January 17, 2019/June 21, 2019
Staring with the Bad Part, Moving to the Good Part (Skip this first section if you could never read about Jack’s death in the Little House on the Prairie books or if you, like me, feel you were emotionally damaged by books like Where the Red Fern Grows or Old Yeller). I’ll notify you in CAPS when the bad part is over.
We woke up in the longest and rainiest January in years to find that our pit bull, Buddy, couldn’t pee. He was really uncomfortable, so Robert called in sick and we rushed him to the vet. The vet wasn’t sure at first what was going on, but after an x-ray, she told us there was a mass pressing on his bladder. “It seems like it’s his prostrate,” she said, and then assured us that fixed dogs rarely get prostrate cancer. However, she sent us to the specialty vet for more help.
If you have never had to go to the special vet for an emergency, then you are really missing nothing. It is the saddest place on earth for animal lovers. No one wants to be there; no one is there to get their shots or a routine check up. Everyone is there under duress, and everyone is worried. They whisked Buddy away after having us sign forms that essentially said, “Yes, you can have my house and car and all of my money and in exchange we will take care of your dog who has to be here because something very, very bad is happening.” I had thought it was just an ordinary Wednesday, getting ready for school to begin again, maybe swimming, reading murder mysteries with tea while watching it rain, and then we were there at the worst place on earth. After being shuttled from one waiting room to the next, we met with the vet. There was a mass. It was his prostrate. They needed to do tests. It might cost 2,000.00 dollars or 4,000.00. Did we want to have him resuscitated if he died during the procedure? We were dumbstruck, worried about our sweet pit bull. We signed the forms and they sent us home. Thus began one of the longest afternoons of my life. The rain dripped, I tried to doze while watching history documentaries, and Robert feverishly searched the Internet for information about dogs and prostrate cancer.
I couldn’t help but feel a certain irritation at the rhymes in my life. After all, my father has been fighting prostrate cancer since I was in college, and I always worry about him. Now my Buddy, too? Robert kept surfing the internet and updating me with the rarity of fixed dogs having it, and we told ourselves that he would be OK as we had him fixed so young. An infection, we hoped, or something else. I remember feeling like everything was gray—the weather, my mood, the outlook. It was a bleak and terrible afternoon, and we jumped very time the phone rang. Finally, they called to say that we wouldn’t know more until the morning, and that Buddy would need to stay in the hospital. I don’t know if we slept that night, but the entire memory is colored by the constant rain, the cold (for LA), and my terrible fear.
In the morning I tried to get ready for what might come, but all I was really doing was waiting for the phone to ring. After I got out of the shower, it did. Bad news: cancer. Nothing we could do. He needed to be put to sleep immediately. In fact, they wouldn’t release him to us unless we could guarantee that he would be put to sleep that very same day. Even now I can remember crying and clinging to Robert in the bedroom, my grimacing face reflected in mirror on the door. “What are we going to do?” I asked while knowing there was nothing we could do. “Call Dr. Liz,” was Robert’s answer. Dr. Liz was our savoir with Pebbles, the Jack Russell we kept alive to age 18. Pebbles had been, previous to our ownership run over by a car, drowned, electrocuted, lost for a month, kicked by a horse, and who under our care had been fished out of the mouths of various German Shepherds, Dobermans, and who fought with all Pugs on sight, survived two forms of breast cancer and eventually died at home after battling COPD and arthritis. Oh, yeah, and she was blind. It took two shots to put her down, something Dr. Liz had never seen before. Dr. Liz also helped us when our Chow Chow, Maggie, was ready to leave. So, we called Dr. Liz, and then we waited by the phone some more. There was some wrangling with the hospital—we really wanted another night with Buddy before we had to say goodbye—but they made it clear that he might not be able to clear his bladder and would suffer, so we agreed to put him to sleep within 6 hours of his release.
