Gratitude and My Geriatric Dog

Cosmo T. Dog, age 15

He’s getting old.

This is what I told myself when my dog, Cosmo, turned eight. I braced myself for the worst. I’m from the “Dead Poets Society” generation and so I carpe diemed the shit out of that dog. Never took a day or moment with him for granted. Lost myself on walks with him, noticing what he noticed, savoring the sweet stolen time we carved out in early mornings before work, in the park at the end of the road, where no one cared if he was off leash, meandering grandly. 

Poking his head in through the screen from our back deckThat was seven years ago. He was not getting old, back then, after all, any more than we are all, always, getting old. Do I regret seizing the day? Of course not. Nor do I regret any of our moments together, full and savored. I do not regret the gratitude. But I do regret the fear that drove it. 

Is all gratitude laced with fear of loss?

 He is an old dog now; it’s official. No longer a matter of opinion. And yet, I say, proudly, he is not one of “those” old dogs who minces his way down the street, stiffly, filling the sidewalk with the depressing fog of the geriatric death knell. In fact, he is positively jaunty. When I let him choose the route — and I almost always let him choose the route, even when I’m busy, because when he was a puppy, a trainer told me that sniffing around outside was his most important form of mental stimulation, and because I know one day I will miss these walks, and so I force myself to slow the fuck down, except when I really can’t — he is so goddamned happy, trotting, like, “Look at me and my mom, out for a walk.” Very proud, and with a little swagger, and a smile in his eyes. I kick the chicken bones away before he can eat them, and he doesn’t fight me for them the way he used to. Sometimes I let him eat a pizza crust.

His legs splay out from under him sometimes, now, on hard wood floors, or on tile, and as he scrambles he is neither falsely proud nor does he lose his dignity. There is a little fear in his eyes but never a contemplation of what this frailty may portend — at least, none that I can discern. He has accidents inside, sometimes, though less often since we started the bladder strengthening supplement, and when we let him out in front of our brownstone to go pee, instead of running down the steps to the tree, half the time he just lifts his leg right there on the stoop. Sometimes we wash it away with a cup of water. My father was visiting recently and filled the teakettle, took it down and rinsed away the urine. More often than not, I’m embarrassed to say, we just let it sit there, because we are the parents to a toddler, too, and we work full-time, and sometimes cutting corners is the key to staying sane.

Basking on the beach, the first time we took him, back in 2002

The biggest indicator of his physical decline is his GI issues. He’s gotten pickier and pickier about the food he’ll eat, to the point where we found ourselves doing elaborate choreography at every mealtime — a little bit of chicken, some torn pieces of bread, a sprinkling of cheese, anything to entice him to eat. Then, when he would eat, he’d get so excited that he’d scarf it down, and then half the time he’d throw it up. He lost a bunch of weight. After almost a year of this we finally found a brand of wet dog food that he not only likes, he freaking loves it, and we almost cried, watching him gobble it up like an eager puppy, running to his dish the way he used to. 

Cosmo as a puppy, back in 1999It does not surprise me that it is heartbreaking to watch someone you love die; what surprises me is that it is simultaneously such a profound honor. I have never been so close to someone as they began to age and decline, before. My parents are in their 60s and (knock on all of the wood) they are thriving; my in-laws are a touch older, but also doing well. My grandparents died before I was old enough to fully grasp that death was personal, that it wasn’t just an abstract, faraway thing that happened to old people. With Cosmo, death is as personal as the plum-colored blanket I spread over my bed each day, the one we got for our wedding, the one he’s napped on with me for fifteen years now, part of our marriage, part of us. It has holes, and needs a trip to the dry cleaner, but I pull it over me, every time it’s time to rest.

Watching Cosmo die feels nearly as profound to me as the experience of being pregnant, giving birth and becoming a mother. In both cases, it is like witnessing the source.

Once or twice in the last year, he’s begun pacing inexplicably in the middle of the night, and I’ve been sure he was looking for a place to die. Then, in the morning, there he was. There he is, now, as I write this, ears twitching as he naps on the carpet.

Maybe gratitude is based in fear, but if this is true, I’m grateful for the fear, too, because it lets me feel all of this.

Here’s Cozzie doing his signature howl:

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