My old dog is deaf. Completely deaf. It is a strange thing to take care of a dog that cannot hear and we are learning together how to navigate this. We cannot be lazy with him at all. If we let him out in the back yard and he goes crazy barking at the rabbit and fox, we’ve got to be prepared to trek out to get him, positioning ourselves so that he can see us. We have to make hand signals to tell him to be quiet. Remarkably, he seems to understand these.
When he gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom we cannot say, “Hang on a minute, we’re coming! Don’t pee in the living room! We are on our way.” Instead, we have to leap out of bed and get down the stairs before he gives up on us, or his bladder does. Did I mention he is old?
He is an English cocker spaniel, and his name is Puck. He’s only the second dog I’ve had in my life. We got him when our youngest went off to pre-school so that I could have another baby to cuddle. He rode to carpool with me curled on his very own feather pillow on the front seat. In the house, he lived up to his mischievous namesake, running around in circles when we tried to crate him, chewing toys, blankets, and shoes.
He also joined a pack of other puppies on the street that all arrived at about the same time. There was Max, a leonine golden retriever, and Lucky, a fearless rescue hound who chased the cars up the street and tried to bite the tires. There was Andy, a black lab who had eight pups, and Gatsby, her biggest boy who regularly escaped from around the corner to visit her. There was Pan, a Portuguese water spaniel and Eight Ball, a shelter pit. When one of the dogs began to bark, the others would join in what my husband called a “bark-ipelago.”
The dogs had kids, and they ran around in a pack too, chasing balls and each other, from yard to yard, house to house.
Puck is the last man standing in his generation of dogs. The others have gone where dogs go. Their kids have gone too, to college and work and life. Younger kids have moved in, with younger dogs. Puck’s the elder statesman on the street now, slow to get from sitting to standing. He doesn’t love when the puppies bounce on him, but he still adores children. We don’t need the leash to walk him as he only wants to amble a block or so at a time, returning to push the front door open and head in for a nap. He naps a lot.
When I look at him curled in his bed, sleeping, he doesn’t seem to have aged at all. He’s always been a solid little fellow with a beautifully complex multi-colored coat that hasn’t gone gray. Lucky dog, I think, as I don’t have the same sensation when I look at myself in the mirror. Or at my kids. Or my parents. We have all aged.
But then he’ll stumble, his back legs briefly giving way. Or look at me insistently and bark. He barks a lot now, maybe because he can’t hear. And I remember that he is indeed old. In dog years, he’s hitting his nineties. I wonder if he’s lonely in his newly quiet world. I worry that he doesn’t understand his own deafness, that he thinks we’ve stopped calling to him, or telling him he’s a good dog. He’s such a good dog, so cheerful.
This holiday season, as kids and family come to our house to celebrate, he’ll be ecstatic, his bobbed tail working overtime like a small bird’s wings. He’ll roll on the center hall rug and nudge whoever’s around, asking for treats, and to be rubbed. It will be like old times for all of us, hectic and fun.
Except maybe the kids will notice that Puck doesn’t jump on the couch anymore. Or that he takes the stairs carefully and slowly like he’s climbing a mountain. I will tell them to look him in the eyes when they talk to him. To listen when he barks, to try to understand what he wants from them. I will urge them to be patient, to slow down and spend some time with him, to be extra kind. He misses them. So do we.
There are many reasons we have dogs. For their affection and fidelity. Their generosity and protection. But also because they teach us, through their shorter lifespans, about aspects of our own lives. Young when my kids were, then middle aged like us, now getting older like our parents, Puck has connected us to ourselves and each other along the way. There are times of independence, and times of need. Give and take, he reminds us.
Puck is not our first dog. And he won’t be the last. We live our life in human years, and if we’re lucky, we get many more than a dog does. If we’re lucky too, we get a few good dogs to walk beside us on the journey.
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