Harley, Helen and I have just returned from a walk in the woods. Forty-five minutes is about all Harley can handle these days. The short duration doesn’t seem to bother Helen as she enjoys running out front and returning, often with news of what’s to come on our path.
We’re on the rickety old deck at the back of the cabin now, with Forest Service brown paint peeling from the floor boards, and screw heads reaching out for bare feet and paw pads. The boards screech and bounce as Helen trots from side to side, almost manic in her desire to take it all in. The deck’s boundary is a series of slats and railings. The slats are just far enough apart that each dog can extend a head and neck out into the breeze. The wind has a sound here, rushing through the pines, hustling up the mountain.
As Harley stands with his head through slats, surveying the forest floor, I trail my hand along his side, coarse fur escaping into the breeze. My attention is drawn to his back paws and something I’ve been watching for a few months now, the fourth toenail on his right paw. It’s significantly shorter than the others, worn and oddly shaped. I’ve known that this was coming but that doesn’t make it any easier to see.
Harley likely has degenerative peripheral neuropathy. I say “likely” because I have no interest in a spinal tap to confirm or deny the results for a disease that has no cure. What I know is that his ability to lift his right leg, swing it through and put it down squarely is deteriorating. That fourth nail is the canary in the coal mine. When he walked with his “normal” gangly gait, he rotated his knee inward, lifted his paw, swung it through and put it down. Now, he’s not lifting that leg enough for the paw to clear the ground. The world is his emery board and that fourth toenail is being ground away with every step.
He’s not unhappy and I don’t think he’s in pain, but he is aware of his diminishing capacity. The neuropathy affects his balance and proprioception, as well. He is more careful –and fearful—of shiny, slippery floors. He lies down during car rides now, letting Helen have the prime window position. He is more likely to lean on humans and objects, gladly accepting a break from holding his rear end up on his own.
I’ve taken note of all these things and many others as Harley continues to age. I’ve paid attention. Paying attention involves a transaction: By giving my focus, I gain awareness. But awareness isn’t free. There’s a price to be paid for paying attention and the currency is emotion: sadness, anxiety, apprehension, joy, contentment, peace. Sometimes, I’m willing pay the toll but other times, I begrudgingly dig into my pocket for that precious silver coin. Either way, the toll is taken.
I don’t have to travel this road. I could ignore his stumbles, turn away from his falls. I could leave his troubles behind and focus on my own. But I won’t. I’ll pay attention, no matter the cost. He is worth it and much more.