My dog Ruby and I are both on the Disabled List (in sports terms, the DL) at present.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, last weekend, she came to my side of the bed and nuzzled my hand, whining, something she never does unless she needs to go out. I got up and limped (more about that later) to the back door to let her out. She did her business and by flashlight I verified that there was no problem with that. Normally I wouldn’t have been so inquisitive, but we had a major family event later that day, for which our son had flown down from New York City and my brother and sister-in-law had come up from Atlanta. If Ruby had a problem I wanted to know exactly what it was so that I could deal with it promptly, both for her good and for the smooth functioning of the day which we had all been looking forward to for over a year.
When she came back into the house she was clingy and holding her tail funny, crooked to the side. Her amber eyes entreated me to make it better. I told her I would try, and at first light we headed off to the local emergency vet. An impossibly young and fresh-faced doctor examined her – no problem with the anal glands, which was my first suspicion since she had shown the same symptoms the previous summer and that had turned out to be the cause. He did find a small cyst a few inches below her tail, and biopsied that. Could that cause the tail immobility? I asked him, and he shrugged and said possibly: the cyst was inflamed and she had obviously been licking it. He gave her some pain meds and a Cone of Shame, and we headed home. I was at least reassured that her distress would soon be relieved and wouldn’t disrupt our plans. (Though I admit I will worry until I learn that the biopsy of the cyst is normal, in a few more days.)
As for me, a week ago, chronic stiffness in my hips localized and intensified deep within the left hip. I thought I could walk it off, and took Ruby for our usual 3 mile hike in our favorite park. Trying to ignore the pain I focused on the warm sun, the blue sky, the distant vistas of hills and valleys visible through the bare trees, the sounds of spring birds. Spring, already, here in Tennessee, in mid-February — it amazes this ex-New Yorker. There were even some daffodil spears poking up from the ground.
But my “cure” only aggravated the situation. The pain became acute – not enough to mar my pleasure on our big family day the following Sunday, but severely limiting my mobility. By Monday I was using the device my husband acquired after he tore his knee in an injudicious but glorious last hurrah as a softball player at age 64. This device is cleverly marketed by L.L. Bean to age-resistant baby boomers like me as a “trekking pole”; it’s sporty green aluminum, adjustable, with a rugged cork grip. But, in truth, in form and function it is a cane. And, hobbling along with it when we all went out to breakfast on Monday before taking our son to the airport, I felt that people were looking at me differently.
Though I’m in my mid sixties, I have prided myself on being active, and especially in my ability to handle the biggest, rowdiest dogs in the shelter where I volunteer several hours a week. In fact, walking them, giving them a break from their confinement, the stimulation of time outdoors, and the sociability of one-on-one interaction with a human – all have become, in the 3 years I’ve been doing it, a major part of what I consider my mission in life. But now, suddenly, I can hardly even walk Ruby around the block.
I also regularly drive dogs and cats from our shelter to a partner shelter in Atlanta, which involves climbing in and out of a tall cargo van and lifting heavy crates – activities which, in my present state, seem as impossible as pole-vaulting 20 feet.
In short, I am beginning to experience a premonition of the losses that accompany what our witty and kind former doctor once called “attaining longevity.” I liked his positive spin on the matter and, having lost my parents at 47 and 55 respectively, am grateful for every year of life denied them but granted to me.
And I have an inspiring model for aging well in my maternal grandmother, who into her late 80s was still walking the beaches and fishing off the pier in her Jekyll Island, Georgia home. She delighted in asking strangers to guess her age and seeing their genuine amazement when she told them the number.
So I don’t hide my age. But I have tried to hide (from myself as well as from others) its increasing limitations: the difficulty of rising from a kneeling position, the stiffness after a prolonged sit, the haze of cataracts over my vision.
But the cane, the limp – they tell the story loud and clear.
Probably I have pulled a muscle and with rest and gentle stretching will get back to normal, back to the nature walks with Ruby that nourish my spirit, back to the outings with the shelter dogs that give me the sense – rare enough in other areas of my life – that what I am doing really, truly makes a difference. And if, as I attain greater longevity, I have to give up certain activities – like walking the biggest and most energetic dogs, there will still be many ways to help and serve them. In recent posts I described the abundant menu of volunteer roles at our shelter and, presumably, others, so need only to choose different activities from that list to continue the mission that has become so central to my life.
Here again my grandmother is my model, as she continually adapted to loss and change. She experienced more loss that seems fair for one person to have to endure: her parents, naturally; twelve brothers and sisters; husband; friends – and, most unnaturally, all four of her children. Yet she never complained. She took a keen interest in other people, kept a great sense of humor, stayed active. When, at 90, she realized that she could no longer handle driving and living alone, she sold her house and moved to Nashville, to an assisted living facility near my mother and sister. She always said she didn’t want to be a burden. Whenever she experienced sadness or discouragement, she would sit and read her Bible, sharing her troubles only with her Lord.
* * *
On a follow up visit to our regular vet, he diagnosed Ruby’s recent problem as a sprained tail! Too many exuberant greetings as so many exciting people – her “brother,” Marcus, her “aunt and uncle,” my brother and sister-in-law – arrived to share the special day. Useless to tell her to approach love and life with less gusto, more restraint.
In this, she gives me another model for how I want to face the future: Reveling fully in the joy of the moment. Loving without counting the cost. And always eager to explore new terrain — even if with a crooked tail and a gimpy gait.