Erin Patrice O'Brien
Author Gail Sheehy died on August 24 from complications from pneumonia, three months after she was photographed in Central Park with her beloved dog Chollie for this essay in AARP The Magazine.
En español | As a “young” octogenarian, I've been confined to home lately. But I have survived quite well on two essentials. One is Chollie, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel who lives with me in Manhattan. The other is phone calls from my companion of the past 10 years, Robert, who since March has been sequestered in Sag Harbor, New York, by his ever-watchful son.
My four-legged roommate and I have a very special companionship. I used to wonder why he seemed to really like it when we'd stare into each other's eyes, for up to a minute at a time. Now I know, from reading the science, that it's because this eye-to-eye connection gives both of us a pleasant shot of the bonding hormone, oxytocin. That boost is reinforced many times during the day, when Chollie comes to me at my writing desk for a long pat or a scratch and tickle. It's touching how often he wants to be petted and reassured these days. He gives every bit of the same back to me.
When I lie down on a mat on the floor to do exercises, Chollie rushes over to lick me because he thinks I've fallen. And sometimes I have. He's always right there to encourage me to get up. When I have to close him in the bedroom at night so his barking doesn't awaken my neighbor with high blood pressure, he whines like a wolf until I come in and cozy up with him. I am not isolated with my dog, as many friends worry. I am buoyant with health and motivation because of my dog's companionship.
Plus, Chollie keeps me on schedule. I don't have to wait for my alarm to go off at 7 a.m., because he always barks seven minutes before then. He schedules his day, and I comply. First walk, 7 a.m. Breakfast, 7:45 a.m. Playtime, 8 to 8:30 a.m. Nap, 8:30 to 11. (He's 12, so give him a break.) Second walk by 1 p.m., including a bonus poop. On our strolls in Central Park, we're careful to maintain social distancing with humans. We find offbeat paths, and he stops me at every new flower burst — from the first daffodils to late summer's hydrangeas. I take pictures while Chollie picks up the scent of every dog who beat us to these new flower beds. We both come home happy.
My nightly chats with Robert are what connect me to the human world. At age 94, he keeps me amused, retelling stories of books he's loved that I've never read, while dashing back and forth to watch a dinner he has on the stove. When I ask, “How are you?” he always replies, with a lilt in his voice, “Hanging in!”
Courtesy Gail Sheehy
Before COVID-19, I would hop a jitney with Chollie in tow every summer Friday afternoon for the ride out to Sag Harbor. I couldn't wait to get to the beach with Robert to watch the sun refuse to set. We always took Chollie with us. He loved chasing birds and running down to dip his nose into salt water.
Sad to find I've slipped into the past tense. How ephemeral those evenings seem as we soldier through this increasingly weighty moment, which has brought not only a world-historic pandemic, but a long-overdue mass movement for racial justice. In June, I joined a socially distanced protest march myself, with Chollie at my side.
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I still long to sneak off with Robert and Chollie to a secret little patch of beach, but I know I'm at an age where I cannot take such desires for granted. Whatever happens, though, I've got Chollie. When I can finally get him a puppy cut, he'll look five years younger. Why can't I do that?
Gail Sheehy is the author of 17 books, including Daring: My Passages: A Memoir.