had several vet visits the past year to deal with worsening arthritis and a canine version of Meniere’s disease, a disorder that causes episodes of vertigo when she couldn’t stand up without getting dizzy and couldn’t hold down food. We treated it with medication, but the balance issues have remained, with something as simple as getting in and out of bed an ordeal that reminds me of a newborn calf grappling with the physics of standing on four legs. I know from experience how hard it is to witness regression.

And there’s nothing to be done for doggy dementia, which I didn’t even know was a thing. (It is, officially called canine cognitive dysfunction, or CCD) We try to get her to stop when she barks inappropriately – not that barking is ever desirable, but we’ve always tolerated the species-specific howling at mail and UPS trucks and the seasonal landscapers that fill the streets every spring. But now she occasionally barks at B when he comes home, or growls at other familiar people. We explain that she is a cranky older dog and try to get her to stop. (“BE QUIET Ruby,” V has learned to say when she gets going, although she rarely heeds his request.)

I pray for her health for selfless as well as selfish reasons.I want her free from suffering, but I also feel too burnt out to take care of someone besides V, to be part of the growing “sandwich generation” of middle aged people caring for both children and parents (or siblings, aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews). I feel so grateful for my dad’s sharp mind and good health and also that he lives in a terrific CCRC (continuing care retirement community). We’re also lucky that my brother lives nearby. And I’m only two hours away by train.

For now, this is my sandwich: Ruby, the elder in my life with worsening health and V, the young adult child with extensive ongoing needs, one slowing down and the other speeding up, which makes our long-time long walks together hard to sustain. Will she someday be like the dog that my neighbor wheeled down the street when her back legs gave out, or my other neighbors who would wrap their aging rescue greyhound in a blanket and take her outside and then back in? While she was adopted with the boys in mind, she has been more of a therapy dog for the grown ups in the house. (All dogs are emotional support animals but that doesn’t mean they need to go everywhere with us.)

Animals don’t have the same fear or judgement about their demise as we do. Ruby may suffer but there’s no dread about the future: it’s all downhill from here, I’ll never learn new tricks, I am going to die…They may sense impending death when the time comes but there’s no existential dilemma about what will happen. It’s nice to think there is a dog heaven like my great aunt liked to imagine, with all her past pets awaiting her. For now we let sleeping dogs lie in a bed and a home that’s blessed with her presence.

3 thoughts on “old dog. no tricks.

  1. Hi Joan. Eric and I read your post, so beautifully capturing this stage with Ruby and so much more. May your prayers for her sustaining the role in the family while not suffering be granted.

    Talk soon, Abby


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