Old Love

I’m thankful for every messy minute I have with my elderly dog, especially at this time of year.
By Kristi Cameron, November 2020
kristi cameron - bessie

I know that when Bessie stands in her food bowl, submerged to the ankles in chicken breast au jus, she is not the same dog she once was. This dog, unselfconsciously wearing her dinner like socks, is not the fastidious friend who used to clean herself, borderline obsessively, like a cat.

I know that when I find her asleep, chin resting in a patch of urine on one of the 10 wee-wee pads lining her puppy-proofed area of the apartment, this is not the same dog who was so resolutely housebroken that I had trouble pad-training her to begin with.

I know that when she tumbles off her foam bed onto her back, flailing like Kafka’s beetle, this is not the same dog who used to spontaneously leap from the ground into my arms when startled (luckily, my reflexes were up to the task).

I know that when she walks into a corner and is unable to find her way out, reduced to plaintive yelps so piercing they make my heart skip, this isn’t the same dog my mother called smart so often that it became a family joke: “Bessie is a genius.” Nonchalantly working her way through treat puzzles might not qualify as genius, but it showed a knack for solving problems decidedly more complex than backing up.

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Bessie is a 19-year-old Chihuahua mix I adopted just before Thanksgiving in 2006, when she was five (or thereabouts). Those first few weeks, I was unnerved by how quickly she bonded, how her world centered around me well before I became accustomed to the neediness, the dependency of a dog. (I’d had two cats for 17 years, and they had observed my comings and goings without much concern.)

But Bessie’s involvement, so intense in the beginning, eventually became second nature. We developed routines that were as easy as breathing. She stayed under the covers every morning until I returned from the shower, only bothering to come out when it was time for her walk and breakfast. I learned to intuit what she needed through an unspoken line of communication that’s still a bit of a mystery to me—it let me understand what was wrong when she wasn’t feeling well, often before the vet was certain. And when I traveled, I carried with me the uneasy sense of absence, like Catherine O’Hara as Kate in Home Alone, on the plane to Paris and unable to shake the feeling that she’s forgotten something.

Bessie has canine cognitive dysfunction, and I am aware these are my final days with her—though not how many there will be, because this is a disease that destroys the brain before the body. Looking back, I see there were signs a few years ago, including an anxiety about traveling, which hadn’t even required an adjustment period when I first began stowing her in a carrier for our train and plane trips. But when she threw up in her bag before a Thanksgiving flight and, come Christmas, peed in the airport when I took her out to stretch her legs—the first of many accidents to come—I knew she’d made her last flight.

Even now, I know that when Bessie is pacing, uncertain what to do with herself but calmed by locating me in the room, this is the same dog I’ve spent 14 years with. I know that while she doesn’t always want to stay nestled up next to me as she has before, the best way to stop her from circling the dining room table is to hold her until she falls asleep in my lap while I sit on the sofa.

And I know that, despite all these differences, I will love her just the same as I always have, for as long as we have together.

Kristi Cameron is a creative director at EILEEN FISHER and former senior editor at Metropolis magazine. She has previously written for The BarkMetropolisInterior Design and Gourmet, as well as contributing to Best Ugly, a monograph of AvroKO’s restaurant design. She and Bessie now share their pack with Arlo, a five-year-old Chihuahua-Terrier mix.  

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