Last week, I saw my youngest child off to his first year of college. This was an incredibly momentous and bittersweet day that I never really thought would arrive – at least not as fast as it did. Seemingly overnight, I became an old bird in an empty nest. Well, an empty nest of sorts because I still have 5 FOUR-LEGGED kids left in the house to care for. And my oldest, Winnie, a 15 ½ year old blind and deaf Havanese, needs quite a bit of extra help going about her day and night now.
With big changes in my home, moments with my old dog serve as a neon-bright reminder of how fast time flies, and with it, youth too.
Winnie has been with me for the majority of my life as a parent. We got her when my youngest child was only three-years-old and his older brother was six. I can remember clearly the day we brought her home and the boys debated about what to name her. Princess? No, she didn’t look like a Princess. Oreo? No. Too common. Stinker Bell? Nope, I had to veto that one. Finally, they settled on Winnie The Pooch. Perfect!
Winnie has been with us for birthdays, holidays, and graduations. She has been there for and with our family through happy times, sad times, and just plain ordinary times. She’s been a furry shoulder to cry on, an endless source of laughter with bouts of “the sillies”, and a comforting sight at the end of long and difficult days with her welcoming, “happy-to-see-you-no-matter-what” wag. Winnie was, and is, very smart. She always knew when I had been “seeing other dogs” during the day at work and would greet me with a very suspicious sniff-down before deciding she would forgive me every single time. No matter what the day or week or month would bring, Winnie was our constant in the ever-changing landscape of a growing family.
And now, that growing family has grown away from home. I look at Winnie and know that just as my children didn’t stay with me forever, Winnie’s time with me will also be far, far too short. But unlike my two-legged children who have grown into self-sufficient young men who don’t need their mom to take care of their every need, Winnie now needs my help more than ever. Her vision and hearing have made it so she needs help navigating unfamiliar territory, she needs to be carried up and down the stairs, she has seizures from time to time, and she is up frequently during the night to go outside. And just like those sleep-deprived years of being up with babies and sick children, I know that my sleepless nights of caring for my aging dog will also be fleeting. So, as much as I miss having a full night’s sleep, I know that I will miss my Winnie so much more someday. And I cherish every day with her, even the hard ones.
When most of us think about bringing an animal into our lives, we think about the early days. We picture the constant cuteness, the irresistible naughtiness, and the seemingly endless days of boundless energy and activity. And with any luck, we will all experience many of those memories, but like all of us, our pets will get older. And at that point, they will need us more than ever.
In my years of working in animal welfare, I have seen animals relinquished for every reason under the sun, but nothing breaks my heart like seeing a senior pet abandoned by the only family they have every known because they have “become too much work.”
Being a pet parent is work. It is beautiful, heartwarming, rewarding work from the day you bring your pet home until the day you say your final goodbye.
I can’t predict how much longer my Winnie will be with me, but I can tell you how long I will be with her-- and every other animal I am ever privileged to share my life with. I will remain by their side until their final breath, just as they have been by mine. And I would never for a moment think about having it any other way.