The other day, my 81-year-old father was walking Fluffy, his girlfriend’s dog. Fluffy is a mutt from the animal shelter but he has a lot of terrier in him. He may also have an attention deficit disorder, but that just may be part of being a dog.
He’s 20 pounds of relentless energy who loves nothing more than leaping onto a bed where a human is sleeping and landing like an anvil on his or her crotch. Actually, that’s not true: He also loves barking at the television set. This barking at the TV is the big difference between my dad and Fluffy. Fluffy only barks at the TV when it’s off, and my dad only barks at the TV when he’s watching “Meet the Press” or “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Fluffy also survived a leap from a third-floor balcony into the bushes 30 feet below. A bird flew by and Fluffy was off the ground like a fighter jet. He missed the bird and dropped like a lawn dart, but wound up without even a broken bone. According to my dad and his girlfriend, the dog was already emerging from the shrubbery when they got to him, looking up in the air for the bird and barking.
In any case, my dad was walking Fluffy along one of the manicured roads that mark the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., neighborhood in which he lives. Some readers may recall that my father and his girlfriend live in a condominium community built around a golf course, and everyone there is old enough to know that a “high ball” is the name of a drink and not the medical shorthand for a male medical problem. Of course, if a high ball were the medical shorthand for a male medical problem, the folks there would still use it. There is no medical problem they don’t talk about. I just love my lunches with my dad’s golf buddies when I visit because it is always such an interesting window into just how much I have to look forward to as I age.
So, my father had Fluffy’s leash in one hand and his ever-ready plastic bag in the other. My dad and the dog were strolling contentedly along the sidewalk when a Cadillac slowed to a stop beside them. My dad didn’t know the fellow behind the wheel and presumed that he was going to ask directions. He didn’t. The guy, who my father guessed was roughly his age, proceeded to demand that my father pick up the dog mess that he insisted he saw Fluffy deposit in the grass.
“He hasn’t done anything yet,” my dad said, and held up the empty bag as evidence.
“He just did,” the stranger insisted, at which point he climbed from the car and stomped over to my dad. My dad says the following thought crossed his mind: “Men in their 80s are not supposed to have fist fights and this is just not going to be pretty.” Nevertheless, he was prepared to defend his reputation and his girlfriend’s dog’s honor.
Instead, however, his antagonist bent over the grass and started searching for proof of the allegation. This made Fluffy very happy: A human acting like a dog.
At that point, my father did the sort of thing that makes me quite content with the reality that eventually I may grow into him. He put his hand on the guy’s shoulder and introduced himself. He offered his address and phone number and said, “Look, if you really think I didn’t clean up after Fluffy, report me to the condominium association.” (Apparently, they have what my dad refers to as the Dog Poop Police.)
And this completely de-escalated the tension: Cuban missile crisis averted. My dad and the guy from the Cadillac haven’t yet become golf buddies, but I think it’s only a matter of time. Growing old might not be easy, but it’s encouraging to see that diplomacy doesn’t need to disappear along with one’s hearing and eyesight.
Incidentally, my father turns 82 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Dad.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 24, 2010.)