A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”
We snore. Our eyesight is getting worse. We both gained weight during the pandemic. We walk slower. We’re easily distracted. Our joints hurt. We don’t like spending too much time alone. And, oh, do we love our afternoon naps on the couch. Our cockapoo April and I are aging together. How I wish she would continue to “grow old along with me” as the Robert Browning poem and John Lennon song entreat.
I picked up April in New Hampshire during a nor’easter not unlike the one we had last week. I hadn’t committed to the breeder that I would take the last of the litter. But the minute I saw all four pounds of her, white with black spots, you would have had to muster an army to keep me from bringing her home. I held her in one hand as I signed the paperwork and she licked my face with her tiny pink tongue. I was a goner.
She rode home in a crate in the back seat. I had researched that was the safest way to transport a puppy. It was a disaster. As I drove down I-93 and up Route 128, she shook in fear and drooled until I thought she was seriously ill. I finally pulled over on the Peabody/Salem line to get her out of the crate and as soon as I put her in the grass of a little side street park, she jumped and played like nothing had happened. Every time I drive by that park to this day, I say out loud “April Park” as if giving a prayer of thanks. She rode in my lap the rest of the way home. When Jack, Maddy and David met her, our little family was complete.
I don’t have to recount the moments of regret that followed — anyone who is honest about having a puppy would understand why I called it being in puppy prison. I sat on the kitchen floor for hours on end, wiping up accidents, trying to tire her out. A favorite chair and favorite shoes were destroyed. At times, I simply handed April my sneakers to chew on, a complete surrender.
Like they say with raising kids, the days were sometimes long but the years went fast. A dog’s unconditional love is one of those gifts you can’t understand unless you’ve experienced it.
As for many pets, the pandemic was the best thing that ever happened to April. All of her family at home to love all of the time.
As the kids went back to their lives, we started noticing small changes. The snoring for one, but also some stiffness when she first got up. Then she stopped coming upstairs to sleep, her presence at the end of our bed one we had taken for granted for years.
On familiar neighborhood walks she sometimes bumped into things — a telephone pole or signpost. And she had an episode of a kind of palsy, half her face drooping, drooling, her head cocked to the side. She recovered after a long course of antibiotics. But her eyesight seemed to worsen.
We recently learned April is completely blind in one eye and soon will be in the other, caused by a genetic condition. We’re told she will still have a great quality of life, to be careful of her on stairs and not to move furniture. More than usual, if I change rooms, even chairs, she comes with me, laying as close to me as she possibly can. It’s sweet and sad at the same time.
I asked Dr. Jeff Rockwell and Annie Rockwell, the owners of Atlantic Veterinary Hospital, what advice they have for older dog owners. Annie said, “I try to remind people that quality of life changes as we age and as our pets age and to adjust their expectations.” Jeff agreed, “What you expect from a 10-year-old dog is different than a 5-year old dog. Their world gets a little smaller. Dogs adapt.” They both noted that sitting out in the sun in the yard might become the new normal rather than taking your pet on a power walk.
If you’re worried you’re not doing enough or missing something, Annie said, “Pets communicate with us non-verbally their entire lives and you have to remind yourself of that, tapping into that non-verbal communication and trust that as they get older.” And Jeff finished, “For me, it’s about finding joy, is life joyful? You can tell if your dog or cat is enjoying life. I always say, you know your pet better than anyone.”
How lucky we are to have the kind, gentle wisdom of these two professionals in our town.
It seems like a cruel rule of the universe that our pets live just for a small fraction of our lives. Yet as I’ve grown older and more at peace with the idea that “the universe is unfolding as it should,” I think maybe it is meant to be this way. That there’s a gentle nudge in it, teaching us something about cherishing, perhaps not just our pets, but all whom we love in our lives. After all, our own human lifespan is much less certain than that which has been carefully calculated by breed.
We have lots of time left with April, yet not enough at all. The next years will be different, quieter, more watchful, filled with some worry and certainly joy. “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be,” the poem and song continue. Then Lennon added, “Whatever fate decrees. We will see it through. For our love is true.”