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Borrowed time: A dog's lesson in living fully

Dolly on her way to a vet visit, 2013

Her hips are shot, so several times a day I carry Dolly down the patio steps into the yard so she can walk around and relieve herself. Some nights she barks us awake so we can help her stand and get to her water bowl. Gum disease sours her breath, but she’s 17, and some conditions we can’t relieve anymore. The end is near. I’ve walked this road before. It’s never easy because every dog I’ve had has taught me lessons about life, about love. But once in a while, one of them opens a window to a truth so profound that it compounds an already difficult good-bye. How do you let go when a pet has taught you something about the indelible nature of your own humanity?

In her youth, Dolly, a Retriever-mix with a movie-dog smile, adored her family and hated strangers and other dogs. For years, she greeted our housekeeper with teeth bared, as if meeting her anew every time. Because of her Labrador-Golden looks, people often wanted to pet her. Including a neighbor, to whom I explicitly said, “No!” when he reached toward her. She lunged, grabbing between her teeth a sliver of his pants right at the crotch. During another walk, a dog rushed out of a yard and in two seconds Dolly pinned the larger dog on his back. No teeth, no blood, just an understanding that passed between them sending the dog scurrying home.

Who knows why Dolly was this way? She’s a foundling so her puppyhood is a mystery. She roamed our neighborhood for weeks before I caught her. Her tongue is a solid purple-black, which led me to think she was part Chow with the breed’s predisposition toward aloofness and being a one-family dog. While I can’t confirm her pedigree, I think I was right about her attitude. I believe that when we took her off the streets more than sixteen years ago, thin, hungry, and wearing a collar so snug it had scraped bald spots on her neck, she attached her canine soul to us with such gratitude that she wanted only to be with us and nobody else. With the exception of my cousin’s son whom she met when he was about six. They bonded instantly during a family visit, recognizing in each other some common spirit of youth and adventure. There was a night when the boy, in a sour mood, took himself to bed with Dolly. Later we struggled to separate them, the boy crying and clinging to the dog, the dog eyeing and daring us to take him from her.

We bought a muzzle so Dolly could travel with us: To Ruidoso, New Mexico; to El Paso where my family lives; and to Fredericksburg where she climbed Enchanted Rock with other tourists and their dogs. With time she mellowed, accepting new people and other animals more easily, so that a few years ago when we returned to New Mexico, she was a different dog. She shoved her head under the hands of people she didn’t know so they would pet her. She developed a crush on a dog in an Albuquerque park, following him around until he snapped at her, leaving her with a puzzled look on her face. These weren’t the only changes. Somehow, without my noticing, her body had lost strength. We now had to lift her into the SUV. And we had to catch her before she leapt out, lest she hurt herself on landing.

Dolly during an unseasonal foot of snow in North Texas.

The thing about Dolly’s aging that was different from other dogs I’ve had is that it coincided with my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. It made for some unexpected parallels. Like Dolly my mother’s personality also changed. Once a strict disciplinarian with strong opinions about how to dress and behave in public, my mother now sang to strangers in the grocery store and wore sweat pants everywhere. She told young women with bare midriffs to cover up and asked men with big bellies if they drank a lot of beer. Sometimes I’d look at her and wonder: Who are you?

When not asking Dolly’s vet whether her slow gait was due to pain or just stiffness, or, if missing a meal meant she was bored with her food or sick to her stomach, I was on the phone with my sister or my mom’s neurologist asking similar questions. How could my mother tell me if she was hurting or hungry, if she was cold or hot when disease was robbing her of speech? What symptoms signaled my mom had a urinary tract infection, and how were they different from signs that she was simply tired or out of sorts? I took Dolly for walks in the sun, slowing my steps to accommodate hers, our forays becoming shorter and shorter. I did the same for my mom, and these short treks seemed to take hours, with my mother stopping to retrieve aluminum cans, to kick at pebbles on the sidewalk, or simply to rest on a bus bench. When Dolly turned her nose up at meals, I hand-fed her bits of chicken; when my mom couldn’t hold her own silverware, caregivers spoon-fed her.

