Sunday, June 28, 2015

Rest in Peace, Buzz Lightyear

His scent is still on my hands as I write this. Not ready to wash him off just yet. I have bits of his fur on my sleeves from the final hugs. We all crowded into the tiny exam room at the veterinary hospital. His parents, his step-parents, and his brother and sister. Six sad family members surrounding an aching elderly dog who certainly wondered what all the fuss was about. They put him on a blanket and gave him the injection. We said more goodbyes, held back tears, then let them flow. He was asleep and then he was gone. I cried with occasional bursts of loud, ugly, heaving sobs of gut-wrenching grief. I hugged my crying children, knowing I was helpless to ease their pain. I leaned hard against my husband’s shoulder, trying to quell my trembling. His father, usually so stoic, wiped tears from his flooded eyes. I hugged his stepmother (probably his favorite parent) and thanked her for taking such good care of him. She thanked me for sharing him with her.

I thought about the day we chose him. It was January of 2002. The kids had hoped for a dog for Christmas, but we wanted them to pick it out. So Santa had left a leash and a bowl and all sorts of dog paraphernalia under the tree with a note telling them that they needed to choose a dog. We went to a local no-kill shelter where you could take the dogs out to a play area and see how they interact with people. Katy was two years old and afraid of every dog we considered. She would cling to her dad’s leg or even climb up his side and be perched on his shoulder in a blink. We thought that maybe the kids weren’t ready for a dog just yet. Then a shelter attendant reluctantly said, “Well, there is one more dog you might want to try.” We were told that he had been there for a while and that he was about two years old. He was found abandoned at a nearby lake. (A few years later, we discovered that he was afraid of fishing poles. Apparently he had some bad memories of abuse.) We were introduced to this Australian shepherd/heeler mix hiding at the back of his kennel. He had sparkling eyes. One blue and one brown. We weren’t sure which one to look at, but I always chose the pretty blue one. His name was Buzz, like Buzz Lightyear. Because of those eyes. One ear stood straight up while the other flopped down, as if he was only half-listening to our chatter. His tail had been docked, and he wagged the nub intermittently, as if he were skeptical and didn’t want to get his hopes up.

The attendant brought him out to the play area. She was not optimistic about finding a home for him. She said that people thought he was just too shy or too reserved. We shook our heads at this skittish, sedate dog and looked at our watches. I remember rolling my eyes and huffing at the whole scenario, feeling like we had begun to waste time. As I reached for the car keys, Katy squirmed from her dad’s hip, ran up to this animal, hugged his neck, looked at us, and said, quite confidently, “This is MY dog.” We asked about the return policy and decided to take him home and give him a try. The shelter’s workers were sad to see him go, but glad that he may have finally found a home.

He had lived on a concrete floor in a small chain-link-fenced dog run/kennel for so long that he did not know what to think about the carpet we wanted him to walk on. He sought out cold hard surfaces and enclosed areas. He would curl up like a cat under tables or behind the couch. He was so quiet and unassuming, we often forgot whether he was in the house or outside. Countless times, any one of us would stand at the back door and call his name, only to have him come jingling from some obscure corner inside the house. He would always look at us as if to say, “You idiot. I was right here all along. Why are you looking for me outside? People are so dumb.” His deprived childhood at the shelter also made him leery of treats. I stocked up on pig ears and rawhides and Milk Bones only to have him approach them all with a little suspicion. He acted as if he didn’t feel deserving of anything so decadent as a pig’s ear.

We took pride in his manners. He was not a big barker. Nor was he a jumper or humper or crotch-sniffer. He played it cool in a very politely anti-social way. He welcomed a good pat on the head or a stroke down his soft back, but he would never demand attention. His time in solitary at the shelter made him grateful for any kindness he received. He liked to herd children in the back yard. Those rare times that the kids and their friends or cousins would try to run and play outside, there he was, with all of his instincts showing, circling them and trying to get them to follow his lead. He liked to dart across the lawn like a sprinter at the finish line, chasing rabbits or flies or maybe the water that sprayed from the septic system.

We lived on three acres with no fence, but he never wandered too far away. At least not often. Sometimes he would come back bearing gifts. One night, when his father was deployed, he appeared at the back door with the limp, bloody, headless body of a rabbit, as if he were the man of the house offering up the spoils of his hunt for the evening’s dinner. We lost count of how many deer parts and carcasses he graced the lawn with. Our big trash cans usually gave off quite a rancid stench for the garbage collectors.

Buzz did have his faults, however. Not a few times, our preschool-aged daughter had thrown up in her bed. While we thought we had always cleaned it thoroughly, our dog’s keen sense of smell was still able to direct him to what he believed was the vomitorium of the house. One night, I made Katy get into her bed after a typical bedtime battle, completely unaware that Buzz had decided to leave a big pile of puke there. She was traumatized by that experience for years. While Katy’s bed was for vomiting, Luke’s floor was for pooping. We are not sure why, but on at least two occasions, Buzz found it necessary to leave a big steaming pile of shit in the middle of the room. Luke has yet to confess any wrongdoing that might have prompted such behavior. Then there was the time he took a large package of defrosting pork chops from the kitchen counter and proceeded to eat them in our bed. On brand new, expensive sheets, no less. He left only bits of the Styrofoam and shreds of the cellophane wrapping behind--along with some significant smears of pig blood. We soon learned that we had to be sure to close every bedroom door before leaving him alone in the house. That was all it took to make him behave more like a regular dog. Except for the time he found and ate six extra large candy bars and almost overdosed on dark chocolate. Or the time he decided to eat an entire loaf of bread. Or the time he ate several boxes of Girl Scout cookies (box and all) that had been earmarked for delivery. He really liked those Samoas. He loved my mom because she would always give him table scraps or hot dogs when we weren’t looking. One night at her house, he tried to bury a hot dog in a carpeted corner of a bedroom. He bloodied his own nose with all the fruitless digging. He gave up and decided to hide it under a pillow instead.

I worked from home for seven of the years we had with him. We spent every day together when the kids were at school and their father was at work. I would sit at my computer all day while he napped at my feet. I loved that quiet, undemanding companionship. I lost custody of him in the divorce two years ago. I had to say a goodbye of sorts then. I grieved the loss of his companionship then. I knew he would be getting older and would one day no longer be with us. That’s the thing about dogs; they rarely outlive their owners. I honestly worried that he would die without me. Or that I would lose him again with no chance to say goodbye. But over the past two years, I did get several opportunities to see him and take care of him. I witnessed the decline in his agility. And I ached when I realized that he could not hear me call his name. He had such a hard time standing up that once he was up, he didn’t want to lie down. And once he was lying down, he struggled to stand up. That made for a lot of urine-mopping. He was at my house just last week. He had taken to eating and drinking while lying down. One time, he actually fell asleep with his head in the food bowl. Like a toddler dozing off in a high chair. We knew that he would not be able to live this way much longer. The past 15 years had been very good to him. We are grateful to have had him that long. And I am grateful that I had a chance to say goodbye.

Today, I held his face in my hands and whispered in his soft deaf ear, “We love you so much, sweet boy. So very much.” He looked at me with no idea that he would soon be young and healthy again and free to eat as many pork chops and Samoas as he wants. It was so painfully hard to look into his still-sparkling blue eye and let him go. It’s a different kind of grief for the loss of a different kind of love. Thank you for choosing us, sweet Buzz Lightyear. We love you to infinity and beyond.

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