For sixteen wonderful years Jessie and I were the best of friends. She had no other family so we lovingly adopted her into ours. She had a friendly disposition and a big heart and was always available for a hug or a kiss. She was a simple girl with few demands and openly accepted family and friends with no reservations. Sometimes I couldn’t spend as much time with her as I wanted to, but it didn’t seem to matter. She never held grudges and was grateful for the time we had together.
We shared a love of the outdoors and spent many hours walking in the park marveling at the change of seasons. She was a great listener and I felt safe in pouring out my heart knowing that my words would go no further. Looking back I realize that on a certain level she was my caregiver when I didn’t even know I needed one.
The years passed too quickly – the children grew up and left home and my husband and I found new passions to pursue. But Jessie remained a constant, moving inconspicuously from childhood to adulthood to elderhood. In her later years we still took long walks and shared secrets before her health took a sudden turn. It was hard for me to admit that she was getting old, even when her eyesight dimmed and her hearing diminished. But when she started forgetting things and incontinence became a problem, I had to let go of the fantasy that she would live forever.
I think the dementia was the most difficult for me to accept. I could always count on her to be there for me, but suddenly our roles were reversed and I became her caregiver on a whole new level. Little did I know how heart breaking and rewarding it would be.
Jessie was a picky eater and had a discriminating palate. She hated taking medicine and fought me tooth and nail. She was only on an aspirin a day but could be down right hostile about it. She became adept at pocketing the pill between her lip and gum only to spit it out on the living room rug. I learned to be resourceful, as all caregivers do – I crushed the aspirin, mixed it with a teaspoon of peanut butter, and never had that problem again.
Jessie suffered from arthritis so staying in one position was difficult and nighttime was the worse. I would hear her tossing and turning several times during the night trying to find a comfortable position. She would wake in the morning stiff and sore but once up and moving became more limber. Towards the end of life her hearing and vision were so poor that touching was the only way to get her attention. I learned to back away quickly when rousing her because the startle effect made her scratch or bite from fear.
One day I got a phone call from my neighbor telling me Jessie had wandered to her house. I hadn’t even noticed she was gone and my mind raced with all the terrible things that could befall her from getting hit by a car to getting lost.
Incontinence was most distressing to her even in her dementia state. She was always so prim and proper and the frequent accidents caused her to whimper in horror and humiliation. I would lovingly clean up after her trying to soothe her with words of comfort. There was no way she was going to wear a diaper nor was I going to try to put one on her.
The most horrifying incident occurred on a cool April night. My husband and I had gone to bed and were awakened by the sound of Jessie falling down the stairs. She had gotten up from her bed, maybe needing to urinate, and lost her balance at the top of the stairs. I’ll never forget her cries when she hit the cold tiled floor. Thankfully she didn’t sustain any serious injuries, just a badly bruised body and ego. I crawled into bed with her later that night to hold her and be near if she needed me.
Despite all of this she remained determined to live and enjoy life. She especially enjoyed lying in a warm beam of sunshine as it streamed through the window onto her bed.
Jessie’s health continued to decline and by summer I knew she couldn’t hang on much longer. But she out lasted my prediction and on a warm Monday in November she passed away quietly in my arms. She was considered an old lady in dog years and had out lived her time. In the end she couldn’t move any part of her body except her head, which she used to lick me adoringly while the Vet put her peacefully to rest. I thought I was ready for her leaving and had bolstered myself with the knowledge that she would no longer be in pain. But I wasn’t prepared for the emptiness I felt and the longing for her company. There are still times I think I hear the jingle of her tags as comes into a room to be with me.
Jessie taught me many things about aging and care giving. I learned patience and tolerance, compassion and empathy, forgiveness, humility, and resourcefulness. I learned that aging is inevitable and how important it is to be thankful for each day and enjoy the simplicities of life. But most of all Jessie taught me about unconditional love – a love with no strings attached and no regrets.
Mary C. Fridley