I was sure the next story I wrote about my dog, Charlie, would be the last: his obituary.
After all, how much more could there be to say? Charlie is nearly 15 years old, ancient in dog terms. He is now the oldest Labrador retriever in our vet’s practice. Last January, I wrote that we’d put rugs down all over the hardwood floors in our house so his weakened hips and back legs could get traction.
Surely this old dog was not capable of new tricks.
But just as a new parent notices every infinitesimal change in a growing infant — Has she rolled over on that side before? Is that a tooth? Did she just say “ah goo”? — so too does the owner of an old dog notice each change on the downward slope of the inverted parabola that is life.
For the most part, they are sad changes. The rugs are still there — more, in fact — and now we’ve added two baby gates. My Lovely Wife snagged them off the neighborhood message group. It’s possible the family giving them away thought they would go to someone who needed to keep a rambunctious toddler away from the basement stairs. No. They went to us, the empty-nesters with a geriatric dog.
Why baby gates? Well, if I may be frank, Charlie can’t quite hold it the way he once did. Once as regular as clockwork, he now is prone to accidents. The gates confine him to the kitchen and dining room when we’ve gone to bed, reducing the area we have to search in the morning for errant droppings.
We didn’t make it easy on ourselves: We bought brown rugs for the dining room. Brown was probably the wrong color.
Charlie’s muscles and joints have weakened to the point where the rugs aren’t much help, anyway. He was having so much trouble rising from the floor that we bought a harness contraption called a Help ’Em Up. It loops cleverly around his shoulders and hips, and has handles to lift up on. It even comes with a shoulder strap in case we decide to carry him around like a purse.
Charlie wants to eat earlier these days. We used to feed him dinner between 5 and 6 p.m., 12 hours after his breakfast. Now he starts to whine around 3:30. I get up to let him out into the back yard — thinking he needs to relieve himself — but he stops at his food dish.
Charlie is like the old man standing in line for the early-bird special even before the restaurant has opened.
Just as with any human, the accouterments of aging are piling up, but it’s a Help ’Em Up harness rather than a walker, rugs rather than oxygen tanks, baby gates rather than the locked doors of a dementia ward.
It embarrasses me to say it, but also piling up is my irritation. Sometimes it’s easy to tell what Charlie wants or needs. When his back legs have gone out and are twisted awkwardly underneath him, he needs me to pull him upright then help him settle in a more comfortable position.
But when he is sitting fine, has been fed and walked, and still starts to whine at me, what is going on in his head? He whines more now, plaintive, inscrutable mewls. He’s on pain relievers. Is it less physical pain than existential fear that causes this whimpering?
Some dogs do suffer from cognitive dysfunction the older they get. Is that what’s going on with Charlie?
I get impatient. I think of the carpets I have to clean, the medicines I have to buy, the special needs I have to satisfy, the whining I can’t decipher.
And then I feel bad. I can’t help but see in my reaction to Charlie’s senescence a preview of how I may act with my parents, or how my children will act with me. I’m not really angry with him. I’m angry with his mortality. I’m angry with mortality.
Charlie is in the twilight of his life now, his days reduced to mostly dozing, his walks cut short to spare his bones, his body getting away from him. But he still exhibits his most Charlie-like quality: He wants to be where the people are. He follows me from room to room, and when I sit down, that’s where he wants to be.
More than ever, he craves contact. He scootches himself close, his body touching my chair. He falls asleep. His legs twitch. He chases the squirrels of his youth.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.