Every year, the holiday season feels a little different than the one before. When our kids were little and wide-eyed, Christmas was Magical and Big and Festive, and I was a hurried, harried, sleep-deprived mess, trying to ensure every candy cane moment was etched on impressionable little minds. But on the morning of December 25th when they stumbled down the stairs with crazy hair and unbridled anticipation, when their rosy-cheeked faces glowed pink under the lights of the tree, when their smiles were full of wonder and innocence, when each inch of the floor was covered in discarded paper or brightly colored plastic creations, every stressful moment was well worth the beautiful payoff.
This year, though, they are 18, almost 16, 14, and 12, and the pace has slowed substantially. With the aftermath of two totaled cars, a big family trip on this summer’s agenda, and college looming in the fall of 2015, we’ve tightened the reins on the Christmas gift purchasing. And their lists are so much shorter now… a camera here, some new jeans there, and cold, hard cash. Always with the cash.
I’m no longer stressed about finding the It Toy before all the store shelves are empty. I’m no longer worried about requests for Santa that change on a dime (or with the arrival of the Toys ‘R Us catalog). Instead, a few clicks on Amazon fulfill our short, sweet lists, and I’m left with time for work and writing and wine.
And as I sit here in the gentle glow of my book tree lights, here’s what I notice most.
These sweet, old dogs at my feet. Their lack of hurry and worry.
(Except, of course, when… SQUIRRELS.)
Ten short years ago, we brought Maggie home from an Indiana farm. She was timid and nervous from Day One, always jumpy, always on edge, but fiercely devoted to her humans. Next came Lucy, unexpectedly, from a quick trip to PetSmart for dog food… when the rescue group just happened to be visiting. She jumped into George’s toddler lap with those liner-rimmed eyes and that horrible fish breath, he giggled and said, “I think she loves me, Mama,” and we were forever smitten.
Back then, those puppies got lost in the crowd. It was a puppy pile all the time — kids, dogs, neighbors’ kids, neighbors’ dogs. The movement was constant, our furry companions always under our feet and along for the ride.
Now those puppies have grown into crotchety old bitches with white hairs under their chins and creaky joints that must be carefully stretched. They’re persnickety with their food, and they’re no longer allowed to have rawhide because it inevitably results in a battle. We’re watchful when little ones come to stay, and other pets are no longer welcome because our old women have become unpredictable. Lucy has been known to attack rabbits, cats, and small dogs. Maggie shakes with nervousness and has diarrhea in the master closet when we’re gone for too long. Both of them bark incessantly (primarily at the UPS man and our kind, elderly neighbors walking their own dogs) and gorge on wintertime poopsicles by the pool.
Some dog owners claim they have the Best Dog Ever. Not us. Our dogs are far from perfect, but they’re perfectly ours.
They are loyal and good to us, these dogs. They sit at my feet every day while I create documents full of phrases such as data-driven marketing and return on investment. They follow me to the laundry room, eager to see if I’ll open the cabinet that contains their beloved Milk Bones. They sigh in their sleep and pass gas like old women are wont to do. They look at their rear ends with astonishment and intrigue… every single time.
The kids call Maggie “The President” and Lucy, “The President’s Friend.” Maggie — when she’s not skittishly cowering in fear — is regal. She’s the Alpha Dog, the leader of her small canine pack. She always eats dinner first. Lucy follows Maggie everywhere, but she’s not quite smart enough to be “The VP.” Instead, she’s just the friend. The mouth-breathing, offensively stinky friend.
Maggie watches me intently as I refill my coffee cup. She won’t settle back into her nap until I am sitting at my desk. And if I change chairs, she follows, faithfully, always. She doesn’t go to bed until I go to bed. She barks at Sam because he’s big and tall and her eyes are failing and his voice is deep. She’s always been afraid of men.
And my boys are so quickly becoming men. My girl, a head taller than I.
These dogs who have shared our space for a decade are slowing down, just like our holidays. They once carefully romped with and guarded our growing babies, now they rest at our feet, sighing, reveling in a job well done.
They have loved us, these dogs.
We have loved them in return.
Our kids have grown older, but Maggie and Lucy have grown old faster. Tried and true companions for our brood, they now rest under gentle hands and highly anticipated pats on the head.
They have taught us much with their selfless adoration. And in their golden years, they are teaching us that slowing down is okay and often deserved, that a measured pace is healthy, that the best things in life sometimes come in the form of food scraps carelessly dropped on the floor, a warm, safe place to rest a weary head, or the familiar hum of the voices you love most.
Age should come so peacefully to us all.
And while their old bodies are still willing to rise and rest in time with mine, they will have a spot by my side and a gentle pat on the head when the winter winds blow fiercely through the windows.
They fully deserve their coveted spots of sunlight.
You have done your jobs so well, dear companions. Thanks for taking our kids from toddlers to teens with your quiet strength and wisdom. We are grateful for your larger-than-life hearts and your cool, prodding noses. You have earned your Christmas Milk Bones a thousand times over.
And then some.