I had thought the morning when Buddy couldn’t pee was terrible, but this morning was even worse. The hospital wouldn’t release Buddy until 3 p.m., and Dr. Liz was scheduled for 6 p.m. We had a whole morning and afternoon to get through, and we were just basically waiting to kill our beloved dog. We cried. We did not eat. We tried to plan, and we questioned what we were doing. “We made a promise to him,” I kept saying, “We have to what is best for him. He can’t suffer any more.” Thinking of Buddy in the cold animal hospital was horrible. Buddy had torn his cruciate ligament and needed very expensive surgery first in 2015, then again (on the eve of Donald Trump’s election) in 2016, so we knew he knew about the hospital. We hated to think of him there, and unlike his TPLO surgeries, this time he wouldn’t be coming home to get better. Instead, we would be euthanizing him.
I never read the papers in the fancy folder they gave us on discharge, but the doctor told us Buddy was basically healthy except for the fact that he was dying. Here is one sentence from it: “You have elected to take Buddy home with a plan to have him euthanized tonight, as it is unclear if he can urinate after his urinary catheter was removed. If he does urinate in the next 6-12 hours or if is posturing to urinate with no production, it is an indication that he is or is becoming very uncomfortable and suffering.” He was not thrilled to see us when we picked him up, but he first peed on his favorite palm tree right by the car, then again on the stones of our neighbor’s wall as we slowly walked to the house. For months after and even today I mark those spots as I pass them: Buddy’s last stands. Once he realized we were home, he seemed very relieved.
From 4-6 p.m. is a time that passes quickly most days—chores and dogs and checking the news—but those were the longest hours of my life. It makes me wonder what life would be like if we really appreciated every moment. There were many moments, but these are the ones I remember: Buddy settling on his spot on the couch, giving his big sigh, and smiling at me; making Buddy his last dinner (chicken and rice) and watching him eat it; trying not to cry, and making tea and trying not to drink wine; calling people to tell them, and inadvertently causing some shock—Buddy was loved; Buddy’s eyes, looking into mine, every detail of his eyelid and lashes indelibly printed into my memory; lighting candles; waiting for Dr. Liz; reciting every line in the book I always wanted to write, the A-Z of Pit Bulls, Adopt-a –bull (Adore-a-bull, Bathe-a bull, Comfort-a-bull, etc…); memorizing Buddy’s sweet face, his eyes, his smell, always in his feet; trying to comfort Robert and be strong and falling apart, Kleenex everywhere; the rain, the rain, the rain; the knowledge that we were really losing him, and that we had to do the right thing, for him.
When Dr. Liz finally arrived, it was a relief and a terrible feeling. After all, I like Dr. Liz, and Buddy was excited to have a visitor as he loved people so very much. Dr. Liz explained everything, and she tried to console us, to tell we were doing the right thing, that he shouldn’t suffer, but it felt so wrong. Once it was time, I tore open his Christmas treats from Grandma and started feeding them to him. After all, he didn’t need to worry about what he ate anymore. Buddy was thrilled to have a nice lady there to see him, a lady who kept telling him he was a “Handsome boy,” and treats—this was the best thing ever! He was eating treats and smiling his big pit bull grin and licking and licking our hands. That’s how he died—mid lick—and if you knew Buddy at all, that was just fine. He had a giant smile on his face even when he was gone. It was the happiest death I can imagine anyone having and still we felt terrible (terr-i-bull).
And then Buddy was gone, and everything was flat. The sun came out but not for us. Joey the Chihuahua cried so much when I went back to work that he lost his voice. And we got a foster dog and a puppy (more on those dogs in later blogs), but after Buddy died, it felt like something in me just broke, like I wasn’t who I was any more, and life without him was…flat.
Buddy and Joey, Christmas 2017
THE BAD PART IS OVER: OKAY, THAT’S THE LAST OF THE BAD PART, I PROMISE
After Buddy died, somewhere between Norman the Foster pit bull and Harold the Puppy (more about both and the bus in later posts), two crows showed up at my house. Actually what happened first was a beautiful lunar eclipse which we watched with Joey the Chihuahua, and I kept thinking about the friends I had lost, Buddy and Jim, and I imagined that the eclipse was a party they were having in the sky. After Jim died, I kept imagining him piloting his blue VW bus with Saturn painted on the nose through the heavens, saying “Holy shit! This is amazing!” Now I imagined that Jim had needed Buddy, or Buddy had needed Jim, and now they were up there in the stars putting on the eclipse like one of Jim’s firework shows in Harlan. As you might guess, I’m no stranger to magical thinking.
