I knew her name before I knew her. Nearly fifteen years ago, my sister, girlfriend at the time, and I sat in a favorite bar, having a beer and debating what time we would leave the next day. “We can leave early,” I said, “but I just want to make clear we are just going to look. I’m not definitely buying one. It’s a ton of responsibility.” A band played bluegrass music in the background, and after hearing one particular song I liked, I knew what I would call her.
We left in the morning and arrived a few hours later at a parking lot near Luray Caverns, Va. We met a woman, I think named Pam, and followed her white pick up truck to her home. Just beyond her house sat the kennels.
We looked at the pups, and the runt hastened over filled with all the spirit of the universe. I grabbed the pup and held her as she nipped my hands. I said only one word, “Banjo.”
She chewed everything I owned. Shoes, belts, a piece of rubber so hard the pet shop clerk deemed it “indestructible.” She reduced that toy to splinters in a matter of hours. Once, I returned to my office to find my copy of Augustine’s City of God, a book I had spent thousands of hours reading and underlining, on the floor, it’s broken spine greeting me. I looked at the front to see one solitary tooth mark scraped through the cover page. She had eaten the 80 page introduction and stopped where I had started reading.
I tried to teach her to hunt, and she had the energy and instincts of a champion. Life and career and location prevented repeated duck and dove hunting trips, so we mostly tossed tennis balls, but I did manage to take her on occasion. One time, I took her dove hunting in an old corn field on a old farm near where I grew up. I had to put her on a leash because she ran around too much. Then, in a flash, she looked up beyond my right shoulder, ticked her head twice, and let out a soft whine. I turned around to see two up high and shot them both. She brought both back to me and gently put each bird in my hand. Her mouth was as soft as the doves.
Over time, the hunting trips ceased, and Banjo lived entirely as pet and companion. After one year with me, Banjo welcomed the aforementioned girlfriend as my wife to our home. The three of us traveled, walked, and ate together. She jumped in our bed most nights. The years added up, and Banjo greeted first our daughter and then our son. I have a video of my two year old girl telling Banjo the “baby’s in mama’s tummy.”
Banjo had nuclear power in her heart. My arm tired from throwing the tennis balls before she quit. More than once she overheated, and I’d throw her in a pond or douse her with a hose, only to find moments later her grabbing a ball and tossing it to me. One of my former students deathly feared dogs, and Banjo cured him. By the end of the school year, I saw this shy young man, raised in the Bronx, tossing a tennis ball, petting her on the head, and talking to her. “Good dog,” and he’d let another one fly.
Another time, she bolted from her favorite dog-walker and descended like Biblical locusts on two boys fishing for catfish with deli meat. She gobbled up as much as she could, including one of the baited hooks. When I arrived, I cut the line and saw it disappear down her throat. After hours spent at two different veterinary hospitals, the nurse asked me, “How far are you willing to go?” Three days later, she came home after the surgeon removed the hook near her heart and fused her ribs together from where he’d opened her esophagus. It cost a fortune, but it didn’t matter.
You know the rest of the story. The dog and the man age together. That ancient bond of dog and man working together continues, but the man’s energy outlasts the dog’s. In the final days, her back legs had become nearly paralyzed, and my wife or I had to carry her outside when she couldn’t make it herself. She always tried, even when the heat made it nearly impossible for her to breathe.
It’s terrible to speak with a veterinarian about “what happens next.” You’ve known for months, years in this case, the end was near. On more than one occasion, you’ve thought, “Ok. This is it” only to see that nuclear powered heart and that puppy’s latent spirit protest, “Not yet, it isn’t.” But, eventually, Nature takes over and the heart slows and the spirit dims. My wife and I went to say good bye, and we both lay beside her, our eyes as clouded as hers as she struggled to get the air in her lungs. That famous tail, perpetually wagging for nearly 15 years, now limp and still.
We returned home from the vet, and I emptied her water bowl. Her bed still sits in my home office where we tried to keep her cool. The whole room smells of her, and I can’t yet remove the bed, still dented from where her body last lay.
In the past few days, I have received some wonderfully loving messages from friends and family. Most reference the terror of having done exactly what we had to do. Others reference a mythical “doggy heaven” complete with tennis balls and other friends who have gone on. I just remember stroking her ears in the vet’s office, kneeling down to kiss her nose and to choke out my final words.
I suppose as we age we see more heartbreak. Friends get sick, marriages dissolve, children get in trouble. As my mother says, “In your forties, the cracks in the sidewalk get wider.” It’s a wonder we would ever own a dog knowing at some point we will outlive it. At the same time, to live life afraid of its grittiness, the tough decisions, the proverbial “rock and a hard place” moments, cannot be right. We live and love. And, if that means heartbreak, so be it.
No one promised us a life of ease, but an old dog taught me that living means joy and sadness bundled together, memories of tennis balls and fish hooks, soft ears and limp tails. And because we love, our final words can be, “You’ve been a great dog.”
Good night, rest in peace, sweet, sweet, Banjo.
photo: author’s own.