Shadow on age, patience, and death.

Shadow on age, patience, and death.

my dog Shadow on age, patience and death
Shadow patiently waiting for us to lift him from car to beach-photo Elizabeth Burkhead

Shadow on age, patience and death.

“The old boy’s not what he used to be.”

Looking at the tall, thin, older, stranger watching our sidewalk trio: Seymour in front, pulling as hard as possible, me, and Shadow plodding at the end of his leash, I replied, “Neither am I.”

Each day, the three of us walk through our closely packed community, and down to the sidewalk along route 1 in our still new residence of Oceano, California. At least twice each week, someone comments about Shadow’s age. Like the neighbor who has finally stopped asking, “How old is that dog again?” when I replied, “You have asked me that I’ll bet twenty times-no exaggeration.”

It’s a “senior park” so we’re all in that demographic. For many folks, I think that watching a very old dog like Shadow functions as a mirror. We see ourselves in his white face, his sometimes lurching movements and stiff-legged walk. We would prefer to see something else. Maybe we are even somewhat repulsed. Like my neighbor who watched Shadow’s lengthy, awkward, and painful attempts to persuade his tightened tendons and arthritic joints to let him comfortably lie down. An expression of distaste on her face, she said, “You are going to have to do something fairly soon, aren’t you?”

I understand her feelings.

She never knew our amazing dog, Shadow. And hospice care for dogs is sometimes supremely difficult and frustrating, it’s not for the faint of heart. But I have learned so many lessons from my dog Shadow on age, patience, and death. Our Nevada vet said of Shadow, “When I look into his eyes, it feels as if he sees straight through to my soul.”

Shadow doesn’t know that he is “too old.” If he mourns the loss of the years of leaping higher than the jack rabbits he chased and frequently caught, I see no evidence of it. He remains the impossibly patient being he has always been. The transformation from the half-wild, fiercely independent dog who first adopted us to this radically dependent canine is sad, yet instructive. Despite his increasing limitations, he silently lets me know what he needs with patience, grace and dignity.

Writing this piece evokes wonderfully vivid memories of my Dad who, like Shadow knew the wisdom of keeping his age to himself. And a dreaded conversation about his death:

Honey, I know how you want me to die….on the tennis court, playing the game I love.

And he did just that- at the age of eighty- four.

Is there a culture more phobic about age and death than ours?

We don’t know how old Shadow is. But estimate him to be somewhere between eighteen and twenty years old. Soon after we moved to northern Nevada, he adopted us. We learned, after he moved in, that many of our neighbors had been feeding him and trying to get him to come close enough so that they could bring him in their house. But he refused until the day he decided we were his pack. Maybe it was our Dobie Ally one who snagged his heart, but Shadow taught us quickly that his skinny frame, mellow, amiable personality cloaked a being with a heart bigger than Texas. And courage to match.

Several years ago, I wrote this :

Just before midnight, I went to bed, certain I would never see either dog again. One or both had been attacked or injured or…

About a half-hour later, John called out, “Come see who’s standing on the porch.”

Shadow and Ally. I knew what had happened. Ally got lost. Instead of sticking with Shadow, he went off on his own up there following something irresistible- Dobies are sight hounds- and could not find his way home.

But Shadow? He stayed up there in those mountains all that night, among the mountain lions, bears and coyotes, until he found that silly puppy. And he led him home.

More Lessons from Shadow
About three months ago, I thought he was telling me

it was time. Shadow wasn’t eating, spit out the pain pills over and over. And seemed to be asking me to help him. I told John that I thought I needed to take him to the new vet who had just seen him the month before. “You mean, kill him?” John asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I said. “He is miserable and won’t le me help him. He is starving, look at him.” I was whining, knew it, and didn’t care.

But the next day was a little different. And the next more so.

Therefore, when my friend Elizabeth suggested we bring Shadow along on our beach walks with Seymour, “Yes!”

Weekly, the four of us walk on the beautiful Oceano beach for a couple of hours. Shadow is eating. He has a “spring” to his step. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Here’s a fifteen-year-old picture of Shadow from a 2006 hike in the northern Nevada mountains behind the house we used to live in. One of my favorites.

Minolta DSC
How long does he have?

One would reasonably think that a dog with all the obstacles that Shadow faced during his first year of life would have a far shorter life span than dogs who were never in the wild. And yet Shadow watched both of our red male Dobermans drop dead. Each of them at less than half the age he is now.

Of course I know that there will come a time…that I will need to do something. Unless Shadow does it for me. Meanwhile, he smiles at all the people who comment on his age. And continues to teach me.

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