In that wet winter after we lost the bull, I started to notice two black shapes swinging through the sky in the afternoons and evenings, heading to the large tree behind our house. Or I might see the two crows on the telephone wire watching me, and I began to imagine that they were Buddy and Jim. There was Jim’s Old Crow hat, crow t-shirts, and persona, so seeing Jim as one of the crows wasn’t such a stretch. The two of them together reminded me of Buddy and Jim because Jim was Buddy’s favorite person. When Jim died I didn’t know what to tell Buddy because he loved Jim so very much. Jim’s name was the only human name he ever learned, and if I told him “Jim’s coming over,” Or even said “Jim,” Buddy would look at the door and start wagging.
Thinking like this is one of the ways I cope with things I can’t cope with, and the deaths of Buddy and Jim seemed so close together that I needed some way to process what had happened, so I started talking to the crows. I also spent lots of time looking at old pictures of Buddy, and that’s when another strange thing happened: I learned that you can gain something from death. Looking at Buddy’s whole life in pictures brought him back to me at various ages, but it also brought back our other dogs, Pebbles and Maggie. At the end of her life Pebbles was a mess, and after she died she stayed an old dog in my memories. I tried to remember how she once was, but the months of her decline were stamped in my memory. After losing Buddy, seeing the pictures of him with Pebs when she was still young enough and sassy brought that dog back to me, so I did gain that from losing Buddy.
Buddy, Maggie, and Pebbles at the old house on Boylston Street
But to return to the crows, I started to imagine that they were watching over me, my friend Jim and my friend Buddy, that they were taking care of me in the afterlife just as they had in real life, and on my afternoon walks I imagined what that might be like. I think I was inspired by Waiting for Godot if the play was about an old, cantankerous, dead hippie and his trusty pit bull sidekick. It might help to point out that as long as we had Buddy, we had something called “the bull voice,” a special voice we’d use to voice what we imagined Buddy’s opinions and responses would be. It was a deep voice as befits a pit bull, and Buddy’s imaginary dialogue was full of funny observations, like his running list of “Weird Things Humans Do,” like bringing a tree in the house and decorating it, to his aphorisms like “A Hole is To Dig.” So, on my walks, I was easily able to imagine Jim’s gravely unfiltered voice and Buddy’s imaginary dog voice conversing.
Terrible picture of Buddy and Jim (and Jenny) circa 2016
BUDDY: Here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask a human…why do you pee in the water bowl?
JIM: The water bowl? You mean the toilet?
BUDDY: The bowl in the bathroom.
JIM: That’s the toilet, you moron.
BUDDY: I’m not a moron, and it’s a great water bowl. Perfect height.
JIM: For you.
BUDDY: Well, yes. But why waste that pee? Pee is for marking your territory.
JIM: I’m not a fucking dog.
BUDDY: But you pee in the yard.
JIM: Yeah, cause I’m lazy, but I don’t drink toilet water.
BUDDY: It tastes great, except when people don’t flush.
JIM: Budski, this is disgusting.
BUDDY: And how come no one likes it when dogs eat poop? It’s recycling.
JIM: Not helping.
JIM: Did you actually eat poop?
BUDDY: Oh, yeah, dog poop, cat poop is the best, horse poop, once I even found human–
JIM: Budski, I don’t even wanna know. I let you lick me.
JIM: This is one of those dog/human things.
BUDDY: Well, we’re dead now, so I guess it doesn’t matter.
JIM: Here’s something I always wanted to know: do dogs really love humans, or is it just the food?
BUDDY: I can’t believe you even asked me that. Really. Didn’t I always wag when you came over? Jump on you? Lick you? Would I be sitting here in a tree as a crow watching my humans if I didn’t love them? Man, of course we love humans; that’s the way we dogs are.
JIM: See, I know you loved me, and I know we love Robert and Jenny, but I thought when I died I’d see my dog, Reuben.