I confess: Both mother and dog have tried my patience. My tendency has always been to rush through a task, a meal, an event. It’s been difficult to slow down, to take an activity at someone else’s pace. But one day as I watched Dolly inch around our yard and wondered if I’d get anything else done at the rate she was going, I realized my impatience with both my dog and mother was lined with something else, a kind of desperation for things to be as they once were. The moments when my dog’s hips gave out during a walk, or when my mother looked at me without recognizing my face – these were the moments my loved ones were in transition, shedding one skin to reveal another. In these seconds they were unveiling another need, another dependency that would not only change them, but me as well. And by pushing through these moments as I’d always done, I was trying to hold the metamorphosis at bay. My tugs at a leash or an arm, my exhortations of, “You can do it, I know you can, let’s go,” were really pleas for more time. Behind these words lay the shadowy outlines of their real meaning: “Please don’t leave me yet. I’m not ready.” Because, if Dolly still snapped at strangers and my mother could put on a dress for church, if Dolly could walk a little faster and my mother could hold her own fork, perhaps we could run back the clock a little. We could remain fixed a bit longer in that instant of blue sky beneath which my dog still leapt into the car on her own and my mother could still remember my name. The irony, of course, is that if you keep your eye on the past you forget how to move forward. And you miss a lot of the present. As my husband reminds me, every second is borrowed time. We should live them all.

Yesterday, Dolly walked up the driveway to the corner of the street and back. She hadn’t done that in months. Last week I took my mother for a walk in the sun and my cousin said something that made her smile. But I don’t remember the last time my mom said my name. Contemplating a world without her physical presence is unimaginable. She’s been leaving me slowly for years now, but I can’t begin to conceive of the yawning hole she’ll leave when she’s really gone.

Maybe there’s a heaven. Maybe that’s where all our souls go. Or maybe that flicker of the universe we all carry within simply returns to the greater source when we die, merging again with everything that was and is. I don’t know. But isn’t such worry about the future akin to mourning the past? Neither roots us here and now, where life is happening. And that’s where I need to be, living every second of this borrowed time.

Dolly naps in the sun 1/17/14

Text and photos ©Beatriz Terrazas, but please feel free to share widely with proper attribution 

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  • Response
    Dolly is such a beautiful dog so far i have seen. I to own a dog and i know when we love the pet with unconditional love and what it means to us. I am so touched through this share. Very impressive and lovable. It shows the affection and care towards ...

Reader Comments (9)

Lovely and moving post, Beatriz. Thank you.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

Bea: I started a note regarding this blog on your "contacts" page, but I think it was lost. Or, if it arrived, it was unfinished. I'll try again. I think this piece of writing is as good as writing gets. It's affecting, simple, sensitive, beautifully phrased . . . And meaningful! Thanks.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaula LaRocque

Thank you both, Leslie and Paula. A real compliment coming from both of you. I actually wrote this last fall when I realized Dolly didn't have much time left. My dogs have taught me so much.

January 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterBeatriz Terrazas

I just read your beautiful, soulful article…I have tears streaming down my face because it you touched my heart with your words. My dog Sparky is now 14 and headed down the same path as your Dolly. I took care of my mother-in-law as she went through the stages of Alzheimer's…
What a touching piece. Thank your husband for sharing.
Sincerely, Debbie Cantu

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Cantu

Debbie, thank you for reading and for sharing part of your own journey. May the rest of your days with Sparky be full of sun and fun. Animals teach us so much! Again, thank you.

January 19, 2014 | Registered CommenterBeatriz Terrazas

This is beautiful. I have lived these steps as well. Thank you for sharing with us this beautifully and intelligently written piece of life.

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Voorhees

Thank you for your comment. I know you identify, probably with your horses as well as your dogs. Hope to see you in NM this year.

January 19, 2014 | Registered CommenterBeatriz Terrazas

Reading this blog about Dolly touched by heart and soul. When you mentioned the incident with Michael and Dolly it took me back in time where there was a special bond between them. She protected him like he was her own. All I remember him saying " but I love her and she loves me". Your mom also had a special relationship with both Veronica and Michael. The wonderful "Nana's" that would do anything for my children is a true gift from GOD. Thank you for your beautiful words and memories.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEllie Franco

I remember that, too! He was sobbing when he said this and Dolly was very concerned and protective of him. Those two bonded instantly. They were almost impossible to separate.
And yes, your kids have had a special bond with my mom and their Nana, too. Spilled nail polish in the new car? No problem. Board a plane with them for a flight to Dallas? No problem. Pizza for dinner? No problem. I’m so glad we have those memories.
Much love to you!

January 20, 2014 | Registered CommenterBeatriz Terrazas
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