My New Old Man

We met in a parking lot. Our first picture together – taken by the lovely and over-extended Rescue Rep – depicts all three of us as nervous deer in headlights. We’ve never looked like that in real life. But at the time, seconds from driving back to Bloomington, Indiana, we all knew this was a giant leap of faith.

A year previously, I watched helplessly as my 6-yr-old beagle mix suddenly howled himself to death during some kind of neurological event that nobody could explain. Months later I dropped syringes of wet food into my tabby cat’s mouth until his cancer would no longer allow him to swallow; we were, at least, able to give him a properly planned send-off. Simultaneously, I happened upon some social-media strangers who had dedicated their lives to adopting the forgotten: elderly pets and/or animals with health conditions who just needed a loving home to live out their final months. Well, I thought, I’m already broken and accustomed to medication and tragedy. It was as good a time as any to adopt an older animal and offer them comfort as their sun began to set. When we found the online profile for Brutus, a 13-year-old egg-headed English Bull Terrier, we truly believed we were doing him a big favor. The joke is on us.

Who knew that most mornings I’d get to wake up to a squealy, entitled grumbling, telling me I’d better hop to it.  That this old dog would quickly learn how to open the outside gate, get a running start to the porch, and hurl himself over two big steps to get through the front door. That he spends more time in front of the mirror than we do. That his insane and wrinkled smile comes rapidly, out of nowhere, and slays us every time.

That we’d spend our days marveling over who he is: an adaptable, confident guy despite being on his third or fourth home; a gentle lover of all animals, though his tongue is split and his leg is stitched from being attacked back in the day.  That we’d be enlisted to “toast his hoagie roll” (warm his long nose) in the crooks of our elbows and sometimes cleavage and crotch. Or that centuries-old death-breath could smell so sweet when accompanied by kisses.

There’s no doddering old man in our midst. There’s just a dog who seems like he has always belonged here.

Don’t get me wrong — there are some obvious aging issues. My 40-something back has never known such pain from being pinned under 55 pounds of muscle on the couch. I’m also nursing a pulled hamstring after Brutus decided to chase me around the house. And yes, he sleeps – a lot. And judging from the Instagram accounts of his younger peers, he probably hums along at about 65 percent of their energy levels.

But it’s perfect. If we’re working late or not up for the 20-degree dog walk that day, he doesn’t punish us with the boundless energy of youth.  I don’t have to re-experience house-training or furniture chewing. I don’t worry that my cranky disposition or unpredictable schedule will scar him for life.

Brutus knows who he is.  That simple fact has transformed my typical pet-guardian ways. Naughty neurosis I took personally from my younger pets I now let roll off my shoulders. I’ve got a new love for this kind of patience, and I’m pleased to learn I’m capable of it. He’s not a reflection of me. But he’s far from being just a visitor.

Some people have told us they could never adopt a senior animal — they wouldn’t want to lose a new pet so soon. My younger animals taught me that there are no guarantees, even when you don’t sign up for early grief. And this older man is always teaching us that life is not experienced in years but in each silly, kind, and awesome moment.

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