My husband Curt and I were lucky enough to be owned by a chocolate lab named Koloa. He was a happy, go-lucky chap. He loved everyone. He loved every dog he ever met, except possibly the two pit bulls that once attacked him. He loved barking at squirrels in the yard, going for a good long walk and greeting me at the door when I came home. He loved sitting on the back porch, watching the world go by and listening to all the sounds.
Kokoa got to be 14 years old, which is 90-something in human years. Living with a canine senior citizen was enlightening, and taught us some valuable lessons about aging well.
The first thing to go were his hips. One day he fell over and he couldn’t get up, our first indication that anything was wrong. X-rays showed that he had terrible hip dysplasia. Did he have trouble walking? The vet asked us. Did he lay around a lot? No, never. He lived his active life, regardless of the pain. The vet put him on medicine, and he seemed even younger. His hips had slowed him down a little, but he wasn’t going to let them stop him from enjoying life.
Then came the lumps and bumps, just under the skin. Some were pea-sized, others the size of a golf ball. They popped up more and more as he aged. He never really noticed the bumps — he wasn’t much concerned about appearances.
Towards the end, he experienced more challenges that cramped his style. He had to be hand-fed one small spoonful of wet food at a time. He was deaf and could no longer hear the doorbell. He slept. A lot.
But all of the things that made him Kokoa — his affection, his enthusiasm, his sheer happiness of existence — he still had all of those things. He still barked at squirrels. He still loved people. He still greeted us at the door. And while he couldn’t go on walks any more, he still sat on the back porch and listened to the wind blow.
Curt and I tried to prepare ourselves for the inevitable, but there is no way to be ready for such a thing. Our meager “preparations” included simply enjoying what he enjoyed — a good snooze in the living room, a short walk around the block, the sound of trees in a cool breeze or a smelly dog meal.
His world became smaller as he got older, but he still embraced it every day.
Kokoa and Curt’s mother loved each other, and when we moved to Florida and she and her husband moved to North Carolina, they did not get to see each other often. So in December of 2015, we decided to take him up there to visit her. We rented an SUV with plenty of space in the back and created a comfortable bed for him. We gently picked him up to get him in the car. Kokoa embraced the adventure with his usual enthusiasm.
Both dog and mom were delighted to be reunited. After the initial excitement, Kokoa went back to his eating, sleeping and walking routine while in North Carolina, but with an extra spark in his step and lots of tail wags for Curt’s mother whenever he saw her.
Kokoa died a month later, at home, in our living room, in our arms, surrounded by love. We still miss him terribly.
Pets leave us long before we are ready. They show us that life is short and fleeting. But they also show us how a life is well-lived. I learned so much through caring for an elderly animal, watching him cope with the changes and losses, and finally watching him let go. These are things I will keep with me, in addition to his squirrel-chasing, door-greeting, walk-loving memories.