Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mortal Dogs

If you want to learn about mortality, get a dog. In my life I have been intimately associated with five dogs and have outlived four of them. My current dog, Prince, is 13 years old now and is showing his age. Where he was once a bundle of explosive energy, curious and active, Prince sleeps a lot now. He has lost some body mass and is less than enthusiastic for the long walks that have been part of our daily ritual for years. Various formulas for estimating his age in human terms put him between 65 and 77. Barring an accident, I expect to outlive him as well.

My partner, Maggie, says that it’s unfair that we outlive our dogs, that their time with us is too short. It’s certainly sad that we must endure their passing, especially when their death is often a matter of choice. Only one of my dogs died “naturally” and that was after surgery that was a difficult alternative to euthanasia. Three times I have decided to “put down” my dogs rather than allow them to continue living in a diminished state, unable to function. The other alternative–my dog outliving me–is also a difficult concept to deal with. Either way, one of us will be the first to die.

So death is no stranger to me as a dog owner. And it’s an uncomfortable reminder of my own mortality. I am now approaching 60 years of age, equivalent to a 12 year old dog. My oldest dog was over 15 when he died, or about 72 in human years. That figure is drawing increasingly near and seems far more personal than it did even a just a few years ago.

Not that death is anything new to me. Both of my parents died young. I am now older than my father who died at 56 and am closing in on my mother who died at 64. Along the way I have seen death in combat, survived what should have been a fatal fall and have lost friends to untimely deaths. But these were chance events. My parents were longtime smokers who succumbed to lung disease. The other events were accidents or unusual. Now, however, the inevitable progression of time draws me ever closer to the end of the average human life span. Where in the past I felt that I had time, I am beginning to understand that I no longer have that luxury. If I am to do anything, I had best do it now.

But my dogs have always reminded me of that fact. Sometime in 1980, as I began my second decade as an adult, I realized that my seven year old dog, Toby, would probably not see the end of the decade with me. It was a shocking realization despite its obviousness. This healthy, happy creature who had been my companion for many years was mortal. As it was, he almost made it; Toby died in December 1988. But his longevity made for a difficult last year, plagued by numerous eye disorders that required frequent visits to the veterinary opthamologist. He grew increasingly weak, to the point that I hoped he would just not wake up one morning. When he could no longer stand, I made the decision to kill, or if you prefer a less shocking term, euthanize, him. Even then the decision was not easy. I miss him still.

Unlike humans, dogs do not know they will die. Their every moment is in the present until the present no longer exists. Anticipating and preparing for death is a human function and in my case, at least, my dogs have reminded me that life is in no way permanent. I guess one way to avoid the pain of their death is to never share life with a dog but that seems far too limiting a way to live. That’s like avoiding heartbreak by never taking the risk of loving another. Life is risk. Its course and events are uncertain. And as much as anything in this life, my dogs remind me of that risk and uncertainty, not to mention rewards that come from it.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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