Friday, November 5, 2010

Bittersweet memories

I did either a really stupid thing or a good thing yesterday. I took my grandson to the local animal shelter, and met a new dog. I went with the intention of meeting a little terrier, but wound up taking home a little red dog, with a plumed tail, and expressive ears. She's tiny, only 12 pounds, and althougb she knows several commands such as "sit" and 'stay", she isn't housebroken. Today she was outside on the patio for over six hours, and as soon as I came home, she came inside, peed in the kitchen, then went upstairs and pooped in the bedroom, and peed on the stairs. I don't know if I have the energy and time to housebreak a dog. I'm not sure I have the energy and spirit to bond and love another dog.

I thought I was getting used to not having Buster around. Except he was. When I came into the house at night, I could feel his spirit coming to meet me, tail wagging. I could imagine his nose under the garage door, sniffing to see who was there. I imagine him lsying on the rug, stretched out sleeping, with his big eyes closed. I wish there was some way to transfer my mental images into video or even still pictures so I would never forget the look on his face as he walked away with the vet tech and how he let me hold him as he died. I never want to forget wrapping him up in his blanket, or how his fur felt between my fingers.

There are fourteen years of memories to catalog. The way he used to tear around my bed on his little baby legs, and fall asleep almost instantly. The night when he was 14 months, and got hit by a car, and we were terrified he would die, and how hard it was to get him to the vet, because he was in such pain. The ugly scar down his leg, and how, ever after, his right leg toed in just a bit, and how he had that little bump under his skin where the head of the steel pin protruded from his shoulder.

He loved living in Las Vegas. He loved going over to the school a couple of blocks away, and when I let him off the leash, he would run and run. But he would come back when I called, no matter how far away he was. We walked all over our neighborhood, in summer heat and winter cold. He never seemed to mind any of it.

I hugged him and sobbed the night my dad died. The day I came home from work so sick I literally passed out for 10 hours, he climbed up on the bed and lay across my body, keeping me warm and protecting me. I remember when Sarah would visit, and how she laughed at how he would back up to a bush, and poop, so that the poop fell into the bushes. And the time we let him eat our leftover mexican food, and how he pleaded with Sarah to get up and take him out, then promptly puked and pooped like there was no tomorrow.

Buster spent so much of his time alone in those early years. Moving in with Mom must have seemed like heaven to him, even though he had to learn to spend the day outside, instead of inside. He escaped over and over again, through the hedge, through carelessly opened gates, under the garage door. One weekend, Mom and I left him in the garage while we went to Reno. We secured the door with a six inch long, 1/2 thick bolt. He managed to jump up against the door until the bolt worked itself up in it's ring, and let the door open just enough to let a skinny but determined dog out. We came home late Sunday night, and realized immediately he was gone. Just as I started to get back in the car and look for him he came trotting up the sidewalk. We found out later from the mailman that he was out almost the entire time we were gone, because he would not let the mailman near the house for two days. Obviously he stayed around the house, probably sleeping on the porch or by the lemon tree.

He made Mom crazy with his peeing. She covered things with plastic, put potted plants on stools and crates to raise them up above his pee level. She protected the tires of her car with cardboard, and put boards up against the plants she couldn't move. She swore at him many times, and yet on the nights I had to work late she would take him a treat, to make up for me being late. She came down to Target one night when I was working because she had inadvertently let him out, and she has spent an hour looking for him before coming for me. I took off from work, and followed her home. By the time I was driving up the hill to our house, I could see him in my headlights. He was trotting up the shoulder of the road, heading for home, happy as a clam.

I'll never forget the sight of him, laying on the patio in the sun, eyes blinking closed as he enjoyed the sun and fresh air. Or the possums he killed, and was so proud of. The summer evenings Mom and I would sit on the step of the little trailer with a glass of wine, admiring the fresh mown lawn, and Buster would bring a ball to Mom and try to get her to throw it for him. Over and over, she would hand it to me, and I would throw it, and he would run across the lawn, skid to a stop under the apple tree or rose bushes, and bring it Mom. During the days when I was gone to work, Mom would let him off his chain while she was outside, and he would follow her around the yard, "guarding" her. He loved to go out to the very end of the sidewalk in the back, and lay there, sleeping in the sun.

I don't think he understood when Mom died. Or maybe he did, since she died at home. Maybe he could smell the death, or maybe he just realized she wasn't there anymore. But he let me cry and cry night after night, occasionally licking my face with a gentle tongue. When we had to move, he accepted the trailer, and the confinement, without complaint. We even got to the point where we enjoyed the walks along the perimeter, with the pine trees and grasses and the chance to run off leash in the dog run. How many times did I cuss him out as he dragged me up the stairs as he bounded up to the gate? How many times did I cuss at him for his incessant back and forth, back and forth from the bedroom to the living room and back, nails clicking on the linoleum, as you waited for me to take you for a walk. I'll never forget how I would come driving down the access road to the trailer, and his sweet face would pop between the slats of the patio door cover, as if he had some internal alarm (or really good hearing) that told him I was almost home.I'd just as soon forget the days that awful summer when I would come home and find a nasty, stinking mess in the living room, courtesy of his IBS. I never could get mad at him, but boy, the awfulness of cleaning and cleaning that carpet in the horrid hot tin box. I was so so happy when I bought the condo, and I could give him a place to live out his last years in comfort. How ironic that we only had 11 months, and the summer wasn't even very hot after all. But we made some wonderful memories in our little house. Walks in the morning past the school, up to the corner, then back down along the sidewalk where he would sniff and pee on every little bush. He loved that carpet of ivy in the yard of that house on the corner. Sometimes we would walk the other way, past office building. In the dark of a winter morning or late summer night, the street lights made the street glow orange, and reminded me vaguely of Las Vegas.

