Gilgamesh is going blind.
Not quickly, and not from cataracts or disease; just from clouding retinas, pupils constantly dilated trying to see more and better with all available light; just from aging, just from getting old, as if the word “just” can ever apply to something as soul-appalling as the shortness of a beloved dog’s life, as if the shift in the conversations we have with their vets from “preventing” and “addressing” to “managing” don’t tear out our guts and leave them on the floor collecting drifts of spring shed.
He’s a lucky dog, Gilly’s vet told me again today, praising his muscle tone, his weight, his teeth, how attentive I am to the changes I’m seeing.
I came all the way up here to see you, specifically, I told his vet, who is over an hour away in New Hampshire, because I need your decades of experience and your rationalism. Rational isn’t necessarily how I am about this dog. Less ethical vets can take advantage of this. Tell me what you would do for him. I will find the ways to pay for anything that makes sense to make his life longer and better.
We talked about canine ophthalmology, the range of treatments and tests, the difference between cataracts, disease, and the natural aging process, the costs of specialists. He drew me a canine eyeball and showed me what Gilly’s are and are not doing as they age. My concern, he said, is this: say there turns out to be a good surgery to give him perfect vision again, and you find some way to pay for it. Then he’s got young-dog eyes on an old dog’s frame, and arthritis, and all the rest of the breaking down parts, which will continue to break down. Three months later, he blows out his knee chasing that squirrel he can see so well. Have you just done him a kindness? If you let him be, his gradually failing vision might be the thing that slows down his not-failing athletic spirit that could otherwise land him in a heap of trouble. He pauses, adds: it can’t hurt to have an ophthalmologist look at him and tell you what they think, though.
He did a general exam while I mulled over all he’d said, and he gave Gilly treats. We talked some more. I asked him again what he would do. I trust this vet like no other: large and small animal, up on all the current technology but balanced by vast experience, knowledge, realism, and a true animal lover’s emphasis on letting them live the best lives we can possibly give them—without letting our own inability to accept their mortality make their last years more about horrible surgeries and our fears than their happiness.
If he was mine, he said eventually, thoughtfully, and very gently, I’d let him get old, and keep doing exactly what you’re doing: walk and hike him, keep him thin and strong, give him his joy, and just gradually rein him in closer and more carefully as he weakens. His heart and happiness will stay stronger than his frame from here on out. And if eventually he can’t see, you have to see for him. He’ll start to rely on you more over time. It will be slow.
When he was a pup, Gilly and I talked about him living 17 years. I knew then, of course, that this was very likely a delusional conversation on several fronts, but you know, emotionally, it stuck.
Today his vet said he doesn’t see any reason why a dog like Gilly—healthy, well-muscled, well-fed, well cared for, well-loved, in great shape—wouldn’t have an excellent quality of life at least to 12 or 14.
That’s 1-3 years away.
That’s math I can’t stomach.
I glossed over that, returned to the eyes. We discussed the ophthalmologist options again.
I said: I had a feeling this visit was going to be a conversation about how to deal with Gilly getting old, and he answered: yeah, it’s that time.
We talked about managing the arthritis. We talked about the infinite gifts dogs give us, and their one catastrophic failing: too-short lifespans. We talked about kinds of motion to avoid to better protect his spine and joints as things go downhill. We agreed we hope to not see each other soon.
I drove home. Gilly started out as usual: his head out the window, his nose my ship’s prow—but after a few miles he was curled up, snoring along the highway.
Back in Massachusetts, I took him for a leash-walk around the village, thinking about how at some point too soon, he may need to be on-leash all the time, using me as his seeing-eye-human. You may be able to voice-guide him through his favorite woods-trails, his vet had said, since you’ve trained him so carefully for safe off-leash hiking. His basic responsiveness to you is so good. You can tell him ‘not there, come this way,’ that sort of thing. This seems likely: he listens to me that way anyway. Always has.
The sun was going down. Gilly pranced joyously, peed in the general direction of a cat, shied at things he wasn’t quite able to identify (as he has been lately, until he gets close enough to figure out what they are), met other dogs with delight.
Low light. A brilliant red-orange sky with great washes of pale pink streaking behind newly-leafing trees.
Only the birches have greened. The rest are red and furled, but coming.