Sometime in the past couple weeks – I’ve never known a precise date – my dog Miles turned 10 years old.
This would be a milestone no matter what, but for me it’s especially poignant because of his many months of medical woes. I never thought he’d make it this far. Now he’s a part of my new life in New York. It’s a bigger hassle to get him in and out of the building than before, and there’s a never-ending supply of chicken bones on the street for me to worry about choking him, and I cannot believe how expensive veterinary care appears to be out here. But overall things really have never been so good for me, not ever, and he’s around to share it.
There’s been this amazing development, in the past few months. He’s started doing what I can only describe as this perfect, endearing old-man noise. It’s this kind of guttural, groaning sigh, a whistling, deep note of weariness. It’s not a sound of pain or of anxiety. He makes it when he settles down to curl up on the floor, which is something of a production for him these days, and he makes it when I have to move him around because he’s taking up too much room on the bed, and he makes it in the middle of the night when he gets up to toss and turn. If an old friend of yours ran into you right after you had made some terrible life choice, and they still loved you but found your bad judgment terribly wearying and had to express their exasperation in a sound a dog could make, it would sound just like that sound. I love it. My old dog’s old dog sound.
I don’t think it’s ever been any of my business, when other people choose to put their pets down. Everyone has their own reasons. For me though I’ve always thought it was best to hold on as long as possible before the animal was in truly deep pain, because most animals, like most humans, want to live. People, I’ve found, are very forthcoming about their opinion on whether or not you should put your dog down. Especially strangers. They stop me on the street and they ask me about him, about his weird gait, about his distended belly. And I tell them the story. Sometimes they just come out and say “I would have put him down.” Sometimes they ask if I think I made the right choice. Sometimes they just say, “do you think that he’s suffering?”, and I do my best not to take it as a loaded question.
Well, he has a hard time of it, some times. He struggles to get up onto the couch with me. Sometimes his medicine makes him nauseous. He creaks his way up the stairs, when circumstances force us to avoid the elevator. He is always hungry. I am afraid to cut his nails because of the fear of bleeding, which sometimes just won’t stop. He is afraid of the white tile in the atrium of our building for reasons I can’t divine. Occasionally his motor control betrays him, in his post-stroke state, and he will suddenly fall flat on his face, legs splayed out in front of him, until I come and lift him up and hold him steady for awhile. Mostly he just can’t get around like he wants to anymore. He’s a hound; his nose wants to drag him for farther than he can possibly walk. We can make it out to Prospect Park and back OK, if I’m careful, but a couple times he’s laid down on the sidewalk on the way back and I’ve huffed and puffed the way home, carrying him in my arms like a baby. He’s also never been crazier, which for him is really saying something. Completely harmless, immensely sweet, and totally, totally crazy. It can be a lot to handle on my own.
So, no. He’s not suffering. Not in the way they mean. He labors. He labors with the work of staying alive.
I realized, at some point, that the way you know you’re getting older is when your jokes about your age stop being jokes and become real. You still tell them for awhile but they’re kind of strained, and the next thing you know you’re just talking about being older with your friends. The joke part comes off. Sometimes it’s easier; I found turning 30 felt like taking off a tight shoe. Sometimes it isn’t. Look, I’m still not old, of course. But I’m older than I was, and it isn’t a joke.
Sooner or later I will lose Miles. His medicine is immunosuppressive, and it keeps his condition from killing him, but it also leaves him vulnerable to every bug he might come across. Late this summer he got e. coli bad, and we gave him a series of more powerful antiobiotics, and he finally beat it. Less than a week later he was diagnosed with staph. And I thought, this is it. But he made it, again. Sooner or later, he won’t be so lucky, and one of these infections will finish him. And if and when he really is in real pain, I’ll know what to do.
Until then I have no intention of hurrying anything along. It’s one of the things animals teach us, their fierce dedication to staying alive. As long as I can, I’ll help him keep going. He has the time he has left, and so do I.