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We have an old dog.
Old as in he sleeps most of the day, has lost a few teeth, struggles to make it up the stairs, and audibly grunts when he changes position. I have not had the pleasure of inhaling that delectable puppy smell in over a decade. And I am reminded of his old age every time I bring him to his veterinarian, where he is referred to as a “senior” dog. I recently learned a painful truth: a dog is considered to be senior in the last quarter of their lives.
Yet something about our old dog is different these days. Recently I’ve noticed a sea change in our beloved canine’s behavior.
Our old dog has a new spring in his step. He spends many more hours awake than ever before. He follows us around the house and tries to jump into our laps as soon as we sit down. He eats his drab meals with new delight. His ratty and ancient toys suddenly inspire countless hours of frenzied puppy-like play.
I have tried to figure out what might account for this renewed vim and vigor. We haven’t changed his food or added any new medications to his regimen. The weather is getting nicer, but for the past 13 years, spring’s much anticipated arrival has not drastically changed our cockapoo’s personality. I’ve always worked from home, so my constant company is not the cause of his new-found joie de vivre.
There is, however, one thing that has most definitely changed. And I’m fairly convinced it accounts for our old dog’s renewed vitality.
The kids are back.
When we first brought our puppy home, our daughter had just finished kindergarten and our son had recently completed third grade in a new elementary school. We hadn’t yet fully unpacked from a hectic move, but a big beautiful backyard beckoned, and I knew this home needed a dog to make it complete.
And he did complete us. The children and their puppy grew up together. Those early years were filled with play dates and shared family meals, outside play on the swing set and hours snuggled inside watching television and completing homework.
As the kids grew older, life became more hectic. There were carpools and appointments, rehearsals and practices. One child eventually left to attend college 350 miles away from home. The other child, now in high school, was consumed with marching band, college applications, archery competitions and friends. Our aging dog quietly observed these changes with patience and absolutely no judgment. He gratefully accepted their love when he could get it.
Then Covid-19 was introduced to our shared vocabulary, and the kids came back home. Home from college. Home from high school. My college son has a summer internship that was abruptly moved online. My daughter, a high school senior, has a prom dress, but no prom, and a graduation ceremony that might very well take place in her car.
These kids are lost and lonely. But our old dog has never been happier. He is once again the object of their attention; the recipient of their sweet affection. There are long slow walks around the block, endless treats, tummy rubs and naps at our feet. The kids are bored. The dog’s in heaven. Their losses are his gain.
And it’s not lost on me that I understand all too well his newfound lightness.
Having my kids home has brought life back into the house. They are baking, studying, watching movies, late-night snacking, bickering and talking. It feels like how it felt when they were young. And because I hadn’t thought I’d feel this way again, it feels like a gift. I’d expected I would truly find myself when my nest was finally empty. Instead it seems I’ve found myself now that my nest is suddenly and unexpectedly full again.
Yet my happiness is tinged with sadness. Our cockapoo knows only the purity of love given and received. I, on the other hand, know that no matter how much love I give my children, they are hurting now. My son should be in lecture halls and dorm halls. My daughter should be plotting senior pranks and planning a post-prom party. I want my children here. And I want them back there.
These young adults are missing out on so many milestones. And so am I. Their missed milestones are memories I will miss forever: prom, the last band concert, the final bow after the spring show, graduation. I know for sure my high school senior needed those traditions and rituals, those momentous events. I needed them as well.
But our old dog is blissfully unaware of all this. He only knows there is more love to absorb, and more love to radiate back to us. Our young-again old dog is simply basking in the moment, unencumbered by regret and oblivious to what is missing.
He is, in the end, the wisest teacher. He has reminded me of what every parent learns and then quickly forgets: the best of life is often lived in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant moments.
If we are healing our old dog with love, he is surely healing us with hope.