Joe Grows Old

It was close to midnight. My husband’s father, who is 82, was taking a redeye flight to his daughter’s after spending two weeks with us. I was tired and impatient to get back home to sleep. As I reached for the door, he stopped, mentally repacking his bags. Suddenly, he remembered that he had not said good-bye to Joe.

Joe is our Old English Sheepdog—a 12-year-old female named, for no particular reason, after a lackluster and long-forgotten baseball player. She gets along famously with my father-in-law, as she does with most people. Large and proud, with distinctive black-and-grey markings and a cropped coat that shows off her long legs, she turns heads like a beauty queen. People have always been good to her. They openly admire her, stooping to pet her, offering her treats, asking after her age, breed and health. My father-in-law adores her, and when he visits she follows him about, monitors his mealtimes for fallen crumbs and sleeps at the foot of his bed.

joe Grows OldThat day, we had taken a drive to the coast and back, and Joe had sacrificed her customary eight-hour nap in favor of hypervigilant back-seat driving, panting and barking at passersby and scolding us when we left her in the car. Now, she was too tired to rise to offer her usual mournful, take-me-with-you gaze. This was striking. She so hates to be left behind that sometimes, when my husband, Pete, and I get home, we can’t open the door because she’s huddling against it.

“I almost forgot something,” my father-in-law said, turning back to the living room, where Joe lay immobilized with fatigue. “Good-bye, old friend,” he said, stooping to stroke her. “Good-bye, old dog.” He patted her again and repeated his words. She rolled her eyes toward him but did not get up. He retraced his steps and rejoined us. “That was hard,” he said, picking up his cane.

I knew the uncertainty that troubled him, now that he and Joe both are old. So much could go wrong; so much already has. I can’t watch my father-in-law grow old, except intermittently, because he flies off to his own world 2,000 miles away. But Joe remains in our life as she has every day since she was seven weeks old.

We raised her; we know her—her taste for raw carrots and uncooked pasta, the sculptural form of her head, the softness of her fur when it’s newly shampooed, the fatty lumps under her skin, the sad stump of a tail, the bald spots on her elbows, the gaps where teeth have fallen out. And yet she is a mystery. “What do you want?” we plead when she sits before us, locking us in her gaze to rouse us into meeting her unstated needs. More often than not we can’t figure it out, and she sighs and lies down.

Age has caught up with Joe. You can see it in her bones when she eases herself down or struggles to stand. Her prancing gait has slowed to an amble. Her behavior is changing. Lately, as I try to walk briskly the way I once did to keep up with her, suddenly there’s a dead weight on the leash. Joe stops and plants four paws squarely, immovable. She’s developed a willful streak, or perhaps it’s a now-or-never urgency to get what she wants, if only to go in a different direction. I tug. I babble promises: biscuits, dinner, a nap. Still she resists. Seconds pass in standoff until finally I kneel, take her fine furry head in my hands and say: “Joe, let’s go home.” Reluctantly, good dog that she tries to be, she comes.

Every weekday Pete takes Joe to Starbucks, hitching her leash to a signpost while he sits outdoors with his coffee. It’s like being with a celebrity, he says. She is so striking, her eagerness for affection so open yet so tinged with melancholy, that she attracts admiration and empathy. She connects us—two people inclined to hibernate—with the world’s passing parade. On these occasions she has the sense to remain docile, gazing into people’s eyes as they finger her long ears, her ruff, the folds of her neck. They remark on her Buddhalike calm. We know otherwise, but there is more than one Joe, and age has only made her more complex.

The changes aren’t all for the better. She has started barking at other dogs, especially small ones. It used to be fun to kibbitz with other dog owners while on our daily rounds. Now I avoid them. How did she become a grouchy old lady? Did I do something wrong? Did she suffer a stroke? Or is she asserting the dominance she has always felt she deserved? Perhaps, as an only dog with few opportunities for canine friendship, she likes being the undisputed queen of her narrow world. The barking annoys and worries me. I used to try reasoning with her, which of course didn’t work, so now I jerk her out of the way as fast as I can jerk 100 pounds, which isn’t as fast as I’d like. Anything to keep her from getting herself and me in trouble. But I have changed my route and my schedule to accommodate her.

