One day shortly before the holidays, I looked over from working in the study to see that the sun was casting a rectangle of light through the window onto the rug, and that Pundit had positioned his head and shoulders exactly in that rectangle and fallen asleep. Thank you, Pundit, for reminding us to grab the chance to sunbathe, especially in the winter, whether it means walking outside in the morning or at lunch, or just taking a minute to find and sit in the sunniest spot.
One day last week, I came into the house with five kids–5!–tumbling after me, shrieking and demanding snacks and complaining and laughing and dropping backpacks on the floor. Cholula had been standing at the kitchen window by the time we entered the yard. She watched us walk up the path, and she slipped through the door to greet us as soon as we opened it. But even after our first tumultous moments in the house, during which plates and bowls were put taken from the cabinet and put onto the table and the refrigerator door was opened and closed numerous times, Pundit did not appear.
This is happening more and more these days. I walked upstairs by myself and all the way to the back of the house to find him sound asleep on the floor of the girls’room. He didn’t wake at my footsteps up the stairs or walking down the hall’s wood floor. He didn’t wake until I touched him. Then his eyelids opened, his eyes focused, and he struggled to his feet to wag his tail and walk with me downstairs to join the party.
There is something so sweet about coming up on your old dog unawares. For so long they are your eyes and ears; you count on them to greet you at the door, to guard the house, to catch wind of any trouble long before you would on your own. And then, they are not anymore. When I walk up on Pundit at these moments–and I remember walking up on Ubi just this way years ago, when she would fall deeply and purely asleep in the middle of the path in the back yard–what I feel most strongly is a sense of sacred trust. This dog has grown old in our lives and now he sleeps. The moment lays clear our bond; I want only to protect him as long as I can, and in his deep and open slumber, he trusts that I will.
Sometimes it’s when you least want a dog that you most need a dog. February is typically the hardest month for me to enjoy in D.C., even in an unseasonably mild winter like this one. It’s cold, the days are still short, and while you can hope for a crazy big snowstorm with snow days and sledding and snow forts and snow men, you’re more likely to get an icy mess that might, if it stays cold, turn the sidewalks into the corrugated, pitted menaces I remember from my childhood in this city, when I swear I spent weeks walking back and forth to school over rutted, treacherous ice flows. We had one of our more typical February weeks last week. A half a centimeter or so of snow dusted our landscape one morning, and then there was cold, and wind, and spitting rain. Most people stayed in when they could. And yet the dogs had to be walked. And so every day I headed outside, and not just to get to the car or metro or bus. And, thanks to the dogs, this is what the winter weather brought me: the sight of my old dog Pundit flipping onto his back at the first sight of that half-centimeter of snow and sliding down the hill in our front yard, just as he’s responded to every snowfall since we first moved into the house in 2000. A run with Cholula in the park so emptied of people by the spitting rain that we had our own quiet woods in the middle of the city. And this, glimpsed as I hurried the dogs home—the winter light catching one of my favorite architectural elements of the city—the turrets on the old row houses.
I took this picture of Pundit just about 3 years ago, on our first walk after my c-section for my son, baby number three. It was a clear, cold winter day in D.C., and when I reached the woods—not far from our house, but quite a bit farther than I’d walked since my son was born—it was easy to trust that the expansiveness I felt from about getting out of the house with two dogs and a baby under my own power was going to grow, that this was the first of many walks we would take, and that although my days had momentarily shrunk to nursing, baby, sleeping, and caring for my two young girls, this wouldn’t always be so. And Pundit, as happy to be out with me as I was with him—Pundit, who’d once swam alongside me up Potomac River rapids as I ferried them in my kayak—yes, I’d once had the time and freedom to do such things—reflected that confidence right back at me—a perfect mirror of that momentary promising joy.
That was back when we still had Ubi, who must have been 17 or so. Pundit was 10 at the time, and we still thought of him as our young dog. While Ubi dawdled along with us on walks, rarely leaving our side, Pundit would charge down any ravine after a stick or a tennis ball over and over again, never revealing that he was even a second past his prime until a stiffness in his walk later that day would remind us that 10 is, what, 70 in people years?
In many ways, these three years have taken their toll on Pundit. As my son has grown from a helpless baby to a talkative, energetic little boy who can run and hop and do a hand stand, Pundit’s physical abilities have dwindled dramatically. Whereas once I could not jog fast enough to break him into a run—he would simply move smoothly beside me in a fast walk—now I almost never take him jogging because he just pulls back, begging me to slow down. I’ll throw him a ball once in a while for old times sake, and he’ll chase it and bring back, but I know his legs can’t take that kind of back and forth anymore, and so I don’t offer him the chase very often, because he won’t stop until he has crippled himself for days. And not only has he had to adjust to one more kid in the house (not especially difficult for Mr. P), he lost his beloved Ubi and then had to deal with Cholula’s entry into his life (difficult) and who knows what he would have to say about that.
