Saturday, January 21, 2012

Old Dogs and the Fountain of Youth

A member of our family is losing his fight with Father Time. We know this by the way his body has changed so drastically in just a few short years. His legs that were strong and muscular, allowing him to run, jump and climb are now weak, thin and wobbly. His once soft brown eyes are now clouded over and instead of watching a bird soar across a clear blue sky, he struggles to recognize the face of those dear to him up close. He has lost much of his hair and his skin has become paper thin allowing the cold air to become an enemy on a chilly Winter afternoon. At times we find him staring blankly into space; possibly wondering where am I, who am I or what am I doing.

I could be describing a grandfather or a great old uncle but I'm not. I'm telling you about a well loved Chihuahua named Rocky who has lived for 16 human years. In doggie years he is more than 76 years old.

A once "spunky" little fellow, Rocky sniffed his way into every mealtime gathering. He watched carefully from his perspective under the table for the tiniest crumb of human delicacy that just might fall with-in his reach. What he prided himself in the most, was his job guarding the front door relentlessly against any intruder who might cross the threshold. At the slightest sound of a footstep more than 20 feet from the door he sounded his alarm with such indomitably that one would have thought he was a mighty Mastiff. He was quick to his feet at the mere mention of "walk or ride" anywhere and always eager to do a trick such as, roll over, play dead and sit pretty for a piddly morsel of cheese. The adventures he has had I'm certain he thought were grand. Chasing a squirrel through the yard to defend his territory; the discovery of a garden snake under the porch; trips in the car with the family to new and interesting places like Texas, New Mexico or Taco Bell all are on his timeline.

But Rocky no longer is as active as he once was. Now he spends the majority of his days curled up in the center of a small dog pillow in our family room. When I am watching tv, I welcome him as he cuddle's up asleep next to me on the sofa earning his keep by keeping me company. As far as his job guarding over our home, Rocky has lost his hearing so the only way he knows when someone has entered the room is due to the vibration he may feel from the door being opened or closed. We have to wake him up often to take him out so he can "relieve" himself, but occasionally we aren't quick enough and depending on whether he makes it off the carpet or onto the tile floor, we end up with a mop bucket or Little Green Machine in hand.  And yes, he smells funky; an unwelcome but common plight that seems to go with the territory of old age.

On a good day he seems alert and content to follow us around the house, bumping into obstacles and sometimes practically tripping us as he gets caught circling our legs. If the sun is shining he will find that sunny, warm spot and roll around vigorously on his back as if he is saying "I feel good!". On a bad day he may struggle to stand as he eats from his favorite food bowl that ironically has a cartoon of the day in the life of an active dog displayed on the side. 

I was asked by a well meaning friend not too long ago, why we didn't proceed to the inevitable now and not allow him to suffer any discomfort he might have any longer. In other words, why not have him euthanized! Euthanize: a verb meaning to kill (a person or animal) painlessly, especially to relieve suffering from an incurable illness. I don't know if I had a good answer for her or not but I simply told her that I wasn't qualified to make that decision. Frankly, he doesn't seem to be suffering and the only thing that I can tell is wrong with him is he's getting old.

Becoming old has always been something that humans have had a difficult time dealing with. The "Fountain of Youth" has been searched for throughout history. The majority of the human race has embraced the idea that our youth is the prime time of our life. And it probably is, after-all, we are the most active, the most attractive and the most productive during our younger years. But like Rocky, everyone ages. We can age more gracefully and in better health by the way we maintain our bodies and our lifestyles but can we really stop the process of getting older? With all of the vitamins, skin care treatments, extreme make-overs and daily exercise, the body still continues on the path of aging and we seem obsessed with it. Is it because we are afraid of death that causes us to be so fearful of aging? The fact of life is that we are born, we live for whatever time we have and then eventually we die.

When I was about 5, I asked my Grandfather if he was going to die someday. I had just discovered death after finding the body of a Robin laying lifeless and stiff in the dirt. I had asked him why the Robin died and he told me that everything dies in time and that the Robin was probably too old. To me my Grandfather was the oldest person I knew and so the idea of him laying quiet, stiff and forever lifeless like the Robin was almost too much for me to bear. When he saw how sad I was, he quickly reassured me that he would not die until he was no longer useful and had accomplished all that he had dreamed of.

Knowing that my Grandfather was a very high spirited and hard working man, I imagined that he would live forever, so when he died at the age of 94, I was terribly sad and had to accept what was reality. But my Grandfather hadn't been ill. He had decided to move into a retirement community after Grandmother had passed away the previous year. He still kept himself active by tending the garden in front of the home and even offered to help out in the dining room for those less mobile. But one morning he miss-judged his reach and fell out of bed, breaking his hip. We rushed to the hospital where they had taken him for surgery and although the surgery went well and he smiled as he came out of it, there was something missing in his eyes. A couple of weeks later while he was being cared for, still bed ridden in the nursing ward of his retirement home, he discussed with the nurse, a letter he had received that day from my Mother. She told him about her retirement party at her job and how wonderful all of the Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren were doing. According to the nurse, he was beaming with pride as he read parts of the letter. An hour later as the nurse returned to see if he needed anything, she found him peaceful and silent forever and the letter placed carefully on his nightstand.  At the moment he finished reading that letter, I think he believed he was no longer useful and had accomplished all that he had set out to do.

Just as any other normal human, I have given much thought to my own aging and mortality. In the past few years I have changed some of my eating habits, spent more time exercising and even stopped climbing trees.  I have decided that wrinkles tell tales of life experience and silver hair is an angelic disguise God has blessed us with to prepare us for heaven. With that being said, I am still wondering what it would be like if we were to finally discover the fountain of youth.

Today on the news they reported the findings of  Factor X, a mysterious substance that scientists claim contains the fountain of youth. It has been shown to fight off certain diseases and therefore extend the life of sick mice. According to the news report, Factor X could be on our pharmacy shelves in the form as a pill for humans with-in five years. It could be a miracle or it could just be another medical breakthrough like others in the past. 

Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine around 400 BC, taught the prevention of disease through a regimen of diet and exercise, yet I can only remember this being acknowledged as an important way of daily life in the past twenty years or so. And think of all of the medical discoveries that have been known to cure and eradicate diseases in our history, yet we still die.

What I think about the future of this new found fountain of youth and what lies ahead? I will remain somewhat skeptical to any fruit it may bear. I will continue to look at life with the realization that it will eventually come to an end. I will spend each day whether it be cold and dark or warm and sunny, making the best of every second I have left. I will do what I can to bring meaning and purpose to my life and share with those who care. Of course I will want to stay as long as possible since I still have many new dreams that have yet to be accomplished. 

As for Rocky, he has taught me a lot about growing old and I can only hope that he will continue to stay by my side, suffering no pain and living his life happily til the end as any old dog should.

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