My beloved mother-in-law died just three months after I completed proton therapy for prostate cancer at University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville. On that day we inherited and adopted Baxter, the perky little 27-pound mutt who kept her company in her final years. Baxter and I have been best pals ever since, and he has taught me a lot about life—lessons that are particularly valuable in my post-proton, post-cancer existence.
Baxter was then (2010) about six years old and I was sixty, ten times his age in absolute years, but only about fifty percent older using the seven-dog-years-per-human-year formula. Today (2019) I am sixty-nine and Baxter just turned fifteen. That makes me 4.6 times his age in absolute years, but using dog years he is now older than me by about twenty percent.
So who is older? And does it really matter? Any way you look at it, we’re just a couple of old dogs muddling through life.
Yesterday he had a “senior” medical checkup at the one place on earth into which he must be carried. He now perceives those telltale double-glass doors as the portal to a canine torture chamber. He understandably resists, and I can no longer even push him in. Thankfully, he’s still under thirty pounds and I can carry him. Of course, Baxter has never been hurt at the vet, but it is nevertheless no fun and causes him anxiety.
When it’s over I reward him with his favorite treat, and he’s happy again.
My anxiety level spikes every time I have a blood draw, which is literally a hit-and-miss proposition.
I can relate to how he feels. My anxiety level spikes every time I have a blood draw, which is literally a hit-and-miss proposition. I may soon require someone to carry me into the lab tech’s office. Once they eventually get what they need, my focus shifts to concern about what the results might mean for me—a second level of anxiety Baxter is spared. Even almost nine years post-proton, PSA anxiety still lingers.
Although I do reward myself with a treat (typically a Hardee’s cinnamon raisin biscuit), I’m not totally happy again until I know my lab results are satisfactory.
Our health status
How’s Baxter doing? He’s doing very well “for an old dog.” There’s some arthritis in his left hind leg, he’s lost most of his hearing, his vision is a tad cloudy, and his alkaline phosphate level is too high for a healthy gall bladder.
But only his veterinarian knows any of this, and only she knows that his gall bladder has lost some structural integrity. The only outwardly visible evidence of Baxter’s age is his grayer, whiter hair, a couple extra pounds, and a flappy loose-fitting jowel under his chin.
Overall, he appears to be a pretty darn healthy dog.
How am I doing? Very well “for a man my age.” I have some arthritis in my shoulders, I’ve lost some hearing in the upper frequencies, I have floaters in both eyes, a whistle in my left ear, and restricted air flow in my right nostril. Of course, you can see none of this.
Nor can you see that my prostate is a flattened, toughened, barely functional mass of proton-radiated (cancer-free) tissue—something only my oncologist has seen (or more accurately, felt). The only outward evidence of my age is a salt-and-pepper beard that was black for many decades, grayer and sparser hair on my head under my hat, and an excess amount of me in my midsection.
Overall, I appear to be a pretty darn healthy guy.
Baxter and I have a lot in common, but we differ completely when it comes to our sense of time. He lives in the present and is totally focused on the moment at hand. He is aware of no past, nor a future. He does this naturally—didn’t even need to attend a mindfulness class for senior canines. Saved me a lot of money.
I do my best to emulate him, but I cannot devote all my time to “being present.” The past lingers forever, and the future requires planning. I am working to improve my ability to ignore the bygones and yet-to-comes of my life while fully enjoying the moment, but it still takes effort. How nice it would be to have a Baxter-Button that would switch my focus at will.
I am working to improve my ability to ignore the bygones and yet-to-comes of my life while fully enjoying the moment …
Baxter’s recent medical checkup provides a perfect illustration of our different perception of time. His appointment was close to noon and his labs required fasting. I said to my wife Lucy, “This is horrible. Baxter is going to hate me. He won’t understand why I’m depriving him of his breakfast and morning treats. He’ll think he did something wrong, that he disappointed me and lost my love. He’ll never forgive me for rejecting him!” To be sure, Baxter was a little hungry and confused for a few hours, but it was torture for me.
Lucy accurately assured me that once I fed Baxter we’d be pals again, and he’d never even be able to recall the brief deprivation. There would be no “remember the time you starved me all morning” recrimination, no lingering lack of trust or love. There’d be no forgiveness because there’d be nothing to forgive. It would be as if it had never happened. No wallowing in the past, no worrying whether it will happen again. It’s so easy for him.
Our walks in the woods
Nearly every morning Baxter and I take a leisurely walk in the woods. It’s not as lengthy as in younger days, nor as vigorous, but it’s every bit as wonderful and important to us both. Without a leash, Baxter leads the way through the trees, pridefully prancing as the lead dog, exuding joyfulness with every step. I focus on him and feel fortunate to have yet another day to share the moment, enjoying his company and appreciating the beauty that surrounds us. It is a much-needed morning meditation that impacts the remainder of my day.
Baxter leads the way through the trees, pridefully prancing as the lead dog, exuding joyfulness with every step. I focus on him and feel fortunate …
As Baxter’s student, I observe that he stops to sniff every interesting scent he encounters, never lamenting his inability to hear what he so adeptly detects with his nose. He stops frequently, sticking his snout into a pile of leaves or a patch of grass, inhaling the cacophony of aromas for many minutes, unconcerned about delaying our progress. He has taught me to patiently wait and vicariously appreciate his thorough olfactory analysis. Only when he’s satisfied that his inspection is complete does he forge ahead. He now huffs and puffs while slowly traversing the inclines of our path, never seeming to suffer or care about his diminished stamina or arthritic legs.
For him, this is how it is, and it’s pretty darn good.
I take my cue from him. The sounds of the birds, the wind, the rustling trees, and the crunching beneath my boots create a symphony of calm. I’m happy to hear these sounds, even without the upper frequencies I’m now missing, and even with the persistent whistle in my head. To a far lesser degree than Baxter, I can also enjoy the surrounding scents—even without much help from my restricted right nostril. And the visual beauty is ever-changing and breathtaking, forcing the floaters that faintly speckle my vision into the background.
For me, this is how it is, and it’s pretty great.
With the help of Baxter, at least on our walks I live in the present. I do my best to retain and apply that ability for the rest of the day. After all, the present is all I am assured of having. It’s life, and I don’t want to miss it.
We are indeed a couple of old dogs—at least old enough to have had things happen that I wish had not. Tinnitus, lost frequencies, floaters, and a touch of cancer—I didn’t want any of those, but I’ve learned to live with them. They were all surprises that should not have surprised me because clearly, this is how life works. Stuff happens. It’s not “if,” it’s “what and when.”
I know and accept that more stuff will happen to both me and Baxter, guaranteed. Some good, some … meh. Eventually something will end it all, hopefully quickly and painlessly. Either of us could be hit by a bus—end of story. Baxter’s gall bladder could stop doing its job. I could encounter a new or returning cancer or an entirely different and possibly worse illness, making my remaining life more of a challenge. It will assuredly be something. I just don’t know what or when.
Does it really matter? Absolutely, but I’ll follow Baxter’s carefree lead as much as I can. I’ll endeavor to notice and appreciate the good things in each moment to whatever degree I can. It’s the only approach that makes sense.
Especially for an old dog.
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