But here he is, still Pundit, more grizzled for sure, and a little balder around the eyes, which are duller with cataracts than they were three years ago But still happy to walk out in the woods, full of enthusiasm for what I and the day have brought him. Recently, with a new Rimadyl regime helping him walk, he even jogged a couple of miles with him me and Cholula, stopping often to sniff but picking up his pace again more easily again than he has for a while. He demands his dinner every day, and right on time, and when a recent influx of balloons into the house for my son’s birthday didn’t terrorize him like they used to, I was reminded of how Ubi, who had been petrified to walk through any half open door that might brush against her whiskers—she would yowl until we came and opened it wider for her—at the end of her life used her head as a battering ram to push through any opening of any size.
It is so painful for those of us who love dogs to watch them age more quickly than we do. But they can help reveal to us how to age gracefully, and with heart.
Exercise—and with vigor—as long as you are able
Leave your house eager for each new adventure, and return eager for each homecoming.
Embrace each meal.
Greet your loved ones with joy after each and every parting, no matter how short
Seek out the sun spots.
Check on each member of your family. And then check on them again.
Accept the love you are offered.
Shed useless fears.
Be bossy, now and then.
Sleep deeply and in the most comfortable spot you can find.
We went to Puerto Rico for a week. Our friend and professional dog-sitter, Jim, took care of the dogs for the first time since last April. He walks and feeds them twice a day, and the rest of the time they hang out in the house doing whatever dogs do when they are on their own—sleeping, barking at the mailman, sleeping. We started leaving the dogs home when we can’t take them with us instead of taking them to a friend’s house or kennel after our old dog Ubi got so stressed out at a doggy day care a friend took her to while we were away (this seemed like a good idea before we tried it) that she almost died. Literally. We came home to a quivering heap of fur and bones. Clearly, in her elder years, if she couldn’t be with us, Ubi just wanted to be at home, waiting for us.
I texted Jim a day or so after we left to make sure he had gotten into the house okay and he wrote back, “Everything is fine. Cholula is so mellow on the walk now!” Of course, this made my day. I know Cholula is generally doing great these days, so much better than last spring, but it’s hard to see it sometimes when it happens day by day, and it’s easy to focus on the negative—the time I pushed her past her capability and she charged a friend, the time she ran off (again) into the woods for 20 minutes before coming back.
But I had to wait until we got home to get the full story of Cholula and Pundit’s week without us. This was left for me by Jim on our kitchen table, one note per visit. Our family loved them so much I’m sharing them here, for your reading pleasure:
We had a wet walk. Pundit and Cholula kept looking at me as if to say, “Where are the hot dogs?” (Last spring I was still using hot dogs on walks to get Cholula’s energy away from other dogs). We saw another dog across the street. Cholula hardly noticed!
We took a leisurely walk. No issues.
Pundit and Cholula were on their best behavior with other dogs. I didn’t hear a peep out of either of them!
We had a very pleasant late evening walk. No poop.
Everybody was full of vigor this morning! Still no poop from Cholula.
Everybody ate. Everybody pooped! All was well!
We had another very pleasant morning walk. Cholula was a bit more riled up, but I didn’t have any problems.
Cholula came racing down to see me. Pundit jumped up out of the chair. Everybody was very, very excited! Pundit got some kind of bone on the walk and crunched it up before I could extract it.
Everybody was in need of a good scratch behind the ears and some love, so I gave it to them.
There were a lot of squirrels, cats, and other dogs about. Cholula got pretty excited, but I got her to calm down.
We had a damp and rainy morning walk. Cholula was still looking for that cat! All business was attended to.
We had a rainy walk.
We took a brisk morning walk. Everybody pooped. All was well!
I came bearing food! Cholula and Pundit were very, very excited!
And then we came home. And Cholula and Pundit were very, very excited! For a moment it was a toss up as to whether Cholula was more excited to see me or her rat holes in the back yard, which she hadn’t had access to all week—but then I won! Over the rat holes! Cholula pushed like crazy and raced like a demon up and down the yard jumping on me with full doggy joy while Pundit ran from one to the other of us barking like a maniac—and we were glad to be home.
If you live in DC and want Jim’s information for dog walking or sitting, let me know. He’s the best.