My dog died. On the day of my daughter’s 8th birthday party.
Yes, it’s as awful as it sounds.
I rescued Buddy a year ago, right after Hurricane Sandy. Looking through the photos of his early days with us just now, I thought about how when Buddy came to us, he was truly a Survivor Dog. He was mangy and skittish and ate from the garbage. One of the first things I had to do in order to make room in my life for Buddy was buy a stainless steel garbage can so that he wouldn’t knock over the flimsy, white plastic one I had and eat from it. Adjusting for life with Buddy was a lot like pregnancy nesting. Along with the garbage can we bought a toddler gate to keep Buddy out of the living room unsupervised so that he wouldn’t eat my daughter’s Legos. I often joked that getting Buddy was just like having another baby, because even though I’d dog-proofed the house, I was constantly taking things out of his mouth that he shouldn’t have had, like Legos or colored pencils (one of his faves). No matter how many ropes or chews or squeakers I bought him, Buddy just wanted all the other things in the house, like the dental floss or a hairbrush, or, anything really. Like a baby in a room full of expensive toys who is most entertained by your keys. One time he brought me a bottle of nail polish in his mouth, because I think he was sick of looking at my unkempt toes. He certainly knew my feet well, because he sat by them all day long.
Each time Buddy would bring me something new that he shouldn’t have, I figured out a better way to protect him. Oh, I guess the manicure basket is too low on that shelf, I’d think, moving it to a drawer. Gee, if I don’t want Buddy to chew all of our mittens, they better go here. We were training Buddy not to take things, not to nip, to wait for treats, to do “paw.” My daughter was so focused while giving Buddy commands, really connecting with him on this deep level. She loved him but she also cared for him; she took him out for walks and fed him and was always trying to pick little things out of his fur or off his skin. We worked so hard to get Buddy’s rough skin to finally fully heal, first with medicine, then with professional grooming and home shampooing. I remember feeling so proud this summer when I gave him a bath at my mother’s house (where he loved to go on vacation) and noticed that his tiny white tummy was perfectly clear of blemishes. I put some special little doggie lotion on his belly and felt like we’d hit a milestone, like when my daughter was 6 months and my mother-in-law helped me scrub the last of her cradle cap off with some oil and a small, soft brush. It’s in these miniscule moments of helping with personal care that we show the vulnerable around us our love.
I worried for a second that something was wrong with Buddy when he had trouble pooping last week on Wednesday, and I had to cut some of it out of his fur. But the next day everything was normal and he was happy and energetic, so I figured it was just an isolated incident. And maybe it was. Thursday and Friday he was fine, but Saturday Buddy was throwing up and he seemed generally sick, so I took him to the vet. She looked him over, gave him blood tests and x-rays (since I was worried maybe he ate a toy or something), and she said everything was fine. His stomach and intestines looked beautiful, but his pancreas was a little swollen. She told me vets used to call a swollen pancreas “the garbage eater’s disease.” I laughed. But Buddy hadn’t been eating garbage, so I wasn’t worried. She gave him anti-vomiting medication and said he would be better in a day or so. By the time we headed home, Buddy’s gorgeous ears were back up and he looked happy again. I stayed home with him Saturday night and thought he’d be okay, that he just needed to rest. But Sunday morning when I woke up, he was lethargic. He looked fine, but tired. I laid out a blankie for him to curl up in and he did. He threw up a little bit, but it seemed like that was the last of it. I was cleaning the house to get ready for my daughter to bring her presents home with her dad after her birthday party that afternoon. This was the first time in five years that my ex-husband and I were going to have a joint celebration for our kid’s birthday, and I wanted everything to be just right.
I kept tending to Buddy in-between cleaning things, and even though he was moving slow, I thought taking him out for his walk would make him feel better. Buddy normally stands on his hind legs like a circus dog every time he sees the leash, bouncing up and down with excitement, and he didn’t even move off the floor when I showed it to him. He needs to rest, I thought. He’s exhausted from throwing up. He did stand up when I clipped the leash to his collar, and I took him outside. He laid on the sidewalk in the sun for a minute until a man came by who pursed his lips and kissed the air to get Buddy’s attention. Buddy stood and wagged his tail and sniffed the man’s hand, but then he laid back down again. “Buddy doesn’t feel good today,” I said. When the man saw him lie down he said, “Oh, yes.” And somehow it felt like he knew Buddy was on his last legs. Maybe I knew then, too. He wished us well and walked away.
