by Sam Winston
The aging warrior known as Buckwheat Zydeco, the full name of my dog adapted in part from the band of the same name, is on his last leg. Hes got a metal plate in his right leg from when he was hit by a car as a youngster. Further down the same leg, hes missing a toenail that bleeds incessantly. It is now theorized to be a tumor that evicted the toenail from its natural resting place. He has another large tumor on his chest, believed to be benign, that split open recently causing yet another bloody mess on his blue bedspread.
Additionally, like all big old Labradors, his displaced hips make his back end simply deadweight. His eyes are cloudy, his hearing is shot, and his memory seems to be limited to the short term. Truth be told, that was always one of my favorite parts about my friend Buck. He never holds grudges.
On our most recent daily walk in the park, he had a seizure.
He has had many in the past, but this was the first that I was privy to. Suddenly, his body tightened, his jaw clenched, and he collapsed sideways like a falling tower. I froze. Unable to draw a response from Buck, I looked around the empty intersection scattered with leaves wondering if this was the end. I kneeled down and put my hand on his white hair, faded in his old age from the golden buckwheat that inspired his name, and stroked gently to see if I could feel life inside of him. Finally, his chest rose and fell. His eyes refocused and his jaw loosened back into form. However, his legs were still caught underneath him as his fall had left him in a rather awkward position. I waited to see if he could get up on his own, and he produced only one feeble lunge. Instantly I felt ashamed for spectating and hoisted him up on his feet. I wasnt sure if I could let go because he looked like he might fall back down.Yet he limped, bad toe and all, forward a step or two. We managed to walk the remaining two blocks from the park back home.
Throughout all of his mishaps, the tumors, the toe, the arthritis, the car accident, the bad breath, and his whooping cough, I always thought the dog from my childhood had gotten old but it was all just part of the process. Good days and bad days you know. Until I saw his body seize up and fall sideways, on those final two blocks, I realized that Bucks not just old. Hes going to die soon. He is scheduled for surgery next Thursday, and no one is sure if hes going to make it. Its to remove the tumors on his chest and his toe. The doctor is confident that it will be fine, but at Bucks age, one can never be sure. Ive known Buck for 13 and half years, from when my mom brought him home as a tiny puppy throwing up on our carpet, to the old dog that sleeps all day and wants nothing more than someone to rub his stomach. I remember when I was 12 years old and threw an absolute fit to convince my parents to get Buck. The truth is, weve actually become a lot closer towards the end of his life. Im not sure I know what I would do if he doesnt make it next Thursday. I know I would be sad. I know I would miss him.
On the fateful night before surgery, the strangest thing happened. Two years before, I had stopped letting Buck sleep in my room. He used to have his own room, complete with his own comfortable bed and an endless supply of food. What more could a dog ask for, right? But apparently there was more. Ten years of training to stay downstairs and all it took was one strong New Orleans thunderstorm to convince him it was just too lonely down there. When he burrowed his way into my room, I couldnt say no to the big guy. Besides, it was nice to have some company to listen to the rain.
However, as much as I loved having him around, he was becoming the aforementioned old man that he is. When I say an old man, I mean an old dog that had old man idiosyncrasies. He was asleep on the floor in my room every night around nine before I got there. Then he was up at five every morning causing a raucous. He coughs (think whooping cough), he snores, he passes gas, hes well, he is not the ideal roommate. But he found others in the family, my brothers mainly, and eventually my parents, who were more understanding. Perhaps they were just better equipped to sleep through his old man routine. After a while, he didnt even ask me to sleep in my room anymore. I was happy that I didnt have to disappoint him each night though part of me wanted him to still ask.
At precisely 8:00 p.m. the night before the surgery, I put Bucks food out of reach just as the doctor had instructed me to do. Yet, he was nowhere to be found. It had been a long day, long enough for me to have developed an unshakable headache. I was off to bed early. Sure enough, there was Buck sound asleep in my room. He didnt ask, he didnt even have to. On what could have been his last night, he broke his routine of over two years, something he held onto dearly in his old age, to be next to me. I could surely endure one last night of his sleeping charades.
I escaped my headache in a pleasant sleep. I dreamt of Bucks surgery. What if he survived but he couldnt walk? Would I feel guilty for encouraging this surgery if he couldnt walk? Or worse? When I wedged one eye open to first rays of sunlight piercing through the blinds, I thought it was anxiety that had woken me. But then I heard Buck coughing, wheezing, and smacking his lips together as he always does right when he wakes up. I rolled over and groaned, Go back to sleep, Buck. But whether it was his natural waking time or he shared my anxiety, neither he nor I could go back to sleep.
Frustrated, I tossed around, determined that I would not let this ruin our last night together. Only it wasnt night anymore, it was the morning of his surgery.
I was sleep deprived and my headache was coming back. Finally, I said, Buck, weve had a good night but its morning, and its time for you to go. I kicked him out of my room.
Later that morning after we dropped Buck off at the doctor, my parents and I sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, and waiting for the phone to ring
Its a funny thing when your dog dies. When you hear about other people losing their dogs and how upset they are, it seems, well, ridiculous. Its just a dog.
Of course anyone who has ever had a dog die will tell you their Buck was more than just a dog. Yet when they try to explain it sounds even more ridiculous.
Turns out that the Buckster made it two more years after his surgery. During those years I moved out of the house but each time I saw him, I treated it like it would be the last time we saw each other. An extra scratch underneath his ear, and extra walk if he was able. It was quite clear that Buck was sinking ever so slowly into old age with less and less flashes of zeal. Though somehow, he remained unchanged.
He continued to make the family summer trips to Long Island. Hed curl up in a ball and breathe easy all 1400 miles while I flickered through bad AM radio guzzling a red bull and white powdered donuts from the last gas station. Occasionally hed poke his wet nose to the front of the car and nudge the back of my arm to make sure I hadnt forgotten about him.
Upon our arrival, the gentle salty air still drove him crazy as he begged and whined to be let out, thinking he could still run the open the stretches beach and farmland like he did when he was a pup.
My parents told me it was certainly his time to go when the doctor put him under. He had lost partial control of his bowels and the look in his eyes was one of pain. While it was hard to imagine this was the same dog that in his prime could outlast my arm and a can of tennis balls on any given Louisiana summer day, he was as they say a good dog.
He showed me what it was like to get old. He made me always remember the magic of being a kid. He allowed me to see what our family meant to one another. He did all of those things, and so much more, just by being there. That was my dog Buck.