My best friend is walking a little slower these days. The dog who once drove me crazy begging for her dinner, now mostly sniffs it and needs to be coaxed to eat. She is deaf. She gets confused. She still gets excited to go for walks, but when we get four houses down the street, she’s ready to go back home again. In the morning, she pauses at the top of the stairs, nervous that her legs might not work the way they used to.
So, I carry her down the stairs.
And clean the floor when her bladder gives out.
And hand-feed her scrambled eggs when she doesn’t want to eat.
And massage her stiff hips.
There are Good Days and what I optimistically call Less Good Days. But I’ll be there for all the days until the end, making her as comfortable and happy as I can. And when there is no more comfort and happiness to be had, I’ll be the one who has to decide that it’s the end.
This is the deal we make when we love. This is the brutal contract we sign when we open our hearts. Whether we adopt a springy young thing or, like we did with Gracie, adopt a senior dog, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they will leave and we will be shattered.
My husband and I walked into the SPCA four years ago and she was waiting for us. She chose us. And when the sign on her cage said “senior” – I winced. I winced because I didn’t want to feel this helpless pain so soon. I wanted at least a decade with this crazy, speckled, toothless mutt. But she was our dog and she made that clear. So we brought her home and bought a bigger bed so she could sleep with us and we promised to be grateful for however long we got. We agreed to the deal.
But now I want to amend the contract. I want to negotiate for more time.
I’m dreading the day when there is no one waiting outside the bathroom door for me. The day when there is no one using me as a pillow as I binge-watch Breaking Bad. What is the point of 11 am if there is no walk with Grace? My shadow will be gone and a piece of me will be gone with her.
But that time is not now. Now, my job is to care for her in this final chapter, for however long that is. My job is to put her comfort above my sadness. I am here for her, in these times that are much less fun than the hikes and trips to the beach that we used to have. I don’t turn away from the hard parts, it’s my responsibility to be as devoted to her as she has always been to me.
This is love in action: I rub her back and give her medication and clean the floor for the third time today. I pester our vet with endless questions. I try to be thankful for these days, even as I know the heartbreak is coming.
The heartbreak is always coming.
This is what it means to be truly alive. To show up and feel what it is to be human – to not turn away because it’s unpleasant. We have to surrender and lean in to the whole of it. We fully experience love and loss, joy and pain, happiness and suffering. There is no way to have one without the other. They are intrinsically linked and no amount of negotiating with the universe will unravel them. Trust me. I’ve tried.
We are all brave as hell – those of us who love so entirely. We expect to be broken by our love. But we still do it, again and again, offering up our tender hearts, our endless devotion and our unconditional love for those wise souls who teach us how to be better humans.
And really, I’m not sure that there is a more beautiful way to be broken.