This one is not about prostate cancer or prostate therapy. This is my confession and apology to dog people everywhere. I’ll include cat people, too, assuming their experience may be similar, but I’ll restrict my references to dogs.
I have often heard dog owners refer to their pets as “my kids” or “my little girl” or “my boy” and the like, and it has always struck me as slightly strange if not totally bizarre. After all, I told myself, they are referring to dogs, not small humans. It seemed to me that using such terminology undeservedly bestowed near-human status to a mere animal. Furthermore, it made the owner seem a little silly. After all, a dog is just a dog.
And how much is a dog worth, anyway? How many dollars is it reasonable to relinquish for what sometimes appeared to me to be a dog’s excessive creature comforts? Exotic beds, clothes, travel gear, cuisine, and such. And if injured or seriously sick, why would people spend thousands of dollars to keep their dog ticking along for a few more months or years? No animal should be mistreated, but why not just get another dog?
I mean, really. It’s just a dog, right?
I’m writing this largely for me, for Baxter, for anyone who knew him, and for all who are willing to hear his story.
If you are already outraged at the views expressed above, well, so am I. I am horrified that they were mine. I believe and hope I have largely kept such judgmental stupidity to myself but fear I may have occasionally made comments aloud. If I have ever directed such thoughts or words toward you, I now wish to apologize publicly and profusely.
Sadly, now I get it.
It has been ten days since my 16½-year-old dog Baxter took his last breath, and only now am I able to talk about it. I know many of you have experienced the loss of a beloved pet, and nothing I say here will be news to you. That’s okay because I’m writing this largely for me, for Baxter, for anyone who knew him, and for all who are willing to hear his story.
An unexpected giftIn 2008 my widowed mother-in-law Laura was living about a mile from my home. Around that time my wife’s cousin Betty decided Laura needed a dog. Betty knew a family with a dozen dogs, and Baxter was low man on the totem pole. So they gave Baxter to Betty, and Betty unceremoniously plunked him down on Laura’s lawn saying, “You need a dog. Here you go. See ya later.” Despite her initial objections, Baxter became Laura’s dog, and they soon learned to appreciate each other quite well.
With our frequent visits there, Lucy and I became fond of Baxter, and when my mother-in-law died in 2011 (just three months after I completed proton therapy), we happily inherited him. However, Lucy and I had already discussed having a dog and agreed it wouldn’t work with our lifestyle. Plus, neither of us had ever had a dog in our adult lives. So Baxter’s arrival was met with both of us asking, “What do we do now?”
Well of course, we figured it out. Baxter had always been blissfully happy as strictly an outside dog—very common in rural areas—which made our role relatively simple. We made a warm place for him in the garage, put a well-outfitted doghouse on the porch, placed bowls of water in several convenient locations, and fed him the same food he was accustomed to in the same bowl he had always used. And with each passing day, we loved him a little more.In our first years with Baxter Lucy did the lion’s share of caring for her mom’s dog, now ours, including all the fun stuff as well as the not-so-fun. But when I retired in 2015 and Lucy continued to be gainfully employed, it logically fell to me to pick up the ball, and after about five years of observing her, I fell into the role quickly enough.
And I loved it. Baxter made it so easy. I do not exaggerate by saying he never did anything wrong, never needed our training or reprimand, and somehow always knew what to do and what not to do. He was a perfect and constant companion for me during retirement. We religiously took a morning walk in the woods or around the pond, or pretty much wherever he wanted to lead me. It was the high point of his day, and always started me off on the right foot, like a morning meditation. He was eager to ride shotgun when I drove the quarter mile to take out the trash, and I extended the ride just so he could enjoy the wind on his face a little longer. I’m not sure which of us enjoyed it more.
I would never have expected Baxter’s gradual transformation from being a totally outside dog to a completely inside one. We first brought him into the house to temporarily monitor his recovery after an injury requiring the infamous “cone of shame.” He used the opportunity to demonstrate that he could be a perfect inside dog, too, and we all kind of liked it.With his foot in the door, he still remained mostly an outside dog, coming in for occasional variety whenever he wished through the new doggie door we provided. As he grew older, Baxter seemed to increasingly appreciate the creature comforts of the inner sanctum. He gradually became mostly an inside dog, which we all enjoyed immensely. After a while, on a whim I put him on my lap for the first time and within about a week it became routine. Our outside dog was now an inside lap dog. He still savored hanging around outside, especially when Lucy or I had outdoor projects, but he was just as content indoors, especially on my lap.
We had become nearly inseparable pals, and I had fully become “a dog person.”
Then, without warning, everything changed. In September 2019 Baxter had two consecutive major seizures that put him the ER for four days. He could not eat, drink, or move on his own. The doctors were preparing me for a discussion of euthanasia, and I was overwrought with grief unlike any I could have anticipated feeling for “just a dog.”
The doctors were preparing me for a discussion of euthanasia, and I was overwrought with grief
But Baxter was not finished yet, and after four days, a healthy hospital bill, and enough tears to float a boat, he was amazingly able to come home. With mutual dedication to the task, we gradually rekindled all aspects of the life we had before the incident. Our walks around the pond took on new significance. I was ever so thankful to have been spared losing Baxter, an inevitability for which I was not yet ready.
Well, now he’s gone and I’m still not ready. I know every day of the year and a half since his amazing recovery has been a bonus, but it’s still too soon. And even as he gradually declined both physically and mentally, he continued to do all he could to please me until his last day. Hopefully he knew I endeavored to do the same for him.
I am grateful to have had the luxury of providing a peaceful exit for Baxter, resting comfortably and calmly on my lap without fear or pain, as the rain fell outside and the tears fell from my eyes and Lucy’s.Today, a beautiful day full of sunshine, I received Baxter’s ashes. So once again I put on my walking boots and my Tilley hat, and with his collar in my pocket and his ashes in hand, I embarked on our usual lengthy path through the woods and around the pond. I scattered Baxter’s ashes all along the path where we spent so many memorable mornings. It will give me a warm feeling as I walk there without him, knowing that a bit of his physical presence remains. So yes, now I am one of those people. I had sweet nicknames for Baxter, had acquired every creature comfort imaginable for him, spent a ridiculous amount of money on medical bills, and devoted an inordinate amount of time to … just a dog. And I would do it again a thousand times over. I miss him every day, and I expect that even as the tears cease, the hole he left in my heart will remain.
I remind myself that the grief I feel from losing Baxter is proof of the joy he gave me for so many years. And now, knowing that a mere dog can give so much joy, I promise you that the phrase “just a dog” will never again enter my mind.
… the grief I feel from losing Baxter is proof of the joy he gave me for so many years.
Just as prostate cancer was a wake-up call, losing Baxter was another. It seems we are destined to receive such wake-up calls periodically throughout life to remind us to pay attention. They are reminders to notice the good things, give them undivided attention, and love them. They will not be here forever, and neither will we. And although we know it is important to make the most of every day, it seems we need these wake-up calls to remind us to actually do it.Thank you, Baxter, for all you taught me, and for all the joy you brought. You were one of a kind.
I hope you will click/tap the thumbnail photos to enjoy the full-size images. And if you have a similar story, please share it with me. Thank you for letting me share mine with you, and for helping me honor Baxter.