92: Growing Up and Old Together

92: Growing Up and Old Together

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog

Growing Up and Old Together

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.

~John Leonard

Houston relaxes in my arms as I carry his arthritis-crippled body downstairs to the yard. Our three-story urban townhouse with slippery polished wood floors isn’t easy on an old dog with a weak bladder and achy joints. But Houston doesn’t complain—he smiles with his eyes though he can’t wag his tail without losing his balance.

We met on the porch of a double-wide trailer in rural Illinois. He was a scrawny pup with downy black fur, perky ears, and a long, crooked tail. I was an overworked graduate student in a dead-end romantic relationship. Human affection felt fickle; I needed a dog’s love.

The ad read, “Free to good home, Collie-mix puppies, eight weeks old.”

There were ten pups in the litter, and the mother—a blond Collie-mutt herself—looked tired. I watched for nearly an hour as puppies wrestled, nipped, and chased each other. Some splashed into the swimming pool with muddy paws and emerged sopping wet and ready for more tussles in the dirt.

“So, which one do you want?” the owner asked.

Surveying the litter, I pointed to a pup that had snoozed on the porch the whole time I’d been there. “He’s just my speed,” I said.

The puppy nestled into the backseat of my worn-out Honda. “We’re going to be good friends,” I told him, “but you need a name.” I tested names and watched his expressions in the rearview mirror. Maybe the country music on the radio brought Houston to mind, I don’t know. When I said it aloud, it fit.

I took Houston home to our rambling ranch, where he chased deer in the yard and played in the snow. His company kept me from losing my sanity that year. When I mustered the courage to leave my boyfriend, I rented a 400-square-foot apartment in a not-so-safe part of town. It was the only affordable apartment that would allow a dog. And this is how I learned that home isn’t a place: home is wherever you’re loved.

The next year—degree in hand—I took a college teaching job in upstate New York. The dog-friendly campus was my favorite perk: Houston could come to work with me. I bought a baby gate so he couldn’t wander from my office when I went to teach class, and I stocked my desk with dog treats.

Each morning, I’d ask, “Do you want to be a working dog?”

Houston yelped his reply as he ran at me full-speed and jumped up on my good clothes. He loved going to school, and my students loved him, too. They’d stop by my office to take him for walks or play fetch in the hall. It was a full life for a dog.

But that fall, Houston got sick. Chronic digestive problems left him weak and in pain and our veterinarian’s treatment wasn’t working. After months of quiet compliance, I couldn’t bear his suffering any longer. Though he had seen the vet on Friday, I begged another doctor for a last-minute consultation on Saturday morning. He agreed.

The veterinarian’s expression grew strained as he examined Houston. Tears rolled down my cheeks; I could tell the situation was dire. He said the problem had been misdiagnosed and Houston had two gaping hernias. He wasn’t sure they could be repaired. Overwhelmed with grief, I blamed myself for waiting so long for a second opinion.

“What you need,” he counseled, “is someone who will treat this very, very aggressively.”

He referred us to a veterinary surgeon an hour south in Ithaca. Over the next year, his team performed six surgeries to repair Houston’s hernias. The surgeon likened it to sewing together strands of spaghetti—the thin muscle fibers couldn’t hold stitches. Within weeks the hernias would re-open.

Houston lived at the clinic for much of that year, and it became my second home. When I visited each day after work, I’d sit on the exam room floor and Houston would lie in my lap, his head in my hands. He whined loudly as I petted him as if to say, “It hurts so much. I needed your touch.” I felt the same way.

Between surgeries, Houston came home. He looked like the ghost of a starving lion, with thick black fur on his neck and feet, a pouf at the tip of his tail, and short sleek hair in between where they’d shaved him for surgery. His weight dropped from fifty pounds to just over thirty.

We slept together on the pullout sofa in the living room because he couldn’t climb stairs in the cone-shaped collar that kept him from licking his wounds. I worried the stitches would tear if I carried him upstairs and down.

Thanks to the surgeons’ skilled persistence and creativity, Houston recovered. Though he still suffered terrible digestive problems when stressed, over the years I learned to manage them with diet and swift intervention.

Our lives have been intimately interconnected for fourteen years now. College, my career, and a military marriage haven’t given me many chances to put down roots. I’ve lived—with Houston—in nine houses in six states: Illinois, New York, Colorado, Utah, California, and Virginia. Each one feels like home as long as Houston is in it.

I’ve grown up with Houston, from college student to fledgling professor to successful professional. I became both a wife and a mother. At the most trying times, Houston’s love sustained me.

When my husband deployed to Iraq, I sobbed into Houston’s long black fur. He walked with me on the mountainous trails near our house, never questioning my need to keep moving. He stayed by my side. When that deployment unexpectedly led to another (in Afghanistan), I moved home to California with Houston riding shotgun. At the time I was seven months pregnant.

Houston kept me company through countless middle-of-the-night feedings, watched over my son when he napped, and alerted me when he awoke. He nuzzled against me when I was sad and angry that my husband missed our son’s first smile, first steps, and first word. I never asked him to comfort me, but I didn’t have to. Dogs know love is a verb.

While I grew up, Houston grew old. Arthritis limits his mobility, and deafness invites anxiety. His world is smaller. Though he still likes to follow his nose in nature, he can’t venture far. When the hundred yard walk to the mailbox is too much to complete, I carry Houston home with the mail pinned under my arm. We’re in this thing together.

As Houston’s health has declined, I realize he’s taught me the fundamental lesson of love: that it’s okay to need people. Accepting help is hard for me. Really hard. But even a staunch do-it-yourselfer like me can take canine comfort—because dogs don’t judge our needs, they just love us through them.

Now, my son is a walking, talking, tail-pulling toddler and kind, sweet Houston is frail and dependent. When he fell down tonight on the slick wood floor in our dining room, my son wrapped his small arms around Houston’s belly and tried to help him up. It made me proud.

I’m teaching my son that needing others doesn’t diminish us—it expands us—because it opens us to love.

That’s what I learned from Houston.

~Heidi Smith Luedtke

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