Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Golden Girl

A few weeks ago I participated in a 5K run/walk, a fundraiser for Project Hope, a worthy no-kill animal shelter that serves the southern Illinois and western Kentucky areas (send them your spare cash this instant!). I decided Isabelle would take the walk with me, her being a dog and all and that morning, as is her way, Isabelle caught on very quickly to the fact that she was having an Outing. She learned as a puppy to identify the word "walk". She will perk up her ears the minute the word is spoken, tilt her head to one side, stare intently into my face, every nerve and sinew aquiver, and begin the pant of excitement that translates loosely to,

Did you say WALK? Is it me? ME??? I'm going for a WALK? OHMYGOD REALLY? REALLY? SHIT! I gotta pee...

pant, twirl, sweat, slobber, tremble, release fur cloud--REPEAT.

The rattle of her leash (it doesn't come out often now that my yard is completely fenced for the dog's enjoyment) only confirmed her growing suspicion and amped up her already off-the-chart level of hysteria,


With difficulty (because of her extreme excitement level), I got her loaded into the back of the car. Once we set off, it was a constant stream of the sound her trying to pace in a space barely larger than a kennel, coupled with my ultimate pet pet peeve of the universe, the dreaded, the annoying, like fingernails on a chalkboard, the: mouth breathing.

And make no mistake? Isabelle knows exactly what mouth breathing is and that she isn't supposed to be doing it in the car (or anywhere near me). It goes something like this:



(shouting over my shoulder into the din)



(suddenly dead silent)

7.5 seconds later...






(suddenly dead silent)

Repeat above 10+ times on the 7-minute ride to the park.

Once there, I unloaded the shaking, drooling, mouth-breathing mass of quivering fur that perhaps, say, a mere 30 minutes earlier had been a boneless unresponsive heap of jointless dog on the floor. I clamped her leash on and began the arduous task of both walking her in a strange place and reminding her of her training. This means not allowing her to pull me, but rather, when she does, stopping, pulling up on the leash, turning the dog in a circle, commanding her to sit and then setting out again, giving her the command to "Heel!".

Much like with mouth breathing, Isabelle, all appearances to the contrary, knows what she is supposed to be doing. She's just. Too. Damn. Excited. To concentrate. For more than a few. Seconds. At a time. At first.

We make our way to the sign-in station in this lurching fashion: pull up-stop -turn-sit-heel-walk a few steps...pull up-stop-turn-sit-heel-walk a few steps, over and over. By the time we get there, Isabelle is beginning to respond slightly better to commands and has regained a small fraction of her senses. I can stop and sit her, saying "wait", giving her the hand signal (basically my palm in front of her face) and she will do so for brief periods before becoming distracted and trying to lurch away. This trick will get her another pull up on the leash, a tap of her haunch with my foot, and the "wait!" again.

By the time the race/walk was about to begin, Isabelle was mostly under control. We positioned ourselves firmly at the back of the pack (no running for me! still hate it!). I thought nothing of taking Isabelle along for a brisk three-mile (no, I'm never converting to metric) walk. It was a beautiful crisp fall morning, the perfect weather--blue skies, puffy clouds floating by. It was warming up quickly, though, and most everyone had shed the light jackets they had arrived wearing. Once the runners sprang away, we set out, me chatting all the while. Isabelle fell into step mostly beside me, and, after a time, I had to pull her back from straining on the leash only occasionally and then, a while after that, not at all.

We had completed perhaps the first half of the walk before I noticed Isabelle falling a little short. I glanced down at her, a little incredulous. Her face, almost completely white now, was near the ground and she was breathing in slow, tired pants. I heard a scraping noise that took me a moment to realize was the sound of her dragging one foot slightly. For the first few seconds, I couldn't understand what I was seeing. Like looking at those purposely illusory drawings you have to stare at for few seconds before the picture comes into focus, I stared down at Isabelle. She looked exhausted. Suddenly, a hundred observed but not studied moments began falling into place in my mind: Isabelle not being the first out the door in the morning; Isabelle with a strange look on her face sometimes, as though she can't quite make sense of something; a certain still quality she has now when she's resting...too still; a pause sometimes for a few beats between the time I say her name, and the time she looks over and becomes responsive.

In that moment, a bell that had been ringing in the distance for months, maybe years, became an ominous clang.

Isabelle is...old.

