We were watching Brian Williams on NBC the other evening when he teased up the next story: "10-Year-Old Spaniel Makes Comeback." Of course, he was referring to Stump, the Sussex spaniel who had just won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Show. Not only was Stump the oldest dog to win in the 133-year history of the annual event, but the pooch had almost died five years ago. I immediately called out to Max, our 14-year-old cocker spaniel, to come watch with us. I'd forgotten that the old fellow is deaf and by 6:45 had already turned in for the night. Yes, let sleeping dogs lie.
Max has had more than his share of calamities, but we loved him from the very beginning, with his hanging tongue, wagging tail, and carefree swagger. A rescue in the most literal sense, he became ours the very day we first took a look at him and put him on our short list. That same evening, his owners called in a fit: "If you don't take him, we're putting him down." Under the circumstances, how could we not?
Within the first year reborn with us, he - ever the scavenger - had scaled three shelves in the pantry to retrieve the 1-pound cellophane-wrapped box of See's chocolates, devouring them in minutes. I got home to find him in toxic shock from the chocolate, and after $1,000 worth of emergency treatment that night (including induced-vomiting and charcoal suppositories), he survived yet another day. Finally, well enough to come home, his tail wagged happily as he immediately rushed to the trashcan to pull out the empty box of chocolate to see if anything remained. Talk about learning from your mistakes. It's fair to say he's no genius.
While on a walk in San Francisco a few months later, Max scarfed a tab or two of LSD he found in a neighborhood park. That led to new seizures and another costly vet stay. Let's not talk about canine flashbacks.
From day one with us, I can tell you Max lived with enthusiasm and without fear (and certainly with no regard to how much his antics cost us). But having survived his youth, he's an old dog now, plagued by arthritis, some cervical issues, occasional incontinence, and a "touch" of dementia. But while I loved him as a pup, I find that old Max fills my heart in ways I couldn't have imagined. These days we carry him upstairs to his bed because he can no longer maneuver the flight of steps. On alternate weeks, we run over to the vet for his acupuncture, and we both lie there in the dark as he takes the needles and lets his chi run wild while I stroke his "third eye." He's never out of sorts - in fact, he's always happy. Happy to go out, happy to come in. Ready for dinner. Ready for a nap.
We don't value old in this culture. It's all about youth, new fashion, and cutting-edge technology. We forget that some of the best wines and cheeses are aged, and it's easy to overlook that some of the finest literature and furniture come from earlier times. My friend, the good doctor Andrew Weil, wrote about aging in a recent book: "Aging can bring frailty and suffering, but it can also bring depth and richness of experience, complexity of being, serenity, wisdom, and its own kind of power and grace." How sad that we give short shrift to the elderly in our society, pushing them out of sight while we try to place them out of mind.
Who made "old" a dirty word? We all did.
In dog years, Max is about to turn 100. We know that his time - like all of our lives - is limited. But he doesn't know that. Maybe if he were a genius he would, but for now I love watching him live every day with the same kind of spirit he's always had, tail wagging, nose twitching, and yes, tongue ever on the lookout for a new treat. If he could speak, no doubt it would be, "What will today bring?!"
Like Stump, the Westminster winner, Max is a champ. Let us now praise old dogs.
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