The pain and the privilege of loving an old dog.

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It always happens the same way. I’ll be in the park and someone will notice my bulldog and smile. I can’t blame them, as Iggy has the face of an angel, albeit one who has face-planted too many times upon landing. I describe Ig as half bat, half bear – all pointy ears, broken piano key overbite and koala-cuddly chassis – a face only a mother could love and damn, I do.

“He’s just gorgeous,” they will say, leaning in for a happily received pat. It’s then I brace myself for what’s to follow. And lately, it always does. “How old is he?” they ask. “He’s ten,” I answer reticently. ”

Oh, so he hasn’t got much longer then. That’s sad.”

Now, I’ll tell you what’s really sad, and that is people pointing out the blatantly obvious when a bit more tact could be applied. I know Ig will die one day – it is my worst nightmare – but I don’t need to be reminded of the fact, not now or ever. It’s a bit like reminding someone on their wedding day that one in three marriages end in divorce. Because every time I walk away from such an encounter, it is as though someone has kicked me in the heart. I feel winded, wounded and full of woe.

Because loving an old dog is facing the reality their best days are behind them and that I will one day have to say goodbye to my best friend, my barrel-chested boy who I regard as the great love of my life.

Sometimes people are a little more empathetic but that doesn’t necessarily help. Upon telling them Ig’s age, they will tear up and begin to tell me their own story, about how they had to put down their beloved dog or endure seeing their animal in pain through crippling illness. One woman recently showed me a locket around her neck that contains her dog’s ashes. She says it is the most precious item she owns and that it is in her will that she must be buried wearing it. Of course, I ended up in tears at her recalling her pain.

I tell you the dog park is an emotional rollercoaster these days.

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But I have been lucky. My boy has always been heathy and happy and I figured he would always stay that way, that somehow my endless love could keep him thriving. Then, three weeks ago happened.

My gorgeous Iggy. Image: Supplied.

It had started as a normal day, waking up to Ig gently snoring inches away on our shared pillow. As always, I took great pleasure in savouring a few minutes of cuddles as he woke up too, before getting out of bed, walking around to his side, then gently lifting him to the ground. Ig used to be able to jump down himself, but over the past year he has lost his confidence. It was a minor sign he is ageing, one I quickly dismissed as nothing serious.

After our regular walk to a nearby park for him to carry out his ablutions and say hi to his homies and their owners, we returned home and took our usual places, me at my writing desk and he at my feet under it. But as I typed away I noticed Iggy has moved and so, with any excuse to take a break from work, I went in search of him.

It didn’t take long to find him in a corner of sun on the balcony, only Ig wasn’t basking in the morning warmth as usual. He was heaving. Now, I know dogs tend to throw up and so, I didn’t panic straight away. But when my little man’s body kept spasming and writhing, I knew something was seriously wrong. Then, as I ran to him, his beautiful bow legs buckled underneath him and he collapsed.

What followed was a slow-mo nightmare I recall little about. I know I scooped him in my arms and ran down three flights of stairs to the car below. I know I must have driven said car to the vet and can only hope I did so safely obeying the road rules, although I can’t promise that was the case.

And I can recall the look on my vet’s face as I barged in to the surgery with Iggy, whose eyes were rolling uncontrollably, then him looking up at my own, which were streaming tears.

Ig chilling on the beach. Image: Supplied.

“Oh no,” he said silently taking Ig from my arms. “This is not good.”

I think about then I collapsed too, prostate with an intense fear I have never experienced before or wish to again. A nurse came in and helped me up off the floor, whispering that Ig was in the right place now and they would do everything they could for him, as I watched my boy disappear through swinging white doors in to the surgery.

Now, I can’t explain how grateful I am for the caring team at my vets, who came in to the waiting room to check on me and let me know what was happening in those first few hours. They were honest but gentle. If it was a brain embolism it was serious – but ‘let’s wait and see what the tests say before we even go there’ they cautioned. Their hope was it was a thing called canine idiopathic vestibular disease, which is also sometimes called “old dog disease” or “old rolling dog syndrome.” Vestibular disease in geriatric dogs is often mistaken for stroke, the vertigo caused by the disease resulting in nausea, difficulty or complete inability to stand up, head tilt and circling.

Ig was stabilised on a drip and force fed fluids for days before the vet contacted me again to say he believed he was making a comeback, that my boy was not going to die and that I could have him home again.

“He will need to be watched very closely and you can’t expect him to be the same dog straight away,” I was warned. “And I should warn you that one side of his face is paralysed but, again, I hope that will dissipate over time.”

And so, I brought my beautiful boy back home, or at least a dog resembling my Ig because the dog that returned from the vet was slow on his feet, uninterested in food and sleeping constantly. Oh, and his tongue would no longer stay in his mouth. I turned to my brother at one stage, a man who arguably loves Ig as much as I do and asked him if it was cruel of me to keep him alive. He didn’t know what to say other than let’s just wait and see how he goes over the next few days. I know he felt sick at the very thought.

And so, I decided that if these were to be my last days with my beloved, I would make them great ones. I piled Ig in to the car and drove him to a cabin we love to stay at by the beach. Despite his big smile at smelling the ocean as we approached, Ig was too wobbly to make the short walk to the sand. And so, I carried him all the way.

Ig wasn’t tempted by the water he normally loves and declined a paddle. Instead, we embraced under a shady tree for hours, me rubbing his belly as he slept soundly in my arms. I am not a religious woman but I think I was as close as I’ve ever been to praying.

It was two days later when I looked over to Ig’s basket and noticed he wasn’t asleep as usual. In a panic, I looked around, fearing the worst. Time stood still. I felt numb with fear and dread. I wanted to find him but at the same time, I didn’t. It was then I heard the tinkle of his collar and turned to see him approaching me as confident in his stride as I’d seen him in days, his favourite red ball in his mouth like a giant red clown nose. I could have cried – in fact, I probably did. Ig wanted to play. My boy was coming back. And I am delighted to say that he has improved every day since. I feel truly blessed.

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In fact, I feel so grateful to have Iggy still in my life that I have made a promise to never, ever take his love for granted or waste a moment I have with him by my side. Yes, I know Iggy is old and the time will come when I will have to face his mortality. And I know I will grieve, heart and soul. I might even go looking for a locket myself.

In fact, I was reminded of this when I took Ig to the vet for a check-up this week. As I was leaving after being told how well he is recovering, I saw a woman in the waiting room and just knew. I turned to my vet who shook his head to acknowledge she was not as lucky as I was. Her love had left her. Instinctively, I walked straight to over and embraced her as hard as I could, feeling her tears dampening my sleeve.

It reminded me that love hurts. That the yin and yang of life means for every up there is a down. And I realise that by loving Iggy as much as I do, I will also miss him with a similar intensity when he is no longer here. But I refuse to dwell on what will be at the moment. I have a little man with a red ball in his mouth nudging my leg as I type. And it is a blessing.

So, if you see me out with Ig, please feel free to pat and compliment him. But don’t remind me about his ticking clock because I refuse to measure moments while I’m still making memories.

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