Reflections on Aging and Living

I am past seventy now, and it would be ungrateful as well as foolish to lament the declining years I face as part of the human condition. Searching for ways to live these years - not in sadness but with meaning and in gratitude - I came across what I wrote when we lost our Maltese six years ago. I offer it here, in part for the broader lesson I think it offers but perhaps more as a reminder to myself. Former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Vern Law, also known as the "Deacon," once said that "Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards." Thank you Sasha, for the test and the lesson.

When you lose what you love deeply, the grief is unbearable. But it is not insurmountable. We learned this from our dog. Now we have to live it.

Sasha bounded into our lives as she bounded down the stairs of her birth home, a whirring ball of short, wispy white hair who gobbled up life. Yet, whisked to our strange home, she had to adjust to loss for the first time.

She raced into a room, sniffed a bit, and then raced into the next. At day's end, she was not exhausted - she was the "energizer bunny" as our vet would call her even in her last month. But she was afraid. Her brother and sister, between whom she had slept securely since birth, were gone forever. She adjusted again. In the small bathroom, where we had placed a soft towel in the dog carrier we had used to bring her home, she snuggled against the side. If life would deny her the feeling of her siblings, she would create it for herself, which she did with her five pounds in every bed she had for the rest of her life, including ours.

As the years raced by, and all who have loved anyone deeply know they always race by, Sasha lapped up the world as she lapped up water from the bowl with doggie prints on the bottom. Life dribbled over her and from her.

Her eyes took in everything, from the squirrels she chased to the smallest bit of duck poop spotted on daily walks. Her ears never missed the slightest sound. She was always at the door with a barked greeting to guests before we knew they had arrived. Her nose was her keenest radar. When she furiously started to dig in the garden, she always found what she was after, even if it was a disgusting morsel to her unappreciative companions. Her legs flew around the garden path with a leaf in her mouth, a leaf she grabbed as a treat she couldn't fathom but wasn't about to give up.

Advancing years were not as kind to Sasha, but she never let on. As her eyes began to fail, first with cataracts and then with the loss of peripheral vision, she compensated without complaint. Even when she could only see what was right in front of her nose, she grabbed at it and made it a part of her life, as she did with her daily cheese treat on her last morning as our enfolding arms substituted for the legs she could no longer count on. Even as those legs failed, which they did when a stroke took her muscles away, she adjusted, again without complaint or anger. As her hearing failed, she used her sense of smell to fill in what was missing. When she could not hear - or see - the rustle of plates that marked the start of breakfast, she could still smell the oatmeal cooking or the nearly imperceptible odor that comes from the first slice of a banana. And so she stumbled out of her bed in the kitchen to announce that she fully expected her share.

As her world became smaller in tandem with her remaining days, we could have easily slipped into anger and heartsickness at our impending loss. But Sasha was too busy living to permit it. So we soldiered on, content as she was with what she could still do because she still loved doing it. If she was adjusting, now almost daily, could we not as well?

But we had it wrong. It was not primarily up to us to make her last days full, gentle and comforting - though we tried. She did that mostly herself. It was up to us to learn from what she did. We were not her caretakers as much as Sasha was our teacher. She did not offer up the lessons of life in any organized way; the best teachers don't. She just lived them.

As we rose for our first morning without her, knowing that there will be no chance to lift her from her bed or smell her soft hair, the day could have been filled with sadness. That is not what Sasha, whose life is our lesson, taught us. So we will have the courage to face each day as she did, embracing each minute because, as she knew, the next minute is never a certain gift. We will drink in life, smell, touch, taste, and run after it. We'll find a way to extract joy from what is left us and give more joy to those whose lives we touch. Sasha never grieved for what she lost. She just enjoyed what she had. Forever in her debt, we owe her the same.