Au revoir, Baxter
In the summer of 2003, I agreed to take a young, very scared Great Pyrenees mix as a foster dog in my home. All I knew was that he had been rescued from a very serious abuse case and that at seven months old, the vet treating him had decided it would be kinder to euthanize him as he lived a life of perpetual fear. I was so arrogantly sure I could fix him, that I never considered that I could fail. I went to pick this dog up in a parking lot at a movie theater from a nice lady who had driven him to Nashville from Chattanooga. On arrival, I was greeted by a terrified, drooling, shaking, over-sized puppy who wanted absolutely nothing more than to get away from everyone and go hide somewhere. Getting him in the car proved challenging as he instantly became one with the pavement and he performed some kind of meld with the concrete to avoid being picked up. We finally got him into my car and I got him home. Once I managed to get him in my house, he shook violently, peed on himself and tried to get as far away from us as he could. This was not the most auspicious of beginnings. After much debate, he was duly named Baxter.
For the first couple of days, I let Baxter observe us so he could decide for himself what our routine was and learn that the pack and our home was a safe place to be. As time wore on, I spent hours on the floor, petting him, rough housing lightly to get him to play. Always, he laid there absolutely still and stared up at me with sad brown eyes looking as if the weight of the world was on his puppy shoulders. Finally, weeks into the process, I tried to engage him in play and I saw for the first time a spark. He put his mouth on my arm, but very quickly backed off as if he were in trouble. I pressed forward and played more. Outside we went. I will never know what it was that broke through the fog to this poor boy, but something finally clicked and he grasped that it was OK to be a dog and that he was safe. This giant, sad dog who suffered unspeakable abuse morphed instantly into a spinning, smiling, happy dog who was excited to play for the first time. I knew we had a permanent family member as this baby boy was mine and Baxter and I had a bond.
It took many years for Baxter to get comfortable in the presence of new people, but each month he improved until he finally made peace with the fact that strangers sometimes come to our house. He even learned to let strangers pet him and enjoy it. Baxter was a natural born guardian and he took his job very seriously. Initially, we thought the dog park would be a place where he could play with other dogs, but all he did was run the perimeter to guard EVERYTHING in the park from threats only he could foresee. I believe if we could have provided Baxter with just two sheep to watch over, he would have been the happiest of dogs. Sadly, urban Nashville is not a good place to raise sheep in the back yard, and I’ve never been a fan of livestock in the house. Baxter somehow made his own peace and he healed himself over time by learning to love us and trust us. He also became the ambassador dog in our household and it was Baxter who generally made the many fosters dogs that followed him feel welcome in the house as Baxter accepted everyone (with the exception of two dogs who drove him to distraction – Milo and Cooper, you know who you are). He was a generous soul to all animals and he was wonderful in every way.
It is the saddest of truths that we do not get to keep our dogs forever. We forget as the months and years march by that their time on earth is measured differently than ours, and they feel the spin of the earth much more keenly than we do. The giant dogs with their oversized hearts and boundless love are tragically the ones we keep the shortest time. Baxter was a very big boy and his giant body became increasingly frail over the past year. Still, he seemed happy and enjoyed fits of riotous barking and bouncing play sessions that nearly knocked me off my feet, and so I pushed back the creeping awareness that Baxter was in the bonus time and that his time with us was coming to an end. Yesterday morning, when I got up to leave for work, I never dreamed that this would be my last day with my baby boy. Had I known, I would have cleared my calendar and I would have spent the entire day telling him how much I loved him, and how wonderful he was. I would have petted his tummy and rubbed his ears and done all those things Baxter loved, but never demanded. I could not know as I was getting ready for bed that the end was upon us.
Late last night, Baxter became violently ill. We rushed him to the emergency vet who gave us the diagnosis I did not want to hear. Baxter had bloat and even thought we caught it immediately, the prognosis was very poor as this was a repeat of an earlier bloat episode and his esophagus had twisted and was beyond repair. Given his other health issues and the significant likelihood that he would not survive the surgery, we made the agonizing decision to let him go. Dogs give us everything they have. Their hearts are ours to keep or break as we see fit and they love us even at our very worst. The one gift we can give to them is to give them back when their time is at an end and walk that long walk with them, even knowing the loss and the silence that will follow. I had the strength, but only barely, to let my beloved Baxter go when every fiber of my being wanted to try every thing possible to keep him with me. In the end, we did what was right for Baxter and we released him from this world. I do not know how long it will be before I can smile at the mention of his name, but no dog was ever loved more than Baxter. I hope that if there is a heaven, Baxter will be there waiting for us in some patch of shade in a lush green grass with birds singing and his nose in the wind with a huge smile on his face. If he’s not there, then I want to go where he is. I’ll see you on the other side, Baxter.