In the shade under a dying plum tree, Baxter panted in the heat despite a slight breeze that drifted across the grass that needed mowing. He was laying on his side with his front legs stretched out in front of his chocolate body. He had gained extra skin over the last couple years, and it drooped around him in the grass. His big pink tongue drizzled from his mouth surrounded by a distinguished grey beard blending into slush colored eyebrows.
As I approached him, he lazily dropped his ears and raised his paw for just a moment. It was the greeting I had grown accustomed to when he was happy to see me but after he lost the strength to roll over for a belly rub. He smiled there panting in the shade as I knelt down to scratch his ears and neck. In three hours, he would be dead.
But of course, he didn’t know that. To him the day would be just like all the others he had spent for the last couple months. Wake up. Eat. Go outside through the garage (the back porch steps were too much for him now). Lie down in the shade and sleep and snore. Move to a new shady spot, sleep, snore, repeat. Eat. Sleep some more in the backyard. Come in through the garage. Snore away until morning.
I had my own plans for the day. Mow the lawn, fix the screen door, go for a swim, prepare a new recipe for homemade pizza dough that needed to rise for the next day. Kristen was looking for a new computer, and we were thinking of going shopping later. We also had dinner plans and tickets for a play that evening. All those plans vanished when I came downstairs that morning to find Kristen in tears. For the first time she saw Baxter struggle and fail to stand up. After the appointment was made, the only thing to do was love on him as much as possible.
There was a time when Baxter would literally walk away from all the attention he received that afternoon. He was never the type to follow you around or beg for attention. He had better things to do. There were trees to mark, scents to follow, trespassers to bark at — especially those damned squirrels. There were holes to dig, socks to swallow, bushes to shred, and sticks to bring back from the lake — but only to the water’s edge. Those lazy people could walk over and pick up the stick themselves if they wanted to throw it again. After all, he was the one that swam all the way out there to get it. But today, he seemed to delight in my fingers digging in behind his ears. I guess he had run out of better things to do.
There’s one nice thing about having a dog so stingy with affection. Unlike most dogs who would slobber all over anyone, you had to earn Baxter’s love. The best days were when you got a Baxter kiss. They were as rare as Christmas and your birthday in any given year. His kisses were light and delicate — the slightest flick of his tongue up your nose or chin. Anything more would be showing too much. The only way you could be sure you received one — and not an accidental bump from his wet nose — was that his kiss was warm. But he handed out no kisses today. I had to settle with his grunts and snorts and his paw waving at me while he smiled in the shade.
The vet arrived on schedule and came around to the backyard gate. Our other lab, Roscoe, raced over to investigate — barking with hackles raised. Baxter lifted his head to see what the commotion was about, but he stayed under the plum tree. The vet introduced himself to us with handshakes and to Roscoe with some hearty petting.
Baxter finally tried to get up not wanting to miss the nice man handing out ear scratches. He struggled to a sitting position, but his back legs stuck out and crossed themselves in front of him. Digging his front paws into the grass, he kept trying to jerk his hind legs underneath him so he could stand. All he accomplished was to slightly bounce himself across the ground. I went over to calm him. He wasn’t having it. He needed to go find out who this stranger was and get in on those ear scratches. I tried to hold him still while the vet, Kristen, and Roscoe walked over. After about thirty seconds of trying to stand, Baxter finally gave in and laid back down, exhausted.
It took a lot to make Baxter give up. Even after he lost the strength to climb the stairs to our bedroom, he’d try anyway. We had to put two overturned chairs at the landing at night to block him. Otherwise, he would make it half way before his legs gave out and he would bumpily slide back down. Knowing he couldn’t climb the steps was no reason to not make the attempt. It was better to fail and slide than to sleep downstairs like a common dog.
The vet saw what was happening and hurried over to spare Baxter any more effort. He bent down to introduce himself. He had strong fingers, the kind that could really dig into your ear until you just groan with pleasure. He kept saying how beautiful Baxter was. As he kneeled down to sit on the ground, the vet’s face came close to Baxter’s nose. As a thank you or simply begging for a treat, for whatever reason, the vet received the honor of not one, but two, Baxter kisses.
The first needle was stuck in his neck, and a golden liquid was injected. This would sedate him. Baxter was still smiling. Only a few minutes remained before he wouldn’t even know we were here. Kristen gave him a hug and rubbed the fur on his head and neck. I gave him his favorite rough loving — the full face treatment. I rubbed my palms up and down the side of his entire head while digging my knuckles hard in front of his ears. His jowls flapped and he leaned his head into my knuckles and grunted and snorted.
His eyes slowly slid shut. He laid his head down between his graying paws. I’m sure the world was fuzzy to him — the kind of fuzzy you don’t want to stop running your fingers through. Then he suddenly snapped his head back up. He leaned his head into my scratching fingers, still with that smile of his. But the drugs were stronger than my hands. His eyes began to close again, but only half way this time. His head grew heavier until he finally cradled it in his paws in the green grass. His breathing deepened, and he started to snore. The vet gave his back paw a squeeze. It twitched slightly. It wasn’t time yet. If Baxter could feel the pinch, he could still feel my hand. My fingers kept scratching behind his ear.
I stretched out on my stomach and lay in the grass with my chin resting on my wrist. My hand never left his ear. The grass was cool from the evaporating moisture left from the previous night’s storm. Kristen lay next to me with her head on my arm. She scratched his right ear. I scratched his left. His half-eyes met mine, and his snoring breath sent a tremor across my eyelashes. The vet gave his paw another pinch. Nothing.
Baxter’s half-closed eyes looked at my face, but he didn’t see me drop my forehead to my forearm. The soil beneath the grass smelled wet and musty. A grass blade poked up my nose. My mouth convulsed. Tears began to slide down my nose, and the weight of each drop hanging on the tip only pulled more tears down. The vet shaved a patch of hair from Baxter’s hind leg. He inserted the catheter. It filled with blood. I listened to Baxter’s snoring and scratched his ear in rhythm with his breath.
“Let me know when you’re ready.”
Between sobs, Kristen told Baxter she loved him. She said he was a good dog. I just kept scratching his ear. I looked up for a moment and nodded to the vet, then I looked back down into Baxter’s half-shut eyes. His snoring vibrated the wet drops on my cheeks. A sudden alcohol smell crept through the now still air. The vet pulled back. Baxter kept snoring. The alcohol scent wafted away. The vet pressed his stethoscope against Baxter’s ribs for a moment then leaned back, put his stethoscope away, and softly said something.
I kept scratching. His soft fur filled the gaps between my fingers. His warm ear gently flapped over the back of my hand. His eyes kept looking at me through half closed lids. His head still lay between his paws on the cool grass and musty soil. I scratched for five minutes before I realized the snoring had stopped.
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