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'A Frightening Reminder of Our Own Mortality'

August 01, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The old girl was on the table. She wasn't looking so hot. Age and infirmity had taken their toll. The bony cage of her ribs rose and fell in a slow cadence. Each breath seemed as if it might be her last. As the doctor palpated her abdomen, she flinched. But her eyes remained expressionless.

You don't get much emotion out of a 16-year-old dog.

Poor Saffron. She is my mother's dog, a honey-colored Heinz 57, vaguely terrier. Saffron came to live with us at the end of February, after a blood vessel in my mother's brain burst, leaving her physically weakened, mentally impaired and quite unable to care for herself, let alone her old dog.

After my mother was hospitalized, Saffron went into a little tailspin herself. Never plump, she stopped eating and became positively scrawny. She used to be a leaper, a lover of high-bouncing tennis balls, capable of springing into the air from a standing position to snatch them in her jaws.

Like a lot of retired athletes, Saffron's prowess has cost her: arthritic back legs and a pronounced limp only slightly alleviated by daily doses of buffered aspirin. She used to be stubborn, but now she is deaf. The result is the same. She does what she wants and takes her sweet time doing it.

Saffron's skeletal appearance, unsteady gait and generally depressed demeanor evoke strong responses from family and friends.

"A frightening reminder of our own mortality," says my 22-year-old stepson.

Most people are far less kind: "Don't you think it's time to put the old dog down?"

This question deeply offends me. Somehow, Saffron's health is entwined in my head with my mother's.

The vet allayed my fears--Saffron, she explained, is just getting old. No reason to put her to sleep. And just ignore what people say.

"Whether it's a person or an animal," she added, "people are terrified of old age."


Last weekend, my mother moved in with us. Now we have two aging, infirm creatures under our roof.

In small ways, Saffron's presence has prepared us for Mom's. We have had to slow down with Saffron, take special care that she is bundled up at night on her bean-bag bed, see that she gets enough to eat. She drives us crazy, too, sometimes: her long nails clicking on our hardwood floors as she paces at night.

My mother is aphasic; she has trouble with speech and comprehension. Sometimes she speaks lucidly and understands everything that is said--a decades-long caffeine addict, she has never not been able to ask for a cup of coffee. But other times, her language is garble--neologisms that only she understands. It's very frustrating.

When my mother was released from the convalescent hospital last May, she moved in with my sister, Jennifer, and her family in San Diego. She was well on the road to recovery when she fell and broke her wrist in May. After that, her ability to communicate worsened dramatically. We thought perhaps the codeine she was taking for wrist pain caused the regression. But no, it turned out she had suffered a stroke, right in the area where the aneurysm had ruptured.

It was a very difficult time, and in her volatile emotional state, she was subject to anger as readily as happiness. When she and Jenny had a struggle of wills over something minor, my mother walked away, then turned and in her old familiar angry voice, the one that drops an octave for effect, growled a complete non sequitur: "I will smoke again."

My sister, who did a heroic job caring for Mom, just glared right back: "Over my dead body."


Mom is just starting to come back from the stroke. She is charming again, and grateful. And sometimes, the aphasia makes her very funny.

The other night, she reprimanded our two Boston terriers, who had jumped onto her bed.

"Now, people!" she said, sounding like the teacher she once was, "That is not OK!"

And recently, when her speech pathologist asked for the name of her dog, Mom replied: "I call her Byuki."

"Mom," I said laughing, "her name is Saffron !"

"That's what I said," she insisted, " Byuki ."

Soon, we'll have to figure out if Mom can return to her own home in Hollywood where she was a familiar sight, walking the hills every twilight with Saffron.

We don't know how long she will be able to stay with us--the strain on the family is tremendous. Sometimes, it feels as though we are caring for two demanding children, one 10 months old, the other 66.

As hard as it is, though, there is tremendous satisfaction in giving this kind of care, in doing the right thing by someone who has done the right thing by you your whole life. She is our mother; she could never be a burden.

The other night, as she stroked Saffron's head, she asked me quite sincerely: "Do you think it's time for her to die?"

Absolutely not!

You should have seen the relief on my mother's face.

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