I’ve been watching Buster slowly leave me this year.
He moves gingerly these days. Our walks together are shorter and he’s more hesitant. He’s skin and bones, and his spine curves in a hump when he walks. His back legs bend at odd angles. He looks more like a scurrying armadillo than the fierce little fighter he once was, barking ferociously at any dog that crossed our path.
His kidneys are failing, so he gets up often in the night; his little bladder can’t hold much. I put him outside, and get back into bed, waiting for his bark so I can let him back in. He usually needs a long drink of water, so I place him by his water bowl, then wait, shivering a little while he laps up an ungodly amount of water. When he’s finally finished, I scoop him up and put him back on the bed near my pillow, making sure he knows where he is, next to me.
Not that long ago, for the first time ever in the nearly the 15 years that I’ve had him, he fell off my bed in the middle of the night. I was horrified and jumped out of bed wide awake to rescue him, feeling his heart beating quickly as I held him close. He was OK, but now I block the edge with pillows, just in case.
The truth is, I never wanted to a dog.
It was my former husband who thought we should get one, for the kids. We did have two parakeets and two hamsters already, but he thought a dog was important. I was reluctant, concerned about shedding and messiness in our spic-and-span life—not to mention all the responsibility, especially the emotional kind. I’d faced a lot of losses from animals dying during my time on the farm as a kid, and I wasn’t sure, frankly, that I wanted to set myself up for another loss.
I was cautiously researching dogs when a friend from the kids’ school told us about a 10-month-old Yorkie that needed a new home.
The day we picked him up, the kids could hardly contain their excitement, especially Camille. When we walked in, Buster raced joyously across the living room to meet us, shivering with excitement. It was as if he KNEW we were his new family. A handsome guy in his warm brown-and-black coat, we loved each other immediately.
As we prepared to drive away, Camille said eagerly, from the back seat, “Mom, now that we have nine animals in our house, including us … can we get one more, so we have an even 10?” We weren’t even out of the driveway yet.
What I didn’t know then was just how important this dog would be to me. How he would heal me. Comfort me. Strengthen me. Connect me.
On the days my husband took the kids to school in the morning, the loneliness could be crushing. Buster solved that problem for me. I could always pick him up for a cuddle, then head out for our first walk of the day.
But it wasn’t just the loneliness that changed. My emotional and even physical health changed, one walk at a time.
Working from home, I had a tendency to stay stuck to my computer, getting more detached from my body and inside my head, with all the resulting ill-health. But Buster insisted on those walks, and gradually, I began to need them as much as he did.
We usually walked three times a day. As we walked, I gradually became more aware of the larger world around me—the tall mature pines in our golf community, the swoop of cedar waxwings in the sky come spring, the mix of palmetto, beautyberry, and Cherokee bean flowers in the wild patches between the houses. I began to talk with my neighbors, who in turn stopped and asked me about the dog. I began to feel more connected.
And later, because I could walk, I started to run, going one light pole at a time until the fat started to melt off and my heart strengthened.
I needed that heart strength later, in more ways than one. When our family went through our own divorce, Buster walked for miles with me around our gated community while I talked on the phone, out of earshot of the kids doing homework at night. Buster literally walked me back from heartbreak. I grew stronger, and he put on more miles.
The ever-observant Camille came home from college one day, eyed Buster and said, “He’s getting old.” “No, he’s not!” I said. My capacity for denial is great.
But one day, trying to jump up into the reading chair where he usually snuggles with me, he missed. His back legs, having walked so many hundreds of miles with me, were weaker, and his muscles failed him. He fell back to the ground. I started watching him just in case he needed assistance, and more and more often, have to pick him up and place him in my chair, or on the couch, or on the bed.
Our walks are shorter now. The pace is slow. The dog that used to outrace me on a bike now moves at a very deliberate pace, sniffing everything, pausing at the corner and refusing to budge if he senses I’m going too far. His little legs are still strong and his will is unbending! He still barks ferociously at any other dogs walking by, but only if he can see them, which is not very often.
He’s been such a comfort to me these past two years as I’ve transitioned to being an empty-nester. The alone-ness can cause my heart to ache just as it did when the kids were little. I can fight it off with Buster as we sit in my writing chair together, walk the new neighborhood together, and sleep together, his soft body curled up next to me, asking absolutely nothing from me but love.
My Dad thinks I’m a little crazy. He suggests I get a boyfriend instead. I tell him they’re a lot more trouble than dogs! The kids think I over-indulge him, and maybe I do. I took him with me to NYC at Christmas, not willing to leave him alone for too long. I bought a sling and carried him everywhere as my dad and I toured the city. I slept on the basement floor of my sister’s house so I could more easily put him outside in the frozen dead of night, his little feet making tiny prints in the white snow. Finally, I bought tiny dog diapers so I could avoid tiny accidents—even if it affronted his dignity.
I really don’t mind the extra effort. It’s a very, very small price to pay for many years of devotion, of love, of increased health and happiness. How could I know that a dog that I had rescued would somehow rescue me?
I know I will have to say goodbye to him soon. The kids will be heartbroken, and so will I. In the meantime, I will try to enjoy these last days, being grateful for a love that outlasted my husband’s, and for a husband’s wisdom that outlasted his love.