She just had her eleventh birthday.

I suddenly remembered a conversation I'd had with a dog lover when I was first considering adopting a dog of my own, probably a few months before I got Isabelle:

What's it like having a dog, I'd asked.

And what he said was that a dog is a little like having a child but speeded up in fast motion. With a dog, he said, everything--puppyhood, adulthood, old age--is compressed and condensed into a much shorter timeline. Of course, I knew this. We all know this, right? But something about the way he'd put it that day made the words stick with me. And as I stood there seeing Isabelle, usually the most rambunctious and enthusiastic of dogs, now stooped and nearly worn out from a walk that she wouldn't have even noticed not that long ago, I knew I was seeing that short arc for myself.

We would slow our pace and finish the walk that day. And, afterward, Isabelle was tired, but still excited and happy to be there. But as I loaded her into the car, she had to have help getting in. For the first time ever, she was too tired to execute her usual easy one-motion precise leap into the way-back area in which she rides. And I came away that day with a new appreciation for what I've always known is true: my time with my big, furry oldest girl is limited.

Even so, most days, Isabelle is able to gallivant around as if she were a much younger dog. She is often spry given a full night's rest. The vet told me when she was younger that Isabelle had some of the best hip joints he'd ever felt (especially in a retrieverish sort of dog--no doubt the benefit of some creative breeding) and these still serve her very well, enabling her to sproing through the tall grass on occassion. She will still jump enthusiastically into any body of water she encounters, although she won't stay in as long as she used to and she struggles more when hefting herself back out again, when her thick coat is heavy with the weight of the water. Isabelle, more often than not, is a very happy and fairly active dog indeed. If we're lucky, we still have many more years left together.

But since the day of the walk and for weeks now, Isabelle's life, at different times and in different ways, has been replaying in my head off and on. Even when I'd rather it didn't. I'm remembering times and days and incidents I haven't thought about in years. I suppose this is the normal process. This is what happens when one comes to a realization like I have.

In the meantime, Isabelle has been enjoying additional privileges and freedoms since my ephiphany and I suspect these will continue to grow. Her tendency, since puppyhood, to swipe food off momentarily unsupervised plates and ingest it quick as lightening followed by the, "Who me?" face has resurfaced. Only these days, she's getting away with it. I suspect this will continue. Whatever happens, I will be here for Isabelle for as long as she needs me. Just as she has done the same for me every day and every night since that October day eleven years ago when I spotted her, a fat shy blonde little thing, hiding behind her kennel. I mean, hello? Clearly, she was a puppy destined for doggie greatness.

A few weeks ago I began the going through my digital files and editing my photos of Isabelle and consolidating them into a single file. I felt the need to get them all in one place. That process, which began as a casual project, quickly turned to steady occupation, then semi-urgent mission, and, finally, to full blown obsession. It was a massive undertaking given my sloppy tendencies where things like photo files are concerned. Not only did I have to slog though Pinky's only marginally organized archives, but also the external drive that holds approximately a zillion images from my old computer and even some film images before that. Isabelle has been much photographed to say the very least, first with old skool film, then on my crappy Fuji digital camera that came free with something or other, then with my "real" camera and now with my iPhone. Isabelle, along with the rest of us, has advanced fully into the digital age.

Once I amassed Isabelle's photos, I became equally obsessed with the idea of organizing them into a little slide show; it sounds simple enough, right? I used the only program on my computer for such a project: Microsoft movie maker (probably not the best choice). Regardless, it's been cathartic--if exhausting-- to put together the the thing together (I'll spare you the details of my technical problems and nineteen nervous breakdowns, and countless viewings of Movie Maker "fix" videos).

I've often been accused of favoring Tallulah over Isabelle by those that read me here. But I submit the following video as evidence to the contrary. Doubters? This one's for you...


Patience Renzulli said...

Lovely, really. One of your best, and not just the subject matter, either, promise.

Brenda said...

Beautifully done, sweetie. And so touching.

Anna said...

That is really sweet. Between the blog and the video, it got me blubbing about my 13-yr-old cat Curtis, who died Aug. 29, then about my dog who I grew up with who died when I was 12. Well done.

Suzanne said...

Thank you most sincerely Mom and Patience! Anna, thanks to you too. While I knew Curtis had issues, I didn't realize what happened :( Sorry! Obviously, I understand how much one can come to love a pet.