It's 3:15 on a warm summer morning in 2006. Something awakens me. The sound of the breeze through the open windows? The faint bark of a small neighbor dog down the road? Maybe just the overall peacefulness in this room.
I'll get up for a drink of water. I listen before swinging my legs out of bed. He's down there on the floor in the blackness, next to me, and the last thing I want to do is bump him and disturb the peace he's finally demonstrating by his stillness.
It took him a long time to get settled tonight. Arthritis and the stress of aging are taking their toll. Lots of restlessness, heavy panting, turning in circles, groaning as he finally flops down, and then getting up and starting the whole process over again. It's the same procedure I go through when I'm trying to get my pillows adjusted "just right." Sometimes there simply is no "just right,” and attempts to improve a situation just lead to frustration and more restlessness.
But he's quiet now, finally. I can hear his deep, rhythmic breathing. I reach an arm down to gently locate his positioning and determine where his head is and where his legs are. My hands make contact with a body that feels almost foreign to me. So different from what I've felt for most of the past 11 years with him! I touch his hip...or is it his shoulder? The hair is shorter, sparser, courser these days. His body has lost so much of its muscle tone and definition that I can't even tell which quarter of him I'm feeling! I can identify nearly every bone directly under the skin. My hands slide up his body until I locate his neck, that one area still so soft and plush and full, and I gently massage the skin for a moment before finally getting the courage to lower my legs to the floor. I know where he is now, and can get up without disturbing him. As my feet land and I stand up, I realize, ironically, that he is so restful at this moment that hardly anything could disturb him. These days, when he's out, he's really out. I could have stepped on him and he'd scarcely stir. For that, I am grateful.
He's leaving me. He's fading away, ever so slowly. It's more than just muscle tone. It's his mind, too. While generally healthy, he's also very elderly. His cognitive abilities are decreasing. He hears selectively, if at all. His priorities have changed. Meals and naps are his main interests. He must get up now, almost every night, and be let outside to go to the bathroom. Negotiating the doggy door by himself is difficult, so we patiently get up to help him whenever he needs it. This is the least we can do, in exchange for 11 wonderful years of his service to us as a watchdog, award-winning athlete, and companion extraordinaire.
The aging process is so humbling, and yet so graceful and natural. Our dogs teach us what to expect for ourselves, and how to tolerate our own "winding down" experience. They say, "Accept yourself. Enjoy what you can. Wherever you are, be all there. Each day and each moment is a gift to be relished to the fullest extent. Become childlike again."
My old dog is still slumbering as I return to bed. Once again, I reach down to locate him. I stroke his front leg, down to a big paw which I cradle in my hand for a moment. I think about all the hundreds of miles of mountain trails and dog show parking lots those paws have negotiated with me. About all the motel rooms and travel adventures we've shared. About all the unusual and challenging things I've asked those paws to do for me over the years. And about how faithful and unwavering they have been in their devotion to me.
For most of his life, I was my dog's teacher. Now he teaches me. Age gracefully, and with gusto. Be proud of a life well lived. Look forward to an eternity of exploring the universe.
Rest well this night, my old friend. And thank you for showing me the way.