Walking our blind dog this afternoon, I was observing how contented he looks trotting on the grass with his waggy tail up in the air, sniffing for new and old scents, walking in zigzags, generally just being...himself.
As I mentioned in my blog of 20th June, Lights Out, Binks has not always been blind. The black curtain came down on him suddenly after he underwent surgery for a cut on his paw. We will never be able to prove a medical error occurred while he was being operated, but the fact is 24 hours after he returned home from hospital, Binks started crashing into doors and walking into furniture. The ophthalmologist diagnosed him with a rare degenerative retinal disease, but nearly year down the line, my partner and I are convinced it was a stroke that caused his blindness. A stroke triggered possibly by stress or a drug that was (mis)administered to him pre- or mid-surgery.
It was not just his sight that disappeared. His appetite, his playfulness, his zest for life altogether evaporated overnight. If you thought severe depression was only possible in humans, you should have seen the state of Binks in those six months or so during which he went on to have two more strokes, debilitating him even further.
After each stroke his head became distorted in a grotesque manner. He lost his ability to walk in a straight line and, in his mental confusion, only managed to walk in circles. The tilt on his head disrupted the balance of his body, so climbing up and down stairs in the house became awkward. He no longer came running into the living room on the first floor when called, nor was he interested in sleeping in the bedroom, by our bed, at night.
Eventually painful arthritis developed on his back legs. With stiff rear limbs and a bent neck, movement became even more cumbersome. It was not uncommon for him in those days to miss steps and skid down the stairs, and he stopped cocking his leg to pee.
We did everything a pet owner could possibly do for an animal, from conventional to alternative to simply praying to God (well, me, as my partner is agnostic): drugs, hydrotherapy, reiki healing, animal communicator, acupuncture, flaxseed oil, change in diet to control his sudden weight gain. On advice from an animal behaviourist, we tried not to feel sorry for him and panic every time he walked into the television banging his head. It broke our hearts to see him so unstable, but for his own good he needed to learn to cope. If I became disabled in any way, I would like to learn to be as independent as possible, and I felt the same would apply to Binks.
We learned to guide his movements with words: "No. Stop. Wrong direction Binks. Go back Binks. Yes. Correct Binks." And on kerbs and steps: "Attention, down. Attention, up. Good boy Binks."
From about a month ago we started letting Binks walk off his lead again in the park. We discovered, to our astonishment, that he had memorised the geography of the area so well, he is capable of going round the usual route almost by himself with only occasional verbal guidance from us.
His joy is palpable from the way he starts running as soon as he’s set free. Even as he pees (cocked leg!) on the root of a tree, his tongue is sticking out and his blind eyes seem to be looking for you from behind his fringe, as if to say, “Look, I’m walking and peeing on my own!” He is so proud of himself. “Well done Binks! What a good puppy you are.” He knows “puppy” is about him, even though he is about 12.
Binks' head is almost completely straight now (Dogs tend to recover from strokes better than humans) and he runs up and down the stairs at home just like a seeing dog. He can navigate the house confidently again and knows to walk very slowly inside rooms so as to make any collision as painless as possible.
He does not need to take any more medication, which means no risk of liver damage in the long run. For health maintenance, he receives monthly half-hour acupuncture sessions from his lovely South African vet Guy Liebenberg,
who believes in combining alternative treatments with conventional ones. Binks’ arthritis has never returned, and he has not had any more strokes since August.
Fellow dog walkers are astounded as we are at his recovery. Literally every person we meet during our walks, makes the same comment: "He is such a happy dog!"
As I watch Binks trotting down the park, totally carefree and self-contented, it is hard to believe he was ever so ill. No one thought he would make it. "We just hope when his time comes, he will go peacefully," they used to say. Even my partner was preparing himself for the worst. I, being a stubborn creature of faith, never for a moment doubted Binks could be healed: he is my miracle puppy.
What he can do is of course restricted by his post-illness stamina and the blindness – no more half day frolicking in the nature reserve chasing rabbits, no more uphill hiking, nor swimming in the sea. But, boy, does he enjoy the little joys that have been left to him.
Within the boundaries of what he can do to enjoy his life as a dog, he pushes the limits of each pleasurable experience to the maximum – a walk, a special treat of a pig's ear, having his tummy tickled, sleeping on the bed between me and my partner while being stroked with two pairs of hands. He lets out a deep sigh and makes loud snoring noises of utter pleasure, which are a delight to hear.
There is so much to be learned from animals, they really humble me. They do not moan about the present, do not regret the past nor worry about what the future may bring, or not. They accept all vicissitudes as they come, and find full contentment in whatever joyful activity is available to them.
If anyone feels sorry for Binks for the life "he cannot have anymore", they are grossly misled by their own delusion that happiness is conditional to one having this or that. His eyes may live in darkness, but his soul is infused with a light and a lightness we cannot even begin to fathom.
All we need to be happy is available to us now, at every moment.
Sometimes I think Binks came into the journey of my life to teach me that and heal my eyes from my own blindness.