Last week I met up with a lady of my regular acquaintance – a great lover of animals, especially dogs, almost to the point where she prefers them to humans – who in passing remarked that it was now over a month since she had to take the second of her pooches to the vet to have him put down.
Thinking back, as I then did, she was correct. Even though I have seen her several times since that sad event (the poor lad had been suffering from cancer of one of his elbows, identified by the vet as terminal from its discovery four months previously) I was still shocked by how long it had been since it had happened.
At the time I had been impressed by her mental strength because, knowing the extent of her love for her pet, I had feared that – desperately sad at his impending loss – when the moment came she might not be able to do what was needed and thereby unintentionally cause him unnecessary suffering. In the event, however, she had risen to the occasion. She had done everything she could to make his last weeks as enjoyable and fun as she could but (despite the medication he was on) once his limp had become permanent and on top he had become increasingly listless, she woke up one fateful morning, made the appointment, took him in to the vet’s and stayed with him to his passing and beyond.
It is probable that a factor in my failure to appreciate the true passage of time were his rug and bag of dogfood still sitting in my larder, almost as if awaiting his (and his owner’s) next arrival en route to setting off to our weekend cottage. From my personal point of view they have definitely not been retained because I couldn’t bear to part with them or indeed out of deference to said lady’s sensitivities.
That said, from past experience, I’m conscious not only that different people grieve in different ways but they also pass through successive stages of the process at different speeds. My own mother died in 2007 but, no matter how often my father apologies for his continuing inability to part with a single item from her dressing room, I don’t have a problem with it. The probability now is that, eight long years since her passing, I very much doubt he’ll ever begin to make progress on the task and, frankly, so what? In the scheme of things, it is a matter of little or no consequence.
One thing of which this dog’s exit had reminded me is the eternal fact of mortality. Why it took a dog’ death to do this (as opposed to that of a human being) I don’t know and/or cannot explain but I suspect it should be filed under the theme that, provided that one reaches the end destination, it doesn’t really matter what route you took to get there.
Perhaps it is that the average canine life lasts a maximum of ten to fourteen years – thus a committed human pet owner can expect to supervise the lifetimes of up to five or six companions (depending upon when he or she first acquired one), and thereby observing at close quarters several life journeys from cute puppyhood to slow-moving, white-bearded, old soldier.
My sermon this morning in the above context was prompted by a quite separate story being aired in the media today, viz. the news that 68 year-old Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stone guitarist, has announced that he and his 37 year-old wife Sally, a theatre producer, are expecting twins next June.
Just to get the full facts before my readers, Ronnie already has four children and nine grandchildren and his son Jesse James (39), a bass guitarist with the rock band Reef, is married to TV presenter Fearne Cotton (34) with whom he has two children.
All this got me thinking about age and attitudes to life.
A while back a good pal and work colleague of mine in his early-fifties – he’s now dead – got re-married to a lady about fifteen years younger. Not long afterwards, at a foursome dinner party, his new wife revealed to us that the issue of starting a family had been a source of some friction between them. She had been single and childless when they got together and – well before they tied the knot – she’d indicated that one day she’d like to have a baby. In response my pal, who already had two sons in their late teens or early twenties from his first marriage, had said [well perhaps not quite in these terms] that he’d ‘already been there, done that’ and frankly such a proposition was quite out of the question. At his age the prospect of going through the whole grind of parenthood again – as opposed to grandparenthood, which was okay because you could play with the little varmints but then hand them back each evening – was too much to contemplate. As it happens, his new wife had accepted his position and entered their marriage on that basis.
Which brings me to the human condition.
It seems to me that from the age of about 25 onwards we humans are prey to an inner conflict between the absolute conviction of youth that we are immortal and, in stark contrast, the realisation – gained via a growing pile of mounting personal evidence, coupled together with things going on around us, that we are ageing.
The crisis probably begins at the point when we start thinking along the lines ‘at my age, should I still be doing this’? In an echo of my earlier comments about the grieving experience, we all tend to reach different stages in life at different times peculiar to ourselves. Be it a question of whether or not one should still be wearing jeans beyond the age of sixty, stop partying (or not) in clubs six nights a week after one’s mid-thirties, settle down and get married or continue living one’s social life ‘in the moment’ – the issues come increasingly thick, fast and often.
The inner struggle is fascinating to contemplate. On the one hand – think playing sport, fathering children, attending rock concerts or doing outrageous things normally associated with youth generally that come as entirely natural to you – if you feel the sap rising, why the hell not continue do them – just because you can – rather in the manner of George Mallory’s alleged “Because it’s there …” response when someone asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest?
On the other, if one takes this view, there is a time and a place for everything and (so the argument would go) one should just accept that human life – like all other – is a continuous and irreversible journey from birth, through adulthood, to old age and there’s nowt that any of us can do about it.
Given that fact, even if you should feel like it, turning up to your teenage son or daughter’s school sports day in jeans and T-shirt, wearing a beanie on your bonce, clicking your fingers and walking with a pronounced hip-hop ‘bounce’, muttering “Cool, man …” every four or five strides might not only embarrass your offspring greatly but actually make you look a prize prat to your fellow parents who are all decked out in cricket whites and I Zingari-badged ties, striped blazers and straw boaters – discussing their latest City mega-deals – whilst sitting on their picnic rugs consuming their Fortnum & Mason hampers beside their cream-coloured Bentleys.
For any of us over the age of 25, maturity – or what passes for it – is a sign that one is having a degree of success in the struggle to manage the ageing process in a way that society finds acceptable or approves of.
In truth it doesn’t change the fact that – despite the fading husk that confronts us in the shaving mirror each morning – we wake up every day still feeling about eighteen years of age on the inside – full of confidence, enthusiasm and a desire to change the world (at least in our own part of it).
After that getting through the day is a matter of simply applying enough reality to ensure that one appears ‘age appropriate’ to all those around us and/or whom we meet either by design or accident.
Thinking about it, being a dog is a comparatively straightforward thing. You wake up, get let outside to smell the grass, eat your food, guard the house and family, get taken for walks and then at the end of the day go to sleep. And do exactly the same the next day, whether by then you’re an adorable, inquisitive puppy or a portly, ageing, slowing old bugger. Until one day you don’t.