Our dog Tessa is fifteen and a half. That is something like eighty-five in human years. I come from a family that tends to live a long time – like up to a century or more – so eighty-five is relative to me in terms of being old. And Tessa has had enough attitude that when I say she is fifteen, people think I mean fifteen months.
I woke in the middle of the night on Valentines Day with a sore throat. It actually hurt me enough that it woke me up. As I headed to the kitchen for a drink of water, I saw Tessa huddling under the dining room table, unable to move her back legs, her eyes wide with terror, her front legs spread apart to hold her up.
I feared the worst. I thought she was having a stroke. I carried her to her bed and lay down beside her trying to comfort her. Tom woke up to see what the commotion was about, and together we stayed by her side, debating whether to take her to the emergency vet or to wait until morning where she could go see the vet with whom she is familiar. We decided on the latter.
I could not stop the tears. Were we at the point, I wondered, where it was time to let her go?
I dropped her off at the vet in the morning, and spent the day crying, waiting to hear what the vet would report.
I adore this vet. She incorporates holistic as well as allopathic medicine – she uses acupuncture as well as antibiotics, and has a chiropractor who specializes in animals (particularly horses) who visits once a month. I wish I could find a physician for myself like her.
Finally, late in the day the vet called me with good news. Tessa in all likelihood had something called Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome. In humans it’s something like Meniere’s disease or vertigo. Basically, gravity ceases to exist. The world loses its stability so there is no context for determining which end is up – or sideways for that matter.
The vet reassured me that it was a syndrome from which she would likely recover completely with some tender loving nursing on my part, and acupuncture and antibiotics on her part.
Through her recovery, Tessa relied on us in a way that she has never had to before. We had to hand feed her and give her water. We carried her to the yard so she could urinate and defecate. She would wait until we were by her side before she attempted to walk, would look back at us if we fell too far behind, letting us know that our presence helped her find her grounding.
One of the most endearing traits of dogs is their loyalty. In a way, the tables were turned as we nursed her back to health. She had to rely on our loyalty to her – our willingness to stay by her side as she regained her equilibrium.
Tessa has nearly recovered. Her head still tilts slightly, though that might eventually change.
I was with my parents and my in-laws as their aging bodies declined. The platitude is that when that happens, the child becomes the parent and the parent becomes the child. But that is not what happens. It’s a much more delicate balancing act than that. They definitely became dependent on me in a way that I had been on them when I was a child. But that did not turn them into children, or me the parent. It just created a different dynamic – one in which they had to relinquish power and control and I had to exercise it without diminishing their dignity or taking it away from them.
The dance was not always graceful. And there were many times I just wanted it to be over – and then having to face that the only way it could be over would be with their death. Guilt didn’t sweep over me so much as an ironic understanding of just how twisted life can be.
The dance is easier, but no less painful, with animals we have come to love when they age and decline. The relationship is less complicated: they don’t abandon us, disappoint us, or fail to live up to our expectations. It’s pretty straightforward.
I have always believed that the biggest agreement we need to make and keep with our pets is the willingness to let them go when they are ready to die, and then to be with them if we can.
It’s clear to me that Tessa is not ready to leave this world. But, I can see that the episode has taken a toll on her. Or maybe it has just changed her slightly. She still has attitude, but she sticks a little closer to us. In a weird way, there is less distance between us as sentient beings.
Spring has come to one of the trees outside my writing shed since Tessa lost her equilibrium. A finch hops between its branches, sometimes disappearing into the white delicacy of its blossoms.
Life continues with a little bit of old dog syndrome sprinkled in.