WE SOLD OUR FAMILY BAKERY in August 2004. Successful as it was to the very end — a line stretched the length of the strip mall on our last day, not unlike the ending of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi episode — it had taken a visible toll on my parents, who never found a business partner who shared their fanatical perfectionism and, as a result, ran themselves ragged.
We celebrated with a trip to Hilton Head, our first vacation in years. Upon returning home, we would pick up an eight-week-old black Labrador puppy, purchased with a cool $800 of cannoli money.
We were hesitant to welcome another dog into our lives since the death of our first, a retired Seeing Eye dog named Biff. We tried again with another black Lab named Hans — we can’t claim responsibility for either dog’s name — but a rocky flight from Kentucky to JFK left him with severe anxiety. After Hans spent Christmas cooped up in his crate, his breeder agreed to meet us in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania for a buyback.
Even without the looming promise of a puppy, Hilton Head is a miserable place for an 11-year-old. I brought my copy of Labradors for Dummies and paced around the resort studying it like the Chassidim of Beacon Street with their pocket Talmuds.
With Hurricane Charley on our heels, we departed for Long Island in search of “Otter Creek Farms.” What we pictured to be no less than 40 acres of bucolic pasture populated by packs of rollicking pups turned out to be some guy’s rundown house in Long Island with a couple chain-link pens around back. One particularly boisterous yellow Lab, the surly breeder told me, was my pup’s mother. I went over to the pen and, gentleman that I was, assured her I’d care for her son as if my own. She kept on barking.
Inside the breeder’s house, two black pups teetered on their haunches to peek up over a jimmy-rigged plywood safety gate wedged in the doorway. “Do you know which one’s yours?” he rasped. I pointed to the one on the right. “That’s right!”
He asked if we had a name for him yet and told me he’d been using “Puppy puppy puppy” as a placeholder. I gave it a try in the front yard. Flopping through the unmowed grass came my pup, shit of unknown origin inexplicably smeared across his forehead. “Hey buddy,” I said.
And Buddy he became.
Stashed somewhere in the Clauss family archives lay incriminating camcorder footage of my exasperated mother suggesting we give Buddy back, as we had done with Hans. Though he was a terror for most of his first year, her protestations—“A year from now, we’re gonna be sitting here looking at each other saying, ‘What are we going to do with this dog?’”—have since joined the Pantheon of my mother’s brief sojourns to the wrong side of history, alongside her impassioned cases against the fax machine and later, the personal computer.
We moved to rural Pennsylvania two years later, and Buddy inherited nearly an acre of land that he understood to be his dominion. He would stand atop the mound in the center of the yard where the septic tank was buried and keep keen watch in case the horses grazing at the stables next door might stage an incursion. He’d give chase to the occasional low-flying crow, who’d humor him for a while before rearing up to the sky, safely out of reach.
My father had fashioned a makeshift golf green in the back corner of the yard, where the shade from the towering black walnuts stunted the grass below into fuzz. He would practice his short-game in accordance with the best practices outlined in the stacks of Golf Digest in the bathroom, and Buddy would retrieve each ball chipped diagonally across the lawn.
One afternoon, my father chipped three balls and waited for his hound to return. Out plopped one, then another. Then he looked my father in the eye and gulped. En route to the emergency room, my father screamed, “From now on, he isn’t allowed anything smaller than a fucking basketball!”
Had he swallowed, say, a sock, an endoscopic claw would’ve been able to retrieve it with little trouble. But a golf ball — clearly, if not comically, visible in an x-ray of his intestines — offered nothing to grab onto. Instead, the doctors had to remove his guts from his body and squeeze it out. My father kept the golf ball, and liked to joke that it was the most expensive one he ever bought.
Tough as he was, Buddy must have been the only Labrador retriever on Earth that was afraid of water, a deep-seated fear that lasted his entire life. My lone victory in this area was a trip to Jacobsburg State Park one lazy summer afternoon when I was home from school and my parents were working. Buddy and I came upon a clearing beside Bushkill Creek, so I took off my socks and shoes and waded into the tepid stream still holding his leash. With each step, he looked up at me, as if for assurance. “It’s okay,” I said, and we repeated this until the water was up to my calves.
