Dying in Dog Years

When our lives are spread out over decades, we tend to lose sight of the gradual degradation of our mobility, strength, vitality and youth until suddenly it seems as though we’re forty or fifty and we can’t remember when we lost the ability to put our feet behind our heads.  Where did it go?  When did it leave us?  Why can I no longer see my feet, much less move them past my shoulders?


And so, inevitably, it happens.  Our bodies seize up.  Muscles refuse to stretch.  Our memories give way to a confused void.  We wonder where our sense of balance went.  It’s subtle, slow and progressive.  Then one day we look back and realize that all opportunity to learn to do a backbend has past us by.  Gone is our chance to really master water skiing.  And forget about snow boarding, bungee jumping, rock climbing, or leaping blindly into a mosh pit.  We’re now lucky to make it in and out of the bathroom without breaking a hip.  In short, it may take us seventy or eighty years to get there but, eventually – if we’re lucky – we all grow old.


When I first moved to our small farm and surrounded myself with animals, mortality wasn’t on my mind.  Riding horses through blazing autumn colored woods, farm fresh eggs, and snuggling up with a soft, fluffy kitten were more of what I had in mind.  But when you surround yourself with animals, mortality becomes an issue that can’t be ignored and with it comes questions regarding our own personal time on this earth.  When you surround yourself with good, sweet, patient friends who have a life span of 10 to 15 years at best, mortality, unfortunately, becomes a reality.


With animals, one can really begin to get a sense of time’s impact on the body.  Because the lives of many animals are often shrunk down into the space of a mere decade or two, it’s like watching the aging process in fast forward.  Nine years ago, my dog, Ginger, was a bouncing, bounding Great Dane puppy.  Today, she has gray on her muzzle, is the mother of 27, and sometimes needs an aspirin for a flair up of arthritis in the winter.  In the span of nine short years, she migrated from being a total spaz who would fall spread eagle on a freshly mopped kitchen floor into a regal, majestic behemoth content to lie on the floor in front of the fire with her nose resting ever so slightly on the hearth.  The spaz is gone.  Long live the Queen.


Junior, our black and gray striped tabby cat, at the age of 14 reigns in as the farm’s leading Methusala, and her once sleek physique has given away to mounds of ample kitty flesh, thanks to daily doses of Meow Mix supplemented with more than the occasional field mouse.  Where once she use to prowl the pastures like a sleek huntress leaping on small scurrying things with abandon, she now slumbers in quiet repose 23 hours out of 24, only waking up to down a bowl of Meow Mix or occasionally sit on a poor, dumb mouse.  Sadly, she’s become the kitty-cat equivalent of Dom Delouise minus the bad toupee.


In contrast, our daughter, Jackie, at the age of 14, seems to be just entering her physical prime.  The hand/eye coordination is improving, she’s picked up some height, and her years of practicing dance, basketball, swimming, etc., have added real strength to her arms.  The awkwardness of childhood is fading away and, in its place, she’s inheriting a level of grace befitting a young woman.  She blunders through the house less and glides more.  It’s as if, after years of trial and error, she’s finally coming into her own in terms of her body.  Ironically, her movements are more cat-like in execution.  She’s becoming what Junior has already left behind.


This fast forward version of aging really struck me as I watched my two goats, Annie and Arnie, out in the pasture behind our home.  The two are a study in contrasts.  Annie, a mature, maternal Nubian will be six soon.  She is a soft brown, overstuffed chair in goat form, with long white ears speckled with black, and a black streak that runs down the back of her neck, along her backbone, ending in a fanned out sprawl at the tip of her shaggy tail.  She is a sweet, loving creature who gives out kisses and likes to be near us, and she moves with the speed of a sloth, though, if possible, even more deliberate and reluctant.  Annie doesn’t like to move.  Rather, she prefers to stand still, and when she does move, she tends to be very owl like in nature.  She turns her head sideways and leaves it that way for minutes at a time as if to say, “so that’s what the world looks like sideways!”  When she gets bored with that, she’ll bend her neck backwards as if trying to reach her tail.  She’ll stretch, she’ll sigh, she’ll hold a pose, voguing in a way that would surely try Madonna’s patience.


Yes, poor, sweet, honest Annie, saddled with age and pregnancy, merely waddles slowly a few feet at time, coming to rest in front of her feed bowl which she stares at with her big doe eyes until someone fills it up with her beloved grain.  Annie loves her feed bowl and she loves standing in her feed bowl, with her two front feet placed ever so gracefully side by side in the middle of its black plastic shell.  Annie, frets over her feed bowl, and she stands in it as if to keep it from blowing away or disappearing altogether.  Her devotion to it reminds me vaguely of my grandparents who, in their later years, had a great fondness for their matching insulated tumblers that held their Canadian Mist and Coke with singular purpose.  When we visited their cabin up in Michigan, we knew not to touch those tumblers under penalty of death.  


