Changing habits usher in sunset years

This morning I throw an orange ball for Captain to retrieve and wince as the black lab twists his body to leap up and catch it at an angle, like an aging sports star reliving his glory days.

He lands with a thud and limps back to dump the ball at my feet.

"Sorry old man,'' I say to him, picking up the slobbery ball, thinking maybe just one last time. I'm scared that he will die of a heart attack on my watch. I have a sip of coffee from the cup in my hand and watch the 7am sun creep just a little bit more up the dry, brown hills. Meanwhile Captain's face just looks up at me like 'more, more, more'.

This is the highlight of Captain's day. This has always been the highlight of Captain's day for more than a decade now.

I house-sat for this family just weeks after Captain was born. My lasting memory of him in those first months is his little feet scrambling for traction on the kitchen floor as I chased him in desperation while he hurled himself around the room with a bottle blue nail polish between his teeth. 

It was my first spring back in my hometown after graduating from Otago and working a summer and a winter in Glenorchy. I had forgotten about the explosions of orange poppies on the hillsides and the dry heat that people walked around in back in California. Like this sun, and this neon blue cloudless sky, was nothing special really.

I felt spoiled that spring, reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden by the pool while Captain dozed by his mother, Joy, reserving his energy to destroy anything he could get his teeth into when he woke. But he was so little he couldn't get his mouth around the tennis ball. Instead, he would chew on my thumb while I held him like a baby in my lap.

When he was old enough, Captain was let out the back gate with Joy to fetch the ball that would be thrown from the shadows of the garage. This house is on a hill surrounded by tiny valleys that rise up to other surrounding hills where other beautiful houses are also perched. These are my neighbours while I am house-sitting.

When I throw a ball off the edge of the driveway, it is like throwing it into an ocean dotted with oak trees.

Captain, black and sleek, would look like a seal diving into waves of tall, dry grass as he raced after Joy's golden body to secure the ball.

They would disappear, and return, sometimes ten, even 15 minutes later with the prize. Captain and his mum would surge over the top of the hill to me, breathless and triumphant, ready to run like mad after this ball a hundred more times if I'd just throw it.

In the last few years, both dogs have come with me to feed the horses in the mornings and then to fetch the paper at the end of a long, winding driveway that descends below the house.

It is always the same. I bring my coffee cup - and the ball - put on my flip flops and the three of us head out into the morning.

In the middle of winter in Invercargill, when I was re-living a holiday in my head, that walk in the summer warmth was something I'd daydream about in my swivel chair at work during those rough Southern polar blasts.

But in the last two years, the routine has had to change. No one knows why, but together, the pair run off and don't come back when the ball is thrown.

So they are separated during the morning ball-throwing now. The walks to the corral to feed the horses are more subdued.

This time when I throw the ball, Captain will run after it, then see a squirrel and get distracted. Then he will stop cold. He is unsure. Then he'll look up at me like what was I just doing?

And when he remembers, and brings the ball home, there is no longer a triumphant charge over the crest of the driveway.

He limps with a sweet eagerness, his breathing hard and raspy. But his eyes look at me with the same puppy crazy love of games. It's just his body - and sometimes his mind - that is starting to fail him.

Joy ages like any grown dog I've known.

But Captain I've known since he was just a wiggly little thing the size of my foot. In his prime he would just about bowl me over when I'd hold the ball out of his reach.

Now he steadies himself carefully on shaky legs when he gets up from sleeping. When I let him out at night before I put him in the garage, he will stand there in the dark and bark at nothing. 

There isn't much that reminds you of time ticking away than a full life span beginning and then wrapping up right before you.

And so this morning, as Joy barks away in the backyard, waiting for her turn, I wind up my arm and throw the ball.

Captain disappears into the canyon after it.

I sip coffee. I let the sun do its work to wake me up as I hold my face up to the morning light.  I shuffle around in flip flops, unwinding the garden hose and turning on the water. I look around. No Captain.

I call his name. Nothing.

I water a plant. Then I put the hose down. I go to the edge of the driveway and I call Captain's name again. I can feel the worry build up in my stomach.

A hawk swoops and circles in front of me, and for a few moments we are at eye level, before it drops back down into the canyon.

And then I hear rustling and panting and here, finally, is Captain. He arrives over the crest of the driveway with the ball.

He stops, his  breathing hard. He is not as the conquistador of his youth. But those puppy eyes are still as full of play as they were when he first grabbed that bottle of nail polish in his teeth, saw me coming after him and thought oh I get it, it's a game!

He plods over and drops the ball at my feet with eyes that say scared you didn't I?

He looks at me, doing little bunny hops with eyes that are pleading. He looks down at the ball and whines. Eyes fixate back on me. More, more, more.


''Okay old man,'' I tell him. I grab the ball. I watch and wait for his breathing go back to normal. Then I wind up my arm.

''One more time.''

The Southland Times