Senior Scene:


An interviewer once asked the Dalai Lama what his first thought was on waking each morning.

“O happy day!” His Holiness replied.

I love that answer, and I’ve tried his approach, but “O happy day!” doesn’t work for me then. I’m not joyful, nor immediately grateful for being alive. Lying there, I’m an easy target for anxiety, and troublesome thoughts tumble over one another like clothes in a dryer. The tumbling stops when I put my feet on the floor and start moving. Then I worry about one thing: our dog, Cubby.

I wonder what shape he’ll be in when I go downstairs to him. He suffers from two chronic conditions, both incurable and potentially fatal: Cushing’s disease and diabetes. For Cushing’s, an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, he gets two capsules of trilostane every morning. For diabetes, an insulin injection every 12 hours. His injections at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. form the axis my day turns on.

Cubby, nine, is a Keeshond, a medium-size dog (his head coming to just above my knee) with a double coat of thick fur in a mix of black, gray and cream. A plumed tail curls over his back. He has pointy ears, a wolf-like face, and a comical smile. He flashes his teeth when he’s happy to see me or when he knows I’m joking with him. I can’t help smiling back.

He’s kept his sweet disposition through years of hard luck, including several hospitalizations, locally and at Cornell’s Companion Animal Hospital, for injury and illness. Twice, he’s nearly died.

Once, a severe case of gastroenteritis landed him at Cornell, where the vet didn’t expect him to last the night. And, in September 2019, so sick he was barely able to move, he came within 20 minutes of being euthanized. Ketoacidosis had dropped his potassium dangerously low. A vet tech set a folded blanket on the floor for me to lie on next to Cubby as I said goodbye to him. Then our vet, standing over us, suggested waiting another 20 minutes to get the latest potassium value. We did, and it was rising. Over time, it rose into the normal range, and two days later Cubby came home. Since then, his days have been almost all good. His health may fail again overnight, but we’re enjoying these bonus years.

I’m up by 5:30 every morning to take him out, feed him and give him his meds. He’d always slept on the floor of our room, on my side of the bed, but diabetes has impaired his vision, so he can’t go back downstairs safely anymore. The last time he tried, he tumbled down the last few stairs, screeching in pain, and afterwards limped for a day or two. He hasn’t come upstairs since then. (Once, he trotted over the edge of a deep pit dug for a neighbor’s new septic tank. The pit was half-full of water, which broke his fall, and he was able to swim to a corner and scramble out with my help.)

When I go down to him in the morning, I’m never sure what I’ll find. If he hangs back, that’s a bad sign, meaning he’s unwell. Maybe he won’t eat, and that’s a problem, too: he must have food with insulin. But if he bursts forward wagging his tail, smiling, pressing against my legs, I know he’s all right.

It might seem a nuisance, having to get up early to give Cubby his first insulin injection and having to be home for the second one, but it’s not. Keeping him healthy and happy, it turns out, is less a burden than a gift. Giving him the best life possible cures self-absorption. He brightens my days; caring for him gives them purpose.

And he’s a buffer against loneliness. I see few people, and none is as demonstrably glad to see me as he is. We’re buddies. He lopes ahead of me on our long walks, reminds me when it’s time for his noon treat, lies beside me in the evening.

Our best time may be early morning, when we’re outside at 5:30. He can’t get enough of me then. He winds around my legs, fake-bites my hand, smiles, bounces in excitement and practically vibrates with joy. If he could talk, I swear he’d say, “O happy day!”

And I’d say it right back.

Robert Bechtold lives in Morris. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www.

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