My old dog’s nose: On equanimity and aging

My two hound mixes have been dead for a couple of years now, and all I’m left with is this terrier-chihuahua something-or-other who occasionally looks more like a cartoon rendering than an actual dog. Battle-scarred, bug-eyed, and half-deaf, she’s adapted over the years by pushing more and more of her consciousness into her nose.

And so a walk that used to take ten minutes is now more like 25, not just because she’s slowed down, but because her world is contracting, like an old tunnel shot in a silent movie, to the reach of her black, coat-button nose. But this is not a problem for her. In fact, she seems to enjoy coaxing and huffing each olfactory particle from its hiding place as much as she used to love chasing squirrels or barking at the mailman. Her world is shrinking, yes, but it is also expanding.

Niblet finds lots to be crabby about. She wants her 6:00 supper at 4:30 (and also at 6.) She clearly blames me for fireworks and thunder, and rails against a certain white poodle in an undignified yellow raincoat who dares to cross her path. But she does not bemoan the injustice of an aging body that is, as we humans like to say, betraying her. She does not gnash her teeth at god or bore others with stories about the good old days when she could leap from sofa to chair in a single bound.

Because Nib is not human — and so is oblivious to existential angst, the quest for meaning, and all that — she helps me be more human. Her incapacity for nostalgia about greener grass, bygone loves, or a once sexy, ungrizzled muzzle reminds me what a precious, two-edged gift existential reflection really is. I do not romanticize my dog’s in-the-moment simplicity, her childlike delight for each new day despite the physical insults and erosion. But I learn from her.

I once tore through my neighborhood with three energetic mutts in tow, all of us pushing forward, always onward into the next moment. Now Nib leads me around the block, limping a bit as she carries her nose from tree to molehill to grass clump. And because there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go — the days of hurrying are over — I watch her eyes flash with purpose and curiosity and her tiny nostrils flare. In those moments I enter her world and am fully alive in my nose too, as only an animal can be. As only a human animal can be.

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