Five months after the stroke that left him wobbly, our dog Buster has passed away. It happened yesterday evening at the veterinarian's office, not the setting we wanted but the only one available to us, and it was very peaceful. Buster rested his head on John's lap on the drive to the veterinarian's office, and, once there, he cuddled on John like a puppy again. John held him as he slipped away. Buster hadn't been shown that degree of affection and openness for years. I stayed behind with our sensitive little boy, who tearfully told Buster goodbye as John carried him to the car. I was struck with how easily and gracefully he accepted this, and I also noticed that while snuggled in John's arms, he suddenly looked young again, not like the gray-muzzled, cloudy-eyed dog he'd become.
As those of you who have known us through the years understand, our relationship with Buster has always been a little turbulent. He was a very headstrong puppy who peed and pooped wherever he damn well pleased, not because he didn't understand the basic tenets of housebreaking, but because he didn't want to deal with the hassle of waiting to go out. His housebreaking period lasted eight long years. In addition, he was perhaps the world's only aggressive basset hound. He bit me on the mouth many years ago, something that mostly scarred me internally, leaving me incapable of trusting him again in the way that a person wants to trust her dog. (I wrote extensively about this in September, which you can find in the archives if you'd like.) With Buster, one always got sweet-and-sour together, perhaps a reminder of life's essentially complex nature.
Throughout the years, people have advised us to find a new home for him. It was clear to us, though, that there was no such fairytale home in which Buster would thrive. People advised us, then, to euthanize him. He was violent. There was something wrong with his brain. It never seemed acceptable to us, though, to kill a dog for being who he was. We learned tricks around his aggression - it's not like he was roaming our house all Cujo style, blood dripping from his canine teeth, anyway - and eventually we settled into an acceptance of him. To him, this was proof of our love, and with our acceptance of Buster's fundamental disposition, he relaxed into a more peaceful being.
The main gift I received from Buster was learning how to love without expectations, which is to love unconditionally. It is easy to love one another when we are compatible and matched well. It's not so easy to love - really love without demands of improvement - when our relationship is more tenuous and complex. He steadfastly refused to be a different dog than he was at his core, and through my gradual acceptance of his fundamental nature, he became more peaceful and adaptive. If ever there were a Big Life Lesson this was it: in releasing our expectations and demands, we allow those we love the freedom to just be, and with this, our notions of love can expand. Sometimes love is not all pink hearts popping around our heads as we rush across a meadow to embrace: sometimes love can be found in the quiet acceptance of another. This was the nature of the love I had for Buster. He didn't want the popping pink hearts. Love to Buster was quiet acceptance.
So much time has been spent drawing attention to Buster's flaws that I thought it would be nice to share some of our interesting and funny stories.
* When Buster was a puppy, I was taking him to meet my parents for the first time and I accidentally locked myself out of the car on California Avenue when checking for a flat tire. As John was on his way with the spare keys, Buster sat in the driver's seat with one of his big fat paws pressed continuously on the horn. I kept motioning for him to stop - like, how the heck would he understand what I meant? - and pedestrians stared at us and burst out laughing when they saw the basset with his paw on the horn.
* When Buster was around two or three, we had a little weekend off with friends at a nature retreat in Michigan and we took the dogs along. One day, John and I took a canoe out on the lake and, for some reason, this really agitated Buster, who stood at the end of the pier, barking his sea lion's bray. Finally, there was a splash and a commotion: Buster had dived into the lake and was swimming toward us. I can still see his little head just barely above the surface of the water, like some deep sea creature. Now basset hounds aren't exactly, you know, water spaniels or anything, so seeing him with his big ol' paws and floppy ears aiming towards us was quite remarkable. John was afraid that we'd upset the canoe if he tried to pick him up, so we rowed back to the shore, an eye on Buster the whole time. He swam into some nearby reeds and just as I was insisting that John dive in and find him, the reeds parted, Buster shook himself off, and trotted toward the sand, where he finally plopped down. He was like the canine version of James Bond at that point and really deserved some kind of cocktail. We were all in awe.
* Last, Buster delivering the whoop-ass was not exactly a shocking story, but it was especially handy a few years ago when a misguided burglar decided that our bungalow must surely hold some very rare treasures. As we were upstairs sleeping, said burglar removed our back door - with a blow torch, 'cause he was fierce like that - and commenced to unplugging our i-Book, the very one that had my then in-progress novel and a lot of other work on it. His near-fatal mistake, though, was deciding, "Hey, I've got the computer, what else should I get?" and going into the living room, a.k.a., Buster's domain, to try to steal some more. We were ever so gently roused from our slumber by the sound of the Buster going, well, batshit crazy and the always reassuring sounds of foreign footsteps beating a hasty retreat across the floor. John bolted downstairs as the burglar was taking off through the back door, our computer in his bag. John and Buster were in hot pursuit, and they caught up with the burglar in the alley. He swung a hammer at John - happily, he didn't have good aim - and threatened, "I'm going to hurt your dog." Even in that moment, John had to laugh because Buster had the man by the pants and was jumping up to get a better grip, growling. His long-suppressed aggressive nature was finally getting a chance to be expressed and damn it, he was going to savor every moment. John grabbed the bag away from the burglar who then ran off and hid somewhere. A few moments later, the burglar rode his bike out from the side of a garage, taking off like a bat out of hell, away from the barefoot hippie-looking dude in the pajamas and that crazy basset hound who threw it down all ghetto-style. The police, who arrived within minutes, were deeply impressed and occasionally when walking Buster, a police car would pass, giving us a friendly little honk and wave. He was much admired for his valor.
There are many more stories, more quotidian but no less telling. Buster was a unique soul and I am so grateful that he was in our lives for thirteen years. I would have loved for it to be longer but Buster left as he lived: on his own terms. There is a lot to learn from that.
We love you, Buster. Thanks for everything.