One is ninety-four. The other will soon be fourteen. One is my mother; the other, my dog Lexi.
Every time I step over Lexi's recumbent form on my way to or from the kitchen, I think of my mother. And often, as I worry about and mourn my mother, my thoughts return to Lexi, lying on her spot in the middle of the kitchen. Both my mother and my dog amaze their doctors and vets, respectively. "Her vitals are better than mine!" the nurse practitioner at the nursing home exclaims about my mother. "I can't believe she's still walking around," the vet said the last time she saw Lexi.
Both, at their advanced age, look forward to their next meal, and instead of shrinking are putting on weight. For a long time I kept Lexi skinny because of her arthritic hips, but for the last several months I've let her have (almost) all the food she wants. Why deprive her of her one remaining pleasure? Since her bout of encephalitis almost two years ago, my mother has been immobile. Lexi too is practically immobile, though she does still manage to get to her outdoor bathroom. I used to think that lying down for months on end spelled doom for man and beast. But apparently there are exceptions.
Their minds are fading, along with their sight and hearing. For a while this meant that they gradually and gently withdrew from reality, my mother into a place that held her long-dead husband and parents, with whom she would have long chats, and Lexi into wherever old dogs go to remember. For a long while, things were peaceful in our kitchen and in the room in the nursing home in Mobile, Alabama. But that has changed. Now we give Lexi Valium at night, so that she won't spend it in anguished, wheezy, endless barking. My mother has become aggressive towards the people who take care of her, and is having to be sedated.
Sedatives seem to take the edge off mental misery. They also keep my mother's caretakers safe from her teeth and, I hope, more disposed to treat her kindly. But sedatives are not good for the body, and the pace of her deterioration is increasing. Are we, her family, by condoning the use of these drugs allowing a kind of gradual euthanasia? If Lexi's dementia were to take an aggressive turn there would be no doubt as to the next step: we would take her to the vet who would gently and quickly put an end to her distress. But there is no such clarity where humans are concerned.
Through all this, some shreds of their former selves still cling to my mother and my dog. In the last photo of my mother, her mouth looks oddly crooked, and I worried that she'd had a stroke. "No, no," my sister, who took the picture, said. "She told me that she didn't want to smile because she was afraid she had food between her teeth."
On her part, Lexi still reigns over an invisible territory that the other dogs dare not cross. If I call them and they don't immediately appear, or I hear them whining in the kitchen, I know that it's because they're stuck behind Lexi, and I have to go liberate them. "Lexi, I'm watching you," I say, and they sprint past her.
But lately her domain has been shrinking, and Wolfie and Bisou can get past her almost any time they choose.