Sextiped Valley: Going gentle into that good night
High Tails turned 15 in February this year, so it has been a time of many losses. The first irrepressible puppies who romped through day care and tested every limit in training class still smile sweetly when they step, a bit stiffly now, up to the counter for their treat. Or they ride proudly in the arms of their human. Or wait regally on the front seat of their car while their loving chauffeur summons us to pay tribute. Too many of them don’t come in any more, having passed out of their happy, too-short lives, still missed and always remembered. We imagine them waiting on the other side of that Rainbow Bridge, restored to the vitality of their prime years yet retaining the time-honed wisdom of their maturity. Waiting for us. I confess that I find that thought, sentimental and unlikely though it is, more moving, more comforting, than any imagery of a heavenly human afterlife.
The kittens and cats fostered over the years are now claiming privileged elder status. While some of the then-older ones have since taken their light out of the world, those remaining have become venerable feline sages today, ignoring physical frailty to bestow their keen judgment on the deficiencies of humanity — excepting, of course, their own beloved families, who receive their tolerant exculpation with gratitude.
There’s a growing trend of people adopting older animals. It used to be that shelters could hardly induce anyone to look at a dog or cat over 7, as though remaining years of an expected lifespan determined their value. Is it that as our own population is aging, as we, ourselves, face our own mortality, a kind of poignant solidarity moves us to respond to pets facing a bleak future alone with their increasing needs and decreasing appeal? Decreasing appeal? Not according to their adopters, who consider themselves exceedingly blessed to have such inspiring companions, experienced at living so fully in the moment.
In learning to see beauty in the no-longer-youthful bodies of our animal companions, members of species we humans have harmed as much as blessed through domestication, are we teaching ourselves to see and respond tenderly to our still-beautiful ravaged Earth? The mother who can still move us with her loveliness, can still inspire loving admiration, though a long and undimmed future can no longer be reasonably expected?
They have given us so much over the centuries of our unique interspecies partnership. There’s evidence that our bond never was completely exploitative and utilitarian, undeniable as those aspects of it are. Unlike the tools of other “technologies” we cast aside after inventing improvements, we never entirely abandoned them. Today we’ve acknowledged the deeper kinship that has been there all along, calling them family and best friends. Perhaps the greatest gift they give us is allowing us to love them, graciously receiving our imperfect care. Do they see through and forgive our flaws, or do they completely overlook them, as we do those of other humans only after we have laid aside competition and comparison in favor of acceptance and recognition?
As I write this, my dog Cholmondley (pronounced “chumley”) lies beside my chair, digesting his breakfast and resting as his morning medications take effect. If I’m very lucky, he’ll be 16 in December — if I can manage his arthritis pain and somehow keep his mysterious neurological disabilities at bay. I touch his soft shoulder and he flicks an ear, not ready to get up, but acknowledging my presence, our connection. Every day he gives me reasons to try to deserve his presence in my life. Reasons to be grateful for a life among animals who have loved me, no matter how often or how badly I let them down.
Old dogs, old friends, old world. How merciful that we can still, imperfectly and with our usual mixture of motives, love them. By receiving our care, they heal a sickness in our souls, even if it may be — but we can’t know that — too late for a cure.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.
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