I took Buddy back upstairs. I had to carry him. I held him in my arms, against my chest, and somehow he just felt different, like a heavy sack, but also very light. He had bile on his face and legs and it stained my t-shirt. I took a wet cloth and gently wiped him clean. He just needs to drink more water and hydrate, I thought. I changed his water even though I had just changed it because there was some bile in it, I think, and he drank. He was okay. He was walking around the house a little bit, trying to get comfortable. I took a shower and told him I had to go to the birthday party, but that I would be back in a few hours. I told him I loved him, and that if he took a nap he would feel better.
My daughter spent the day with her dad on Saturday, so she didn’t know Buddy was sick. I told her before we got home that Buddy wasn’t feeling well and that he might have thrown up, so we should be careful walking in. My daughter unlocked the door excited to open her presents with my friend and her daughter right behind. The door stopped with Buddy behind it. “Is he dead?,” I heard as I was coming up the stairs. “Is he dead?,” I echoed back. I ran up the stairs, threw the leftover cake on my bed and turned to see Buddy. He was dead. But I needed there to still be a chance he was alive. My friend took the girls downstairs. I picked Buddy up in a towel. “Buddy?,” I begged, hoping he’d respond. His legs were stiff, even though his tongue was still pink. I knew he was gone.
I called the vet. They told me to bring him in. My ex held two plastic bags while I gently placed Buddy in the towel inside. “Leave his face out just in case there’s a chance,” I said. My ex carried the dog to my friend’s car and held him in his lap, then carried him into the vet. My friend took the girls to the playground while we waited for the news.
“He’s gone,” the doctor said. She looked at his records from the day before, the x-rays, the blood work. “Nothing out of the ordinary came back. He wasn’t even dehydrated,” she said. “We can’t know for sure what happened. He might have ingested a poison, he might have choked while vomiting, we don’t know. It’s really hard to say.”
She left us alone to go get some paperwork, and though I’d already been crying, I started to really cry. I was in shock, I was grief-stricken, but most of all I couldn’t believe I’d left him alone to die. My little Buddy, who followed me from room to room, even though my apartment is the size of a cracker. My little Buddy, who would sleep with me in my bed when my daughter was at her dad’s but who would sleep on my daughter’s floor to protect her when she was home, until it was time to go to bed in my room. My little Buddy, who I walked every day, fed every day, played with every day, who I took care of like a baby, cradling him, singing to him. He loved bedtime when I would sing lullabies to my daughter; I could always hear him snoring along peacefully. But of course I sang to him a lot during the day, too. I’d pick him up and sing him his own version of the Gummy Bears theme song: “Buddy Bear, bouncing here and there and everywhere, high adventure that’s beyond compare, this is my Buddy Bear!,” and my daughter would laugh. This dog walked into my life in the most profound way, right after a hurricane and brought a whirlwind of energy into my house. As a single mother who works from home, I get to feeling isolated sometimes, but thanks to Buddy, I was never alone. He really made a huge difference to me and to my daughter. Buddy made our house a home and our twosome a family.
Standing there in the exam room with Buddy on the table in a garbage bag, I softly wailed, “I can’t believe he died alone.” Before I could get any further, my ex-husband very pointedly chastised me. “Don’t blame yourself for this,” he said. “You took him to the vet yesterday, most pet owners don’t even do that. You did everything you could for that dog.” I was stunned. Pleasantly stunned. He was right, and he was kind. I told him that I was grateful he was there, that I was thankful he carried the dog for me, that I could have done it alone, but that I was glad I didn’t have to.
My ex and I left the vet and walked back to the park to meet the kids. When I saw my daughter, I said, “I’m so sorry that we lost our dog.” She replied, “Not just our dog,” and I said, “I know. Our friend. Buddy was our friend.”
Fortunately children are resilient and they are also enthusiastic, like puppies. So when we got home, a second time, we did open the birthday packages, albeit on the stoop. My daughter got a lot of fantastic presents and still had a great day, in spite of our mini-tragedy. Then she went off to spend one more night with her dad, and she’ll be coming home soon. I guess it’s time for me to stop crying now. When my daughter gets here, I think we’ll go for a walk by all the places we’d normally take Buddy, and think about all of the gifts he brought us, too.