I have just finished making Lucy’s breakfast, a process that involves mixing a variety of nutritional powders (to counteract arthritis and osteoporosis) and slippery elm syrup (to keep her continent) with protein and starch. To this I add two prescription medications and three over-the-counter remedies. Like many geriatrics, she has lost her appetite and often refuses to eat. So, at every meal I add a favorite treat. When that fails, I spoon feed her.
When I do the math, Lucy is 105 years old, 5 years older than my Great Aunt Libby was when she died last year. Of course Lucy and Libby are pretty different. For one, Lucy is a dog and Libby was, well, my aunt. But there is one striking similarity. They are both living creatures who made it to the outer edges of their life expectancies with their wits mostly about them. Libby cracked jokes and Lucy still wags her tail when I walk into the room, which I take for a kind of high five, letting me know “I’m still in the game”.
There have been some pretty bad days for Lucy in the past months. We used to walk for an hour in the park every morning. And then one day Lucy just stood at the entrance and turned around. She was sick for a week. I began dreading the decision I might have to make about whether or not it was time for her to go. And in a terrible, guilty way, I wanted her to go so that I could stop mopping the kitchen floor every three hours.
Lucy’s Guardian Angel, Elora, is the real reason she is still here. By virtue of love alone, Lucy is as much her dog as mine. Elora entered our family as the children’s babysitter many years ago when Lucy was a puppy, and as she did with the children, she bonded with her for life. It was Elora who cured Lucy’s flu. It was Elora who insisted on the rash of vet visits, the blood work, the special food dish, the hospital-grade foam dog bed. And it was Elora who concocted Lucy’s special diet. I just follow instructions and feed her on the days Elora doesn’t stop by.
“I want Elora as my nurse when I’m old” my husband said the other day, after sighing over Lucy’s vet bills. “She’ll be almost as old as you. Both of you will be eating out of the same dog dish,” I responded. And then I got serious.
Currently, around one quarter of Americans over the age of 85 live in nursing homes. In New York City, one year in such a facility will cost $123,000 a year, which is twice as much per year as we are paying to send each of our children to college. Will our insurance policies cover this in 35 years? If we are not in nursing homes, will someone help us to remember all of those pills and the slippery elm syrup?
My son said goodbye to the dog this weekend. I found him sitting in an armchair with Lucy contentedly draped across his lap, her heavily shedding fur billowing around him. Henry is heading back to college and well…who knows? We both sobbed. I tried to comfort him by telling him what I told you: that Lucy has made it to the finish line. She’s done her personal best. That we have given her a good life and Elora has given her a longer life. But words don’t really cut it when you are saying goodbye.
For now it is actions that count. So I sit with Lucy on her dog bed with my hand on her slightly rasping chest. It’s a reiki treatment that I learned from the physical therapist who is treating my own incipient arthritis. I feel the life within her and I think about how grateful I am for her time with us. Lucy has given me a window onto old age and Elora has given me a window on how to confront it. Patiently. Attentively. And with love. This dog, who has loved us so faithfully for so many years, is reaping back all that she has given and all that she deserves.