She also has gotten needier. Whenever boxes or suitcases come out, Joe begins to quake. She blocks the door, every muscle in her head and jaw aquiver, determined to protect her routine. When we packed up our longtime home in Minneapolis, she saw the rental van in the driveway, waited for her opportunity and leaped in. For two days, while Pete loaded the van, the dog lay next to the driver’s seat, refusing to emerge for any reason, as if her biological needs had succumbed to her powerful will to go with us. On the drive to our new home in Portland, we thought she had never seemed happier. She sat between us all day, resting her head on each lap by turns and looking out the window with a relaxed, doggy grin.

With all the tension she endures, you’d think Joe would have had a heart attack by now. But she is brave. Even when afraid she accepts her role as protector. Invisible offenders, strange sounds in the dark, startle her into brief, subdued woofs—the warnings of a city dog who has been told often enough not to bark. We lavish her with reassurance.

One day Pete called me at the office before leaving for work. He said Joe was in distress and he couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She was panting, and she ignored her midday carrots. But her eyes were clear and her nose was cold, he added, so he was leaving the carrots on the floor, and if they were gone when I got home I’d know she had regained her appetite. Three hours later, worried, I left work early. Joe was asleep on the floor. The carrots were gone. She seemed like herself. But I was not the same. The scare foreshadowed a day I know will come, bringing panic and tears.

Because Joe is my first dog, I have not seen this phase of life so close before. I didn’t see it in my parents, both of whom died young. She is the first creature who has needed my protection and care in her declining years. Though I’m often sad about it, I don’t mean to suggest this is a sad experience on the whole. Even now, I love the comedy of her. The vestigial instincts that urge her to scratch the rug before she lies down, woof at sounds in the hallway, sniff around every blade of greenery outdoors, stick her nose in our faces in the morning—they are part of the joy of living with a creature entirely different from ourselves.

I marvel at how Joe’s life fits neatly within mine. In the span that has taken me merely from one stage of middle age to another, Joe has experienced an entire life: rambunctious puppyhood, frisky adolescence, vigorous maturity, and now this weary, aching, increasingly stubborn, yet vital and hopeful old age. She has gone from a sleek young female to a plump but handsome matron with the same soulful brown eyes. And though the treats she gets now are low in calories and supplemented with joint-relieving compounds, she is as glad as ever to see them.

I want something from her—some assurance that times doesn’t rob you of your essential self. Her infirmities make me wistful when I recall her youth, yet no one meeting her today would think her diminished. She clearly enjoys life, eats well, rests deeply and is loved. I wonder how many old people can say the same. I wonder if I’ll be able to say the same.

For now, Joe is my answer. This dog that I saw through puppyhood, that I trained, fed, cleaned up after, played catch with, rejoiced with, was proud of and mad at, this beautiful, mortal animal is my pilot into the unknown territory of age.


Ten things I’ve learned from Joe about growing old:

Some days, dinner is the only thing to look forward to.
For years Joe occupied her days with toys, bones, looking out the window and other diversions. Now, she’s blasé—she’s seen it all. She never wants to play catch and sometimes doesn’t even get up to greet us at the door. She has an enormous capacity for sleep. But when her food dish rattles out of the cupboard or the pantry door is opened, she comes to attention. There’s still fun in her life.

You don’t have to do something just because somebody asks.
We spend so much time trying to please other people—hoping for a good grade, a date, a job, a promotion or just to be liked. But at some point, you realize it doesn’t matter much what others think of you. That’s the point Joe has reached. If she doesn’t want another dog in her face, she’ll bark. If she wants to go left and you want to go right, you’d better get down on your knees and give her a reason.

It’s important to have a restful environment.
Joe has mapped out every room of our place for the comfort of her old bones. When she’s home alone, the big leather couch in the living room suits her. When I’m at my desk, she favors the little couch in my office that just fits her length. And when Pete’s at his computer, she hauls herself onto the futon in his office or lies at his feet. In hot weather she picks the bathroom for its stone-tile floor. With so many options, sometimes I have to go looking for her. But when you spend every day within the same four walls, you make of it what you can.

Good medical care is a comfort.
Your body gives up on you. Lumps, bumps, pains, sprains and mysterious rumblings from within become commonplace. Since you can’t do much about it, it’s nice to have a sympathetic health care provider within walking distance. Any outing, including a trip to the vet’s, is a pleasure to Joe. We wrap her antibiotics and buffered aspirins in braunschweiger to make them irresistible. We buy medicated shampoo and bathe her frequently to keep her skin healthy. We think these palliatives make her feel better. We know the attention does.

