Lilly has been 13 years old for some time now. As with many ladies of a certain age, it seems indelicate, not to say unkind, to keep a strict accounting of her years. The small dog is clearly an elder: her little face is white and she moves stiffly most mornings (and afternoons). The exact number of her winters is not important.
It's not infinite, that number. Of course it's not. I imagine it's part of why dogs crack our hearts wide open: a lucky caretaker will know her dog from goofy puppyhood until it grows old and dies. Luckier yet knows more than one dog... because all that slobber and wagging and joyful frolicking does end. A reminder of how it goes for every one of us...if only we could forget about the mortgages and religious differences and dignity and what-not for a little while.
I've been anticipating the demise of my inherited small dog Lilly nearly since she first came to stay. In my defense, she was old when my mother rescued her and the vet -- who, ironically, has since retired -- did pronounce her to be "on borrowed time" because of her various ailments. Not just the ruptured disks in her back, but a pronounced heart murmur from a leaky heart valve.
So when, after ratcheting her way up the stairs like a slightly under-wound mechanical toy, she stopped in the hallway outside our bedroom, coughed twice and then fell limply to her side, I was pretty sure her timecard had been punched.
"At least it was quick," I thought. "Poor little thing. No emergency room, and she wasn't scared, and that's something."
But her little sides were still moving. I sat and listened to her heart flitter-thumping along. She didn't wiggle under my hand. Her eyes were closed. She didn't seem to be in pain. I sat with her and stroked her bony head and told her that she had been a good dog. As one does.
Over the course of the night, she didn't move, but she kept breathing. I think my responsibility to this old is to make sure she doesn't suffer. She seemed -- to be fair -- as if she was just sound flat asleep.
When I got up in the morning and peeped around the corner, she was giving me the especially impatient look she reserves for mealtimes. Her ears pricked and her feet beating a little skittering tattoo. Then she was trotting ahead of me, trying to lure me toward her bowl, as if I might have something better to do than prepare her delicious breakfast. Right this minute!
"Looks like she cheated Death last night," Jeff said, behind me. "Maybe she zigged when the Angel of Death swooped."
So whether the small dog was sleeping or dodging the inevitable, who can say? All I know is that she stands by my feet just now, grunting vaguely about a snack or about going outside. It's obvious that life is fleeting and astonishing, and that the end comes before we are ready -- but not this day.
*That reference not from the Gospel of John, but T.S. Eliot's The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.
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