Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blind Luck

Monday, Barley and I spent the better part of the morning in the offices of Penni Cooley, DVM who specializes in pet ophthalmology. She didn’t have an eye chart for him to read, but otherwise the lights and lenses that she used to examine his eyes were similar to what my eye doctor relies upon. After she finished examining him with her sophisticated equipment, she threw cotton balls in front of his face to test his response. Finally, she had her assistant create a maze between the examining room and her office out of a series of waste baskets and other plastic containers. I stood at the far end and called him. This exercise was repeated with the lights off. With the lights on, he was able to knock over the waste basket that was directly in front of him and wind his way to where I stood. In the dark, he didn’t even try.

No use beating around the bush. Barley is going blind. There – I have said it. His condition is known as “progressive retinal atrophy” or, PRA, and is a result of a defect in an enzyme in the photoreceptors of the retina that prevent damage from light. In case you don’t have an anatomy book in front of you, the retina is the cup like structure that forms the back of the eye. The photoreceptors die over time, with the rod cells that are responsible for dim light vision or night vision the first to go followed by the cone cells leading to complete blindness. The cells simply atrophy or shrink. It is classified as a recessive gene disorder for which there is no therapy or treatment.

I don’t know exactly when we first noticed that he didn’t seem to see as well as he should but I’d bet that it first became evident when someone threw a ball and he missed it. As in any condition that is finally ‘out of the closet’ and given a name, I have been thinking back to when the last time was that he could catch a ball on the fly. Did he ever do that? I think so but now I’m not so sure. Certainly, last summer he could be counted on to chase the ball to earth no matter how far down the driveway it was lobbed. From time to time, he would have to spend extra time running it to ground, but he always found it. When did the exception become the rule? Certainly, this summer no fly balls have made their way into his glove. He often runs in circles around the ball before locating it. “Silly dog – it’s right there!” we say, not comprehending his condition. When he does locate it, I suspect he has “sees” it first with his nose.

With shorter days, our first and last walk of the day is now in the dark and that has brought about several noticeable changes. For starters, he doesn’t charge down the driveway full bore as he does during day light hours; instead he stays close to me, proceeding with a tentative gate. Also, he bumps into or stumbles over structures that are well known to him. A couple of weeks ago, he walked right into the neighbor’s pile of beauty bark. Since it had only been delivered the day before I tried to dismiss it as something out of the ordinary. The next night, he collided with the curb by the garage that has been there forever. Denial was no longer an option.

Over the past five months, Kate and Micaiah’s dog Malbec, has stayed with us off and on, often for two to three weeks at a time. Initially, he wasn’t much interested in chasing a ball. After all, he considers himself primarily a guard dog and a lover. But once he saw that it was a fun game with the anticipated rewards of praise and petting, he threw himself into it. He is powerful runner, so at first he often overran the ball, necessitating doubling back to pick it up thereby giving Barley a second chance at getting the ball in his mouth first. Unfortunately, Barley was rarely able to take advantage of Malbec’s fumble. As the game wore on, Barley’s expression changed from eager anticipation to one of decided frustration – after all, he was the retriever! Didn’t he own this game? Malbec, the Boxer/Ridgeback meritage was an interloper of the first order!

Frequently once Malbec had the ball in his mouth, he dropped it, often right in front of Barley. One likely explanation of this behavior is that Malbec is either intimidated by Barley or that he simply lost interest in the ball once he had it in his mouth; however, I prefer to think that he dropped it intentionally to give Barley another chance. Malbec is smart and sensitive and fully capable of recognizing Barley’s limitations as well as his psychological need to be first. Despite the fact that Malbec could clean Barley’s clock if he were so inclined, he accepts Barley as the pack leader and defers to him. Besides, for better or worse they are family now and family looks out for one another.

So where do we go from here. For starters, I have to get over feeling sad about it. Barley is his same cheerful hardy self and doesn’t need a maudlin mistress for company. Invariably he “comes to play” with an enviable energetic focus at the mere hint of a ball game or the mention of the beach. Being congenitally inclined to live in the future rather than the present I can learn a lot from him about living in the moment. Heaven knows I will need a mentor to navigate the maze of compromised skills and abilities, which will require adaptation and acceptance.

I don’t consider myself a total control freak but in all honesty the hardest part of all of this is recognizing that there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t even justify a good guilty wallow. No “if only” or “why didn’t I?” in this scenario. I really have no option but to buck up, act like an adult and as AA teaches, accept what is, correct those things I can correct and accept those I cannot.

So there you have it. Blind luck. Not the unexpected good fortune often associated with that phrase but on the other hand, luck is just that - luck. This morning on our long walk, we talked about it and decided that all things considered, when it came right down to it, mainly we had good luck and we had it in abundance. After all, we did have each other!