Let friends know you’re happy to see them.
Joe warms up to a pauper as quickly as to a prince. She is generous with her affections and knows when to give and when to receive. One Saturday morning when we left her outside the restaurant where we always have breakfast, we watched through the window as a couple visited with her for 15 minutes. Then they came in and asked, “Can we have her?” They told us about the sheepdog they had loved—a story of devotedly carrying the big animal, old and weak, upstairs to bed every night for years, until she died. There is a lesson in this. Affection is like the Biblical bread cast upon the waters. It comes back to you.

Try not to get left behind.
Old people often get stuck in the past. We admire those who don’t—who learn to use the Internet, go to the movies, take a class, get out and volunteer. Those options aren’t open to Joe, but she shows her engagement in other ways. Mainly, she tries to insert herself into our plans, even other people’s plans. If somebody prepares to leave, she blocks the door. The message is clear: I have places to go, things to do. I am still curious.

Accept your limitations.
As much as she enjoys going places, Joe’s legs sometimes fail her, and she cannot walk as far as she used to. She’ll stress her ankle and start limping, or need time out before she can continue. And yet she is always ready for more. Her pain is private.

Your pack means everything.
Only a few years ago, whenever Pete and I embraced, Joe would run over and jump up on us so we’d draw her into the fold. She still has the impulse, but she can’t jump any more, so she just comes to stand by us and wags her stubby tail. Her claim to belong is irresistible and poignant, and we make room for her. We’re flattered, in fact.

Sometimes you still feel like a puppy.
An old woman once followed me out of the grocery store, calling after me to ask if I could give her a ride home. Home was just two blocks away, but she could hardly walk with her bags, and she was mad about it. “I never thought this would happen to me,” she said. Who does? Our self-image fixates on our prime years, when we looked dewy and felt strong. Joe, too, sometimes forgets that she has lost vigor. She’ll start to frisk, hop and look playful. I say something and pat her and she lies down, satisfied. Time was when she’d race after a stick at the beach. Now, although the sight of one makes her tense with excitement, when we throw it she just watches it sail away. Still, she has memories, and they are obviously good.

Don’t give up.
Joe and I were about to take the stairs from the garage to our apartment when suddenly she sprawled at the bottom of the steps, two paws resting on the first step, hind legs on the floor. I don’t know whether she tripped or just suddenly lost her strength. She lay there, seeming embarrassed. I helped her up—wondering how I could lug her to the elevator—when abruptly she was back in action and up the steps, as if the fall had never happened. Her body is surely betraying her, but time has not yet run out.

When we acquire a pet, we expect it to be dependent its whole life. Dependency is unattractive in people, but it awaits just about everybody who lives long enough. It makes me want to jump off a bridge. That flicker of consciousness that is a life—the accumulated losses of time—how does anyone bear it? It’s hard to admit, but since turning 50, I’ve avoided looking at myself in the mirror—the terror of age is too present in my face.

“I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” Samuel Beckett wrote. The words haunt me whenever I feel overwhelmed with the doomed mystery of it all. Eventually, for so many of us, work runs out; friendships run out and you’re left with—what? I look for some assurance that the passing of the years can bring happiness, and there’s Joe.

And my father-in-law, Norm. He cannot see well and had to give up his car, yet because his many friends take him grocery shopping and invite him for dinner, he remains proudly capable of living alone. His life in his 80s is vastly different from his life 25 years ago, when he was recently retired, not yet widowed and full of plans. His plans now are short-term—a drink before dinner, tomorrow morning’s walk, an occasional bus trip from his home in Phoenix to Laughlin, Nevada, for blackjack. When he calls, which he does often, it is to deliver enthusiastic accounts of the minutiae of his days along with minute-by-minute news and stock market reports. If Joe could turn on the TV, maybe she’d do the same. Instead, she abides.

And I cherish and remember. I am working at the kitchen counter, papers spread in front of me. Joe approaches, sits, rests her head on my knee and looks up. Sometimes she just likes to be near. She makes no demand. I am ridiculously happy at her presence. I stroke her head, as soft as angora, and speak those soothing words, the words she longs for and deserves, my inarticulate ode of thanks: “Good dog. Joe’s such a good dog.”

By Sylvia Lindman