He came to us in the summer, a wee little collie man, with a scratchy old nose and bumpy old body.
I remember the first time I gave him a bath and how pathetic he looked, dripping wet and skinny with lumps all over. But I sat with a brush and blow dryer and a little while later he looked magnificent with his silky, shiny collie coat and striking white ruff. He bounced on his front legs and barked, knowing, I think, how beautiful he looked.
Merlin loved his back yard. He spent many hours laying on the back porch, watching over his world. Even when his old legs ached, he jumped up each time someone passed the yard and ran to the fence with his awkward old gait, his raspy bark warning intruders that it was his area and he would protect it. Then he lumbered back up to the porch, eyes shining, and tail wagging, proud that he had defended his family and warded off danger. Sometimes he chased birds out of the yard. Sometimes he barked at birds that tried to fly through the air space above his yard. He took very seriously his job as guardian of his home.
He followed me everywhere when I was outside and laid and watched me do yard work. When I wasn’t outside, he laid by the fence and watched the neighbors. Sometimes he just laid under a tree or in a spot of sun. I have so many memories of him laying contentedly in his yard, his happy collie smile, as content as could be. Some days he would roll on his back in the grass and kick all his feet in the air.
The black dogs he lived with caused him fits. They liked to play ball. They liked to run all over the yard. Merlin wanted them to stay together and he wanted them to stay still, on the porch. He herded them relentlessly. He barked at them and snarled at them and tried in every way he could think of to bring them to me and keep them there. When the younger dogs bumped him or knocked him over, he would follow them around barking and scolding them for the rest of the afternoon. They mostly avoided him, fearing his wrath, but they quietly sniffed him while he slept and when a puppy once frightened Merlin with his rough play, Obi quickly placed himself between Merlin and the puppy, protecting his old friend. The black dogs treated him with the respect due a dog his age, and if they forgot, he was quick to remind them.
Merlin always slept by the door, to keep watch over the house at night. And he slept beside my bed, but sometimes got stuck underneath, so I propped up a pillow to keep him from sliding under. He had to get up and stretch his old legs at night and then always checked to make sure I was still in bed. He slept the deeply peaceful sleep of an old deaf dog. Nothing disturbed or woke him. He hated to wake and find himself alone in the living room, with everyone else having gone to bed, and I could hear him scramble up and run to the bedroom to check for me in bed. So I always woke him when it was time for bed, though sometimes I’d have to shake him because he was so deeply asleep.
When he first came, he laid everywhere except on the dog beds. He didn’t seem to know that they were for him. But he soon had his own special orthopedic bed inside and another waterproof one outside. Everyone knew they were Merlin’s beds, and the other dogs didn’t dare lay on them.
He was as tough and spirited a dog as I’ve ever known. With all of his health problems, I never once heard him cry or whine as he struggled to stand up, sometimes falling back down multiple times. He didn’t want to be helped, always wanting to do it by himself. Because of an enormous tumor, his back leg always stuck out at an odd angle when he laid down. He had devised a way of sliding it under him when he laid down that didn’t seem to cause him pain. He was frightened of slippery floors and never came into the bathroom. One day he patiently let me put little non-slip sticky pads on all his paws and then, when I wasn’t looking, he patiently removed all of them and left them in a little pile on his bed. We got carpet runners for all the floors instead. We built him a ramp to go outside, but he had to be carried in and out for the last few months.
He loved his mom, and oh how I loved him. He came to me wagging his tail and pushed his head against my chest while I petted him and scratched his favorite spots. In the end when he wouldn’t let anyone else touch him, because he feared it would hurt him, he still wanted his head against me. He closed his eyes and just stood.
He was my friend, my protector, my sweet old collie and I will miss him so terribly much.
To end … a note about adopting old dogs, or, the moral of this story:
Merlin was 13 years old when I got him, knowing that our time together would be short. I had to cram the love of a whole lifetime into just 1 year. Though it shouldn’t be the case, I think we love better when we remember that any day could be the last day we have. Old dogs help me to live and love each day to the fullest and to appreciate every moment of happiness. Merlin had lived almost as long as my daughter at the time we got him. He had many experiences in his life and he had a wisdom and a certain ‘presence’ that comes with that. But old dogs, even tough old dogs like Merlin, have a vulnerability that is deeply touching. They are tippy, and achy, and hard of hearing…. and they reach out to the people who love them, to give them extra security, some reassurance, and mostly just love. They need a soft touch and loving words, something that we all hope to have at the end of a good and long life. How sad it is when there is no one there for them to reach out to. Old dogs need love. It brightens their expressions and lifts their spirits in noticeable ways every single day. I truly believe that it physically lessens their pain simply to be loved and I know that it calms their minds.
For all of those reasons I have adopted old dogs and will always keep a special place in my heart and my home for them. I cannot put into words the blessing it is to be given the opportunity to love an old dog and see the difference that it makes. It makes me a better person. It reminds me daily of how important love is. It reminds me to be gentle. To be patient. To take the extra time. To slow down, to eat and walk without rushing. To be thankful that I can eat and walk, and find simple joy in both things. To love an old dog is to reflect on a life well lived and to reflect on the role that love plays in our lives. In the end that is what carries these old guys through and, in the end, it is what matters to them above all else. That is what they teach me. That is what Merlin taught me.