This Dog's Life (The Sheriff)

It was my birthday a few days ago. Another reminder that age manifests physically, psychologically with what feels like compound interest. This past year two surgeries left me with a Frankenstein face, now matching inch-long scars punctuate the sides of my nose. The skin under my eyes is red, flaky and wrinkled from constant dabbing with Kleenex: collapsed tear ducts, of course. I have a persistent shoulder injury that requires physical therapy. And like a tree adding rings, what I used to think of as winter weight settled in spring and sprawled in summer. Forget bikini body, I'll be lucky to consider a sleeveless sundress or revealing my dimpled knees as the weather warms. Another year and, under my belt,  another bad relationship, another painful breakup. My financial situation is perpetually tenuous. I'm still juggling three jobs which means I'm stressed and short-tempered most of the time.

We celebrate the milestones, the birthdays, the weddings, the babies but it is the little changes in ourselves, the broken hairs lining our brow, the click in our left knee, the four o'clock fatigue, that actually mark the time. We notice, and remark upon the firsts, the first step, first kiss, the first car or apartment, but find the lasts much more difficult to pinpoint or to conceive of their meaning. When did you last cartwheel? Eat pepperoni pizza and not get heartburn? What minute, what day did you feel the final tug of heartstring and let your ex go? Hard to say. Lasts are trickier to see, maybe because they come so slowly, so gradually, or maybe because we avoid looking for them. 

When I was 19 years old, like many, I was a full-time college student with a full-time job. That summer, at the suggestion of my dad, I bought a house. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage. I decided, as a newly-minted "adult" homeowner, all that was missing in my life was a dog. A dog named The Sheriff. Though I didn't have a specific dog in mind, I envisioned a small one with a big mustache and skinny legs. So when the Pet Haven called me a few weeks later to report the owner surrender of a young miniature schnauzer I jumped in my car and drove to the shelter. He recognized me immediately, and I, him. The adoption fee was $50 - a fair price for a runty used schnauzer.

If you had told me then that a little dog with a big mustache would represent the longest relationship in my life outside of family, I would have doubted you. I also, maybe, would not have adopted him. I was 19. I was not looking for commitments that would last into my late 30s.

Fast forward to 2016. At 21, The Sheriff is the oldest dog I've ever met. And, the oldest dog anybody I know has met. Though mostly blind and mostly deaf, he is still agile and energetic. He still asks to go outside when the occasion warrants a backyard trek, eats his mashed up food with vigor and demands a long walk just as soon as I get home from work.

The Sheriff used to be able to jump on the couch from a dead stop. Hell, he could jump on the bed, too, even though it was four times as high as he was. He could walk on his front paws, famous for his handstands while peeing. He got hit by a mini-van when he was 15 which left him slightly dented on one side but otherwise unimpaired. Was it five years ago he needed a lift onto the bed? Maybe two since he could get on the couch? It seems he suddenly favors his back right leg, or maybe he always has, and I've just started paying attention. When you love someone, or something, the little changes are even harder to see.

I don't need to tell you that his breath is horrendous. He's a dog and he's old. Being an old dog also means he's got little lumps and bumps in weird places, his big mustache collects gravy from his food which he then leaves in a trail through the kitchen, and because of his poor eyesight, the groomer trims his eyebrows close to his face which gives him a surprised and slightly daft look. Like in many long-term relationships his deficiencies, his weaknesses, his unsightly appearance in no way compromise my love for him. If anything they solidify my loyalty: I take pleasure in gently lifting his stiff-jointed body onto the bed at night, giving him a little extra squeeze as I do so. If his wheezy snore wakes me up, I find it reassuring to know he is still by my side, breathing. When he clumsily hits his food bowl with his paw demanding food not an hour after he ate, most likely because he forgot that he already had dinner, I just give him more. When you love someone, or something, making them happy, satisfying their needs, makes you happy, too.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't mean to insinuate or suggest that my relationship with my dog is anything like a marriage or the relationship between two committed human beings. It is, though, a love relationship, and a significant one in my life. He reminds me that the most beautiful part of love is not the slightly panicky excitement of a first kiss nor the exchanging of vows or a really great date but the comfort, compassion, and forgiveness that comes from loving and knowing each other for a long time. It's the appreciation of the imperfections; I don't love The Sheriff despite his imperfections, I just love him. The whole creaky, crabby, independent mess of him.

I've missed out on a long-term compassionate love (with a human) in my  life. And every day that passes I find it more and more unlikely that I will find someone that sees beauty through the scars, sharp edges, and baggage. I've focused my own love towards a now, very elderly, pet, and I know our time together is coming to an end, so I mark the days with deliberate kindnesses. Is this our last walk? I will make sure I don't hurry him too much. Is this his last meal? A little bacon grease, a leftover egg from breakfast makes it even more delicious.

Three days before my birthday, I threw a birthday party for my dog. All his dog friends came, and my friends came, and I baked a carrot-peanut butter cake that proved very popular with the canine set. The humans had spaghetti and meatballs, a la Lady and the Tramp, and wine. The celebration reminded me to appreciate love more, long-term, fleeting, between friends, partners, spouses, parents, and children. All love is enriching and nurturing and considerate and merciful, and it will get you through, through the firsts and the lasts and the everything in between. And guess what? It is no small thing to love and be loved, by a little dog.

Photo by Emma Arnold