Quindlen: How an Old Dog Teaches Me Tricks About Life

I am that most pathetic of human creatures, a human who walks into a veterinarian's office without an animal. "Beau?" the woman behind the desk calls, and I rise. Dr. Brown ushers me back into an examining room kitted out with a bottle of preserved heartworms, and sends me off with a prescription refill and the promise of a house call when necessary. The house call will be for the purpose of euthanasia, but neither of us says the word.

The object of our discussion, a black Labrador with the ridiculous AKC name of Bristol's Beauregard Buchanan, is at home sleeping on an oriental rug in the foyer. The rug smells. So does Beau. At this late date there is not much reason for him to appear at the vet's in person. He moves now as though his back legs are prosthetics to which he has yet to become accustomed. His sight and his hearing are mostly gone. But he has retained the uncanny ability to know when a certain phony lilt to my voice as I snap on the leash means we are headed to that place where his prostate was once examined. He lies down on the front stoop and refuses to budge. He won't make that mistake again.

I once had an editor who hated dead-dog columns. (I did one anyway.) This is a live-dog column. It's a shame that obituaries and eulogies come only after people are gone and unable to appreciate them. How many times after a memorial service have you said of the deceased, "She would have loved it"? Rumor has it that certain celebs, knowing The New York Times writes important obits well in advance, have tried to get a peek at their own. The expressed rationale is fact-checking, but I suspect it has more to do with self-esteem. Beau, of course, will have no idea what is said about him. But he does seem to know that a laptop in its case near the front door means a trip to the country, which even now, gimpy as he is, sends him into a fandango.

The life of a good dog is like the life of a good person, only shorter, more compressed. Beau started off wild and crazy. My most enduring memory of his youth is of him galloping around the yard, purloined needlepoint yarn streaming from his mouth. One summer he was skunked three times and spent weeks studded with spines after indulging his taste for advanced decomposition by rolling on a dead porcupine. He did not learn to swim until he realized it was the only way to keep geese off the pond.

But he also ran with his master every morning, posed in front of the fireplace in winter in a recumbent position like an insurance ad, and suffered the addition of a female yellow Lab to the household six years ago. He stayed off the furniture and did not jump on guests. People admired his self-control, on the street and at dinner parties, although one New Year's Eve he was discovered with his muzzle buried to the ears in a bowl of chocolate truffles.

Today his milky eyes seem to gaze mysteriously inward as though he is reliving those times. It is important to approach him slowly so that he will not be startled by a pat on the head. Sometimes he splays frog-legged on the linoleum and cannot rise again without a boost in the back; some days he must be carried up the stairs. The yellow dog used to dance in circles and butt-check him violently for her own peculiar amusement. She knows not to do that anymore. Beau once had a catcher's mitt of a mouth, but if you throw him a scrap now it usually bounces unseen off his head. Yet put a pork roast in the oven, and the guy still breathes as audibly as an obscene caller. The eyes and ears are gone, but the nose is eternal. And the tail. The tail still wags. When it stops, then we'll know.

Beau was a gift on my 40th birthday from my closest friend and her husband. In the nearly 15 years since he arrived, nine pounds of belly fat and needle teeth, he has grown ancient by the standards of his breed. And I have grown older. My memory stutters. My knees hurt. Without my reading glasses the words on a page look like ants at a picnic. But my blood pressure is low, my bone scan is good and my mammograms are uneventful. I love my kids, and they love me, and we all love their father, who is still my husband. When I was a mixed-breed puppy, I could never have imagined how simple and basic contentment could be.

And that's what I've learned from watching Beau: to roll with the punches (if not in carrion), to take things as they come, to measure myself not in terms of the past or the future but of the present, to raise my nose in the air from time to time and, at least metaphorically, holler, "I smell bacon!" I'm not what I once was, and neither is he. The geese are making a mess of the pond, and the yellow Lab gets to run every morning with her master while Beau waits patiently for both of them to return. Each morning I check to see if the old guy is actually breathing, and each day I try to take his measure—is he hurting? Is he happy? Is the trade-off between being infirm and being alive worth it? And when the time comes to ask myself that same question, at least I will have had experience calibrating the answer. Sometimes an old dog teaches you new tricks.