<em>“What truly sets [my dog Pablo’s] nose aquiver in moist anticipation is a trip to the woods . . . Once or twice a week, we go running along the Mountains-to-Sea trail . . . Once he leaves the couch cushion and hits the trail, Pablo quickly shifts gears from flat boredom into flat-out joy: joy at running, joy at leaping, joy at just being outside. It’s almost impossible for me not to share in all that joy. Most often, Pablo runs in front, trotting along merrily, always eager for the next bend, and on good days, we’re just two happy boys rambling through the woods. On the harder days, when the zip has left the legs and the run seems more a chore than a treat, he is more valuable still: one glance at Pablo and my spirits are lifted and my legs recharged, as I absorb just a touch of that carefree canine enthusiasm."</em>
That’s the opening passage from my article “Dog Treats,” which appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors in November of 2002. I re-read the passage for the first time in years, and it came as a shock.
Boundless joy? Trots along merrily? Carefree canine enthusiasm?
Pablo is still with me, friends, but those days are long gone.
Pablo was five when I wrote that passage, at the height of his dogly powers, with spirit and stamina in spades. He is eleven now, and the vigor of his youth is but a fading memory. His muzzle is powdered white, his ribs a bit more thick, his joints ten times as creaky. He thinks twice before jumping up on our bed now; three times before jumping back down. Arthritis is settling into his legs and hips. He walks carefully now, gingerly, trying to take it easy on his old bones.
He used to beg for walks; now, he begs to stay home. It’s not unusual for him to stand stock still in our front yard at the beginning of an offered walk, pulling against the leash, backwards, back to the house, back to the couch, back to rest. We relent, and he goes back inside, with a sigh of what seems like resignation. He wants to go, but he can’t. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
On good days, he’s closer to his old carefree self. He can still chase a stick around the backyard, still set out for an hour-long walk, still (rarely) bound through the tall grass. He can still romp, but he pays for it, spending the next day limping around the living room before pulling up on the couch for a daylong nap.
It is hard to watch. It’s hard to watch my dog in pain; it’s hard, too, because I know what comes after. Ask my friends and family: for a couple of years now, ever since he started slowing down, I’ve been engaged in an extended stretch of anticipatory grief. I know my dog will die, and I know I cannot stop it. We have some years left, to be sure, filled though they might be with vet trips, dietary supplements, and the loss of bladder control. When he pulls his creaky body up next to mine and lays with his snout nestled on my thigh, I respond with three parts satisfaction, one part sadness. Take it easy, old-timer. I’m going to miss you.
He’s not the only one getting older. At 37, my heart is still young and my future bright, but the knees sure do hurt more than they used to. The truth is, I don’t get out on those mountain runs anymore either: it hurts too much. I play a little hoops, sure, but I won’t do it two days in a row. I’ve lost a step, an inch on my jump, and a bit of the ol’ piss-and-vinegar to boot. I’ve got braces on top of braces, and my ribs are getting thicker too. I’m not ready for the junkyard just yet: there’s quite a bit of road stretched out before me, and I look forward to the ride. But I can’t deny there’s quite a bit of road in that rearview mirror as well.
And so, in his mindless, selfless, loud-wheezy-snoring-on-the-couch sort of way, Pablo is preparing me for my own decline. He is reminding me of that stubborn fact of life: we get old, we hurt, we die. Call it Death 101. One day my dad will grow old and die; my mom too. One day my wife, one day me. One day my kids will too. No great revelation there, but one we ignore just the same. Ask not for whom the leash sags: it sags for thee.
Still, as I watch Pablo trot slowly through the grass, I know we are not done yet. His last mountain trail is not yet a memory, though surely it will be taken at a slower speed. There is something to be said for slower speeds. Pablo’s carefree canine enthusiasm may be fading, but I like to think it has been replaced by a greater gift. I like to think that his boundless joy has grown into an easy contentment, his wild curiosity into cool wisdom, his noisy exuberance into quiet peace. I like to think he has traded his insistence on discovering what lies beyond the next bend for an appreciation of the path before him. I like to think he has swapped complaints about creaky knees for the gratitude that we can still get out at all to enjoy another day in this glorious world, and another after that, and another after that, until there are no more to have, and then go gently.
I like to think I’ll do the same.