We discovered the hidden path that runs behind the second set of condos, but not until almost his last months. Our usual evening walk was up the sidewalks to the back gate, out and around to the school, along the fence line, peeing on every weed he found. He made friends with stray kids, set the neighborhood dogs to barking, and just enjoyed life.

It took him a while to figure out how not to slip at the foot of the stairs, when he would come bounding down the carpeted steps and hit the slick wood floor. I worried that with his age, he would hurt a hip, but he seemed to learn. Either that, or he was just quickly getting old and tired, and going up and down stairs quickly wasn't an option.

I laughed and I cried when I got my new bed. It was so high he had trouble getting up on it. Several times, he misjudged his leap, and wound up sliding back down to the floor. I considered getting him stairs or a bench, but he learned, and still slept on my bed until he was simply too sick and frail.

I used to cuss and swear at him, and to my eternal regret, smack him on the snout, for barking like a lunatic when I got home. How could I know that with months, he would stop barking altogether, one of the side effects of his cancer I presume. I would have given anything to hear his big deep bark one more time.

All this past summer, we battled his incessant licking and chewing. He had big raw spots on his forelegs, and licked the hair off his hind legs. I used ointments and sprays and bandages and tape, trying to get him to stop. Oddly enough, it was the licking that led me to discover his cancer. He had a patch of ugly, crusty skin at the base of his tail, so I bought some oatmeal shampoo and one evening gave him a bath on the patio. I sprayed him over and over with the hose, and he ran around the patio, shaking off the water. I finally got a couple of old towels and rubbed him dry and that's when I noticed the lump in his cheek. It was small, and hard. I thought it might be an abscessed tooth. I think that moment on the patio was the defining moment of the last few months. I think I knew then it wasn't a tooth, because he let me rub it without pain. My conscious mind didn't know it, but the rest of me did. Even through three trips to the doctor, I knew. When the doctor called to tell me it was cancer, I knew.

From the day I brought him home from the vet, life changed. I started doing research, and changed his diet, added fish oil to his food, stopped being impatient with his frequent stops to sniff and pee and wander. Our walks took longer, but I wanted him to have the best time he could. I spent a lot of time (but not nearly enough) down on the floor, hugging him and telling him how much I loved him and how glad I was to have shared my life with him. I brushed him gently. I bought some air dry clay and made an impression of his big paw. I started gathering pictures together, and searched and searched until I found the one photo of him with Joe, when he was just a little brown wolfish puppy.

The blanket he was buried in used to belong to my son Joe. Buster inherited it when Joe moved out, and I used to put it on the bed for him to sleep on. At Mom's house, it topped a pile of pillows and pads in the garage. In the trailer, it was on a corner of my bed. And in the new house, it covered the new pillow I bought him to sleep on downstairs, to cushion his old joints from the hard floor. He slept on it for about 9 months. For some reason, after he got sick he stopped sleeping on his pillow. I don't know if it was coincedental but I washed the blanket and the pillow cover around the same time he went to the doctor. I felt bad, because he took to sleeping on the rug in the living room and I tried to entice him back onto his pillow by moving it to different spots. But I only saw him sleep on it a couple more times, just before he died. He seemed to like the cool floor, and once, when I was busy working on the patio, he went into the garage and curled up on the cool cement floor.

On the morning he died, knowing he wouldn't be coming home, I cut a piece out of the blanket. I wanted to used it in a memory box. I'm glad I did. The box has pictures of Buster, his paw print, his collar, and a tuft of his fur. It hangs on my bedroom wall where I can see it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

The last week or so of Buster's life, I had taken his collar off, because he was losing weight, and it seemed too big and heavy for him, even though it was a lightweight collar, originally meant for a much smaller dog. It was kind of a sissy collar, black with white dog bones on it. When he was younger, I would put a harness on him for our walks, since he would literally choke himself pulling against the collar, and it was too easy for him to just stop and back up, and pull right out of the collar. But after we moved into the new house he seemed to slow down, and I gave up the harness, and just hooked his leash to his collar. But as I said, in the last week or so, it just seemed too heavy, so I took it off, and just put it on him when we went out for walks.

He stopped waking me up at 5am to go out, and often would still be asleep when I got up. Some days I could shower and get dressed before he woke up. Other days, he would wake up, and come lay in front of the shower door while I was in it, then lay by the bathroom while I got ready to go. He never refused a walk, and would wag his tail right up to the end, but I could tell it was taking more of a toll on him. But he was always eager to go. Even his last morning, when he was bleeding all over the place, he wagged his tail as I put on his collar and leash, and trotted out to the car, and let me lift him up into the back seat.

By the time we got to the vet, he was noticibly weak and disoriented. I think he was bleeding in his mouth, and was weak from blood loss. I think he knew what was happening, and was relieved. On the drive up, my son petted him, and Buster laid his big head on my son's arm, as if to say goodbye. I'm so glad my son was able to be there with me, because he loved that big dog, too.

There are so many memories I still haven't listed, but I'll save them for another time. I love you, sweet doggie. I know you're still here in my house, and in my heart forever.

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