BUDDY: I don’t know how all of this works.
JIM: Yeah, me neither, but I think it all makes sense in some kind of way. See, I studied Buddhism for years–
BUDDY: You’re not gonna try to explain Buddhism, are you? When you tried to explain electricity I was really lost.
JIM: Jesus tits, Bud! Just listen a minute.
BUDDY: Was that a squirrel? Over there in the oak tree? Why couldn’t we have been squirrels, man? I really would have liked to be a squirrel.
JIM: Crows are better.
BUDDY: Yeah, we can fly and all, but just once I’d have liked to get really close to a squirrel.
JIM: I think you’re kind of missing the point.
BUDDY: About what?
JIM: My point exactly.
BUDDY: I don’t know why Reuben isn’t here and why I am. I don’t know anything, anymore.
JIM: Is there any more beer?
BUDDY: Of course. This is the afterlife, man. We only have beer.
JIM: It’s a glorious thing.
BUDDY: For you, maybe. Me, I’d like a squirrel.
JIM: You never caught a squirrel, and you aren’t gonna start now.
BUDDY: But seriously, Jim, I worry about the people. Jenny’s got pictures of us on the mantle and she lights candles and cries.
JIM: Yeah. It sucks.
BUDDY: I miss them, and I wish it had worked out with Norman. Now they have that wacky puppy.
JIM: What were you like as a puppy?
BUDDY: Crazy. I think I ate a motorcycle once.
JIM: A MOTORCYCLE?
BUDDY: Well, just the foot pedal. And their Christmas ornaments, and a bird feeder, and the doormat, and a wallet, and lots of clothes, and part of a tree.
JIM: Jeez, Budski. Is there anything you didn’t eat?
BUDDY: I never peed in the house, well, except that one time.
JIM: Puppies pee in the house.
BUDDY: I didn’t.
JIM: You were six months old when they got you. How old is this one?
BUDDY: The puppy they got? I think he’s about four months now.
JIM: SO, give him some time. He may chill out.
BUDDY: Yeah, but I think we should just keep an eye on things for a while.
JIM: That’s what we’re doing, genius.
BUDDY: I know. I just worry sometimes.
JIM: About what?
BUDDY: What if they stay sad forever?
JIM: Nah, they’ll get over it. Then we can fly to Belize. It’s super cool, and they got these giant rats that you’ll dig. I used to live there.
BUDDY: Belize, huh.
BUDDY: OK, but I want to make sure they survive that puppy.
JIM: I told her not to get a fucking puppy.
BUDDY: Yeah, she never listens.
JIM: That’s a woman for you.
BUDDY: Man, I miss them, though. Especially Robert.
JIM: I know, Budski, I know.
Buddy and Robert, Week One
So, this helped me get through the days and weeks and months after Buddy and Jim died. I still see the crows, even today, and I still talk to them. I wish I had some sort of metaphysical thing to say, or something profound, or something that would make everything make sense, but I don’t. Most of the time I just try to remember these two souls, Buddy and Jim, and remember what they meant to me. I miss them both, though.
I also find myself scrolling through Buddy’s life, remembering him when he first came to us, all head and feet, remembering all the funny things he would do, and the big sigh he would give when he settled for the night or even for nap. Yes, he was just a dog, but for me, he was a like a person. I spent so much time with him, I talked to him and for him so often, and even though the months since he died have been filled with missing him and sorrow, I never wish I hadn’t known him. That’s why when he was gone, and Robert said maybe we shouldn’t get another dog, I said no. That’s the point of love, right? You have to keep experiencing it, and not be afraid of how much it might hurt you if it leaves. A friend of mine once compared it to diving off a cliff, saying that at least you soar before you hit the ground. That’s how I think of Buddy, now, soaring through the sky with Jim, heading for new adventures, while I try to love all these other dogs.
Buddy’s “Found Dog Photo”
Pitbulls for Obama photoshoot, 2008
The Antlers of Shame (Stupid shit humans do volume I)
I Can’t Believe They Made Me Wear This T-Shirt (Stupid shit humans do Volume II)