Our dog Angus is not well. We found lumps some time ago, and not just the kind of fatty overgrowths common in ageing animals. And they are in a spot that isn’t conducive to straightforward surgery. We’ve been here before; another of our dogs experienced similar circumstances about eight years ago. We had him operated on, twice. Our little companion was distressed a lot of the time, we certainly were, and after only a few months he died anyway.
So this time we decided to wait and see. For nearly two years Angus has been fine. Getting slower on his walkies, quite understandable for a dog of 14 (78 in human years, our vet says). But still keen to chase after the neighbour’s cat if he catches sight of it, still ready to take on other dogs, especially those bigger than himself. Still enjoying his food, and ours too if he can blackmail us into sharing some with him. He’s retired, we tell friends; at his age he’s entitled to sleep late in the mornings, to decide if and where he would like to walk in the evenings, and to choose whose chair is the most comfortable to sleep on.
But lately he’s sleeping more and more, the fewer walks take just as long but cover a quarter the distance, and while he still loves his food he’s rejecting items he used to enjoy. We can see the end coming and we’d rather we couldn’t. We check in with our vet periodically to ensure there’s no pain or distress, not for Angus anyway.
Then there’s my mother’s cousin, the last remaining segment of that branch of the family tree, and the nearest thing to an aunt I have left. She’s 93 now, and until late last year was living at home, with help, in the apartment she’d occupied for 40 years. She was found on the floor by her home aide one morning, taken to hospital, assessed and pronounced well enough but in need of closer supervision in a supported accommodation facility for a while.
It looks as though she won’t be going home. It still isn’t clear why she collapsed, so along with her dementia it has been decided that she’s safer with round-the-clock care. She and her daughter had resisted the very idea of her moving into a nursing home but in the end the decision made itself.
And last week, my partner Pauline grunted and went to switch a light on, casually commenting that if the light isn’t good it’s hard to focus on things up close. It’s only the beginnings of presbyopia, but it gave me a jolt. This isn’t supposed to happen, I wanted to shout. I’m the one with shocking eyesight; she’s supposed to look after me when I develop cataracts or some other damn thing. What’s the point of having a partner 10 years younger than me if she’s going to get old too?
I didn’t shout anything of course, just made a lame joke about nothing being wrong with your eyesight, it’s just your arms are getting shorter. But it was a sharp reminder that I had been making assumptions about the way things would go on. Busily keeping up with my own efforts to stay as healthy as possible now that my 60th year is a lot closer than my 50th, I hadn’t noticed small signs that my partner is following her own path of adjustment.
And that is just what it is, a path of adjustment. We move through life making little, and sometimes large, adjustments according to the events that unfold in front of us. Sometimes, like my aunt, we have no warning before an event throws us a challenge and requires a major change. Many times though, tweaking our habitual procedures to accommodate changes in functioning or ability happens almost unconsciously.
Having to make these adjustments can raise a range of emotions from mild irritation to outright rage, and it’s important that we don’t try to pretend that it’s easy. Communicating with others in the same boat can help, as can consulting relevant professionals. Focussing on what we can still do is important, as does retaining a sense of humour; I might suggest that Pauline get her clothes altered, now that her arms are shorter…
We’re watching Angus closely now. We’re following his lead and ensuring he feels that everything in his little world is fine. We’ll do so until everything is not fine any more, and then we’ll adjust again.
Postscript: Angus died on February 4.
February 13, 2016
Miriam, thank you for choosing to write so beautifully about the pitfalls of endings. Beginnings and endings are quaint partners indeed. I recall my Mum saying that best time to leave a party is when you are having fun!
Tim Shannon, Ventnor
February 13, 2016
Condolences for the loss of Angus. Thank you, Miriam, for reminding us
of the inevitability and the need to readjust when change happens.
As you say, humour is great for these occasions. As well as a few laughs,
the people I speak to at the hospital respond well to feeling gratitude for
a productive, fortunate life they have had and the many supports a rich
western country can offer to ease the inevitable ageing process.
Felicia Di Stefano, Glen Forbes