I was in the habit of calling him Little Buster. Not that he was little, compared to his cousin Missy who is not tiny but very small. I called him Little Buster because the adjective expressed the tenderness his little presence evoked.
He died at home last Wednesday night. About 2:30 am, at my feet in his little bed under my desk. Just minutes before, he had come out from the bedroom where he’d been sleeping, and plopped on the floor behind me, a few feet from my desk, looked around.
I wondered if the time had come as he’d been ailing and on meds for his heart for almost two years. The vet had already told me she was surprised he’d lasted a year.
I thought many times of having him “put down” as they say in the profession. But my usual rule is to wait until the appetite goes and the body doesn’t function.
None of that happened with Buster. Although he’d lost about thirty percent of his weight over the past eighteen months and he was plagued by mini-seizures, oft-bleeding ear polyps that he was too frail to be treated for, and had an excema that came and went and came back again.
Nevertheless he had a big appetite and was always at the kitchen door when I was in there, and always eager for any treat. In the last few days of his life, however, his appetite was not as ravenous, but it was still there and he was still looking.
So I’d decided that he would stay home until it became untenable for him. And despite his frailty, that never seemed to happen.
But on this early morning last Wednesday, stretched out on the floor, he looked very uncomfortable and unable to do anything about it. I got up, lifted him gently and carried him to the little round faux-leopard stripe bed under my desk that had been a gift to the dogs from a friend.
Missy, my seven year old shih-tzu who was watching all this without her customary barging in for some of the attention, got in the bed and lay next to him.
A moment later there was a quick jolt of hyperventilation, a brief writhing, but no sound. Then he stretched out, placing his jaw on the lip of the bed. I put my hand on his side to lend comfort. Then there was a gurgling sound. And then a strong fecal gaseous odor. And then it stopped, and Buster stopped.
I wasn’t sure what had happened. Missy stayed very close to him as if to warm him. I put my hand on top of his head and stroked him. His underneck had got cold in a matter of minutes. I could’t tell if he were conscious, although I should have known. It was partly not wanting to know, not wanting to believe it.
I’d been present several times when one of my dogs had to be euthanized. People with animals know how wrenching it is. You leave the vet’s office stifling the sobs until you are out on the street and can let go. It wasn’t like that with Buster. I hadn’t quite finished my work for the night, so I left him there, at my feet, stretched out looking as if in the morning he’d get up and be waiting by the kitchen door. I was in a convenient denial. I knew that; I was conscious of it. And, it worked.
When I finished up at my desk it was after three. Now what to do. Should I find a vet to take his body to? Should he stay the night?
I carried his bed into the bedroom. Missy followed us. I put him down in a corner. I got into my bed. Missy jumped up and sat the bed looking in his direction. I watched him as if I expected him to get up and come over to my bedside which so he often did.
He didn’t of course. I had to tell myself, as if instructing, that Buster had died. He wasn’t there anymore. I was having a hard time believing it. I decided to take him back into office and leave him where he passed – under the desk.
I felt detached. It felt strange acknowledging that Buster had left and wouldn’t be returning. He looked so peaceful stretched out on his little cushion, as if he’d rise in the morning refreshed.
I woke early, about eight. I went into the next room to see him, half expecting him to respond to my presence. He remained in the same stretched out peaceful position.
I dressed. I wrapped his little body in a large towel and took him over to the vet’s two blocks away, for cremation.
Then it really hit me. He was a very sweet little guy. A cream puff of a personality and a steel will. Brave. Tough. Throughout his time with me I often recalled when I picked him up at the CACC in 1997 after my beloved little Mrs. Fa Fa had died. I make it a point to adopt another dog and always have two (or sometimes three) when one dies.
It was an overcast coolish day in October. I had called in advance and requested a shih-tzu whenever one might be available. In a few minutes, an attendant led Buster out onto the dog run for me to see him. He was very dirty and looking mangy. He paid no attention to me, walked right by, as if he weren’t interested in anything around him, and took a dump. When he finished, he continued to ignore me as if to say: “I’ve been here before.”
I’d been told he had had hard times — three different homes in as many years. He wasn’t cute; he looked worse for the wear. He seemed more like a creature who’d given up hope.
We walked home from 110th Street. He walked along with me at a brisk pace, but never looked up as if he was resigned to his fate.
I gave him a bath first thing, and some fresh chicken to eat. My surviving dog still with me, a little guy named Boyzie, sniffed Buster, wagged his tail, got no reaction, and left him. It remained like that for a few days, except when we went for walks or when it was time to eat. Buster just rested.
In time, he got used to the fact that this was his home. Although he was at ease, he never made demands. If another dog were getting attention, he’d come over and sit nearby and watch. He never assumed. Of course he immediately got his share.
He was a dear little boy. A sweet boy. He always walked at my heel, leash or no leash; and never asked for anything except breakfast and dinner. After Boyzie died a couple years later and a rambunctious puppy (also adopted) named Missy came to live with us, he never seemed jealous, as can happen. And when Missy played rough (like running across the room and jumping on his face waking him with a start), he never seemed to mind.
He had an appetite right up until his last night. He was skin and bone but all through his long illness, he was a durable little guy, tough and plucky. I wondered where he came from. He was housebroken and obedient and yet had no expectations of any kind of affection.
I agonized many times over the last few months when he would have a seizure and collapse in front of me: was it time? But he always recovered very quickly – within minutes — and I knew he wasn’t ready.
I’m glad I was with him when he passed. Missy is very forlorn. Soon she will have a new canine housemate. Another shih-tzu that is waiting for a good home. Why a shih-tzu and not another breed? No reason other than I adopted one years ago in LA and I’ve got used to them and their friendly dispositions. They, like all their brethren, indeed like all of us, are in need of a good home. In return you get love. Unconditional. It’s always a good lesson. Good for what ails ya. And good for the heart.