Were Arnie to love his feed bowl as much as Annie, he would probably pee on it and call it a day for Arnie, at the age of eight months, is a study in contrasts.  He is a mere baby, and he is a small explosion contained in the fluffy white shell of a budding Boer buck.  He is all white, with the exception of his head, which is a deep chestnut brown that stretches half way down his neck.  A white blaze splits his face in two and his ears, also brown, hang down, constantly swinging yet also framing his fat, fluffy face as he goes about his goaty business.  Two spiky horns top his head and he seems to take great pride in them for such a little, fluffy, curly-tailed buck.  He spends ample amounts of time each day rubbing them and scratching them upon something, including, sometimes, poor, slow Annie as she stands solidly in her feed bowl.


And he doesn’t just walk.  No, Arnie explodes!  He leaps, jumps, twists, and runs as if every walk across the pasture were reason enough to launch into an acrobatic ballet of epic proportions.  It’s as if standing still were an affront to his manly, smelly goat hood.  In between acrobatics he spends his time standing on things, climbing on things, scratching on things, nibbling on things, butting things, and leaning on things – including, again, poor Annie.  The whole world, to Arnie, is an accessory, put here for his enjoyment and use.


Watching these two – Annie as she stands, Arnie as he leaps – I can’t help but to marvel at the difference a few short years can make in the life of an animal.  I, myself, have become quite like Annie.  My movement is slow, I don’t leap for fear of pulling something, I tend to waddle, and I’ve grown very attached to my big, round tea cup that my small son gave me for Christmas one year.  All nostalgia aside, I wish I could say that my primary attachment to it is because of the love my young son invested in its selection, but in truth, it’s just a really big cup.  I can get a lot of tea in it, which saves me waddle time to and from the stove.  For that, I’m grateful.  The kids aren’t allowed to touch my cup.


Because mortality can’t be avoided – especially on a small farm – we’ve buried our fair share of four-legged friends.  As difficult as it has been to say goodbye to each animal, the saddest parting by far was that of Gigot, our precious pony.  We’re not sure of her age, though expert estimates (our farrier) put her to be in her late thirties.  As horses go, that’s old, but it was her age, in fact, that made her such a perfect pony for our two small children.  Nothing fazed her.  A worldly pony, she had seen it all and so, as our children would tie her to the fence on warm summer days and bathe her with the hose and a bucket of soapy water or crawl over her or climb under her, she would stand there, unruffled, chewing her grain and occasionally letting out a deep, contented sigh.  Loud noises, barking dogs, screaming kids, it was all just background noise to Giggy.


She was a sweet pony, though unattractive, but what she lacked in equine flair, she made up for with steadfastness and trust.  She was tall for a pony, but her legs were out of proportion to her stubby body and she looked somewhat like those tall, moving machines in the Star Wars movies that roamed high above the surface of whatever planet they were attacking.  And she moved like them too, somewhat stilted and jerky, with her black and white tail swishing and flicking flies from her bony black and white body.  She had a large, bloated grass stomach, but it was the only place where she carried any weight, for her bones loved to stick out, all pointy and hard.  Her big brown eyes tended to bug out of her head and her face was long, even for a pony.


She had foundered as some point in her long, happy life, so by the time we got her eight years ago, her hooves had lengthened and thickened to the point that she looked to be walking on high heels.  Our farrier would pay us a visit every six weeks to keep her feet neatly trimmed and afterwards, he would give her a big horsy aspirin to help with the stiffness that would surely follow.  He would crush it up and put it in the end of a short piece of garden hose and then stick it into the side of her mouth.  Blowing hard, he would force the dust down her throat, and the children would laugh as a puff of white dust would fly from her soft, downy nostrils, turning her momentarily into a gentle dragon.  Her bug eyes would bug out even further, but only for a second and then she would take it in stride and go back to her meal of grass or hay.


Because she was old and had seen it all, she would often sleep flat out on her side in the field, not worried or caring if something would sneak up on her as she dozed away.  Often I would see her lying out there in the pasture, oblivious to everything else and for a moment, my heart would skip a beat.  Was she sleeping?  Was she dying?  I would call softly to her and after hearing her name three or four times, she would eventually raise her head up, and turn it toward me with a look that would say, “What?  Can’t a girl get some sleep, for heaven’s sake?”


But one spring Saturday I saw her lying in the pasture, peaceful and content as I had seen her so many times before, though when I called her name, she didn’t move.  Her head didn’t lift and her tail didn’t swish and as I approach her, I knew then that she was gone.  Our daughter, Jackie, took it especially hard and she sobbed over her poor old pony as if her heart would break.  We buried sweet Giggy in a ravine far out near the woods.  We took a clipping from her mane, said a prayer and wished her well.  I am sure that, now that she’s up in horsy heaven, the stiffness is gone and the hooves have healed.  She now remembers how to gallop and jump, and she runs with the best of them as any long-legged pony should.  The worries and cares of being a thirty-something pony are gone and the bloom of youth is back on her bony frame.  I miss the old girl, but I know that when it’s my turn to go up to heaven, I’ll love her all the more.