We stood there in silence for what must’ve been half an hour—his nose twitching, tilting his head with perked ears with every beee-dooo of an unseen chickadee.
WE MOVED THREE TIMES, and Buddy responded well, given what creatures of habit Labs tend to be. I think it was his role as a constant through the chaos that made his idiosyncrasies such a dominant part of what we felt “home” to be.
Around 3 p.m. each weekday, he would sit at the window in the guest bedroom with a clear view of the end of the street, so he could watch me get off the school bus. (My mother knew to keep the blinds hoisted six inches or so, lest he try to do it himself.) He loved ice cubes and the sound of wrapping paper being torn into pieces. Despite 12 years of nightly admonitions, he resolved to lick clean the dinner plates sitting in the dishwasher.
If given a carrot, Buddy would befriend it, an honor bestowed upon no other foodstuff. He’d fling it across the living room and lay beside it, watching intently, as if the carrot would respond. In a fit of excitement, he’d invariably forget what he was doing and eat his friend, plunging him into a state of profound grief.
If given a rawhide bone, he would parade around in slow, dutiful circles for hours at a time, but would only chew it once the stars aligned to his liking. (It could be months before this happened, and this often was the case.) He and my father had a vaudevillian routine where he would sit with preternatural stillness while my father slowly approached. With each step, Buddy melted a little more—his eyes waned, his ears sank, his leg floated upwards to tilt back on his side—until my father made a sudden movement and jolted him back to life. Somehow, it never got old.
They took daily naps together, and he wasn’t uncomfortable unless he had Dad’s orange, officially licensed Mario Batali Crocs for a pillow. One snored nearly as loudly as the other. Alone, he would find a rhombus of sunlight and warm his bones.
Home was wherever Buddy clacked on the hardwood with that lackadaisical rhythm. He was never happier then when the three of us were in the same room (more often than not, the kitchen). And he wanted to be in the middle of it all, no matter how many times you tripped over him.
The year I lived in Lawrence, Massachusetts, working as a reporter for the Lowell Sun, I was prepared to spend Christmas alone. Too broke for a tree, I decorated the wooden pole that ran through my kitchen with tchotchkes from the dollar store off the Lowell Connector. The morning of Christmas Eve, I found my parents parked outside the Sun offices. A plump Douglas fir was strapped to the roof of their car. The backseat window rolled down and out popped Buddy, panting with indignation at the seating arrangement.
I SAID GOODBYE to Buddy at least a dozen times before I did the real thing.
As many Labs are, Buddy was cystic. Like the rings on a tree trunk, he seemed to grow a new lump each year. His muzzle greyed. He ran a little slower and took a little longer to recover after giving chase to an errant squirrel.
On several occasions I had the talk with my parents, both together and separately. In the event he went while I was away, I told them to tell me immediately. Each time I departed home for Boston, I said goodbye for what I feared would be the last time.
The lumps got bigger. One pressed against his vocal cords, rendering him mute. His eyes went cloudy from cataracts. Stairs became a challenge. Buddy’s world shrank to fraction of its size, yet he maintained a happy disposition that never betrayed the immense pain he must’ve been in.
He lost his appetite for kibble two nights before Christmas this year. Soon, not even pancakes, which he demanded every Sunday with a paper plate in his mouth, could arouse an appetite. The lumps had cut off his airflow, so he hacked and wheezed and panted even when stationary. His right hind leg swelled up and left him unable to walk, so I spun him around to orient his ass to the fireplace in vague hope of some relief.
We all knew it was the end. But my mother, my father, and I were each in various stages of denial about it.
Not long after 7 p.m. on December 29, My father and I dragged Buddy onto a tarp and carried him to the car. Outside in the cold dark, there was only a harsh white light coming from inside the vet’s office, obscured by a vet technician in the doorway, watching the whole sad scene.
The veterinarian didn’t take long to reach her conclusion. He was riddled with lymphoma. As quickly as his health deteriorated in the past week, his condition would only get worse, and surgery offered little promise of thaumaturgy. Through teary eyes, my beet-red father gripped a clipboard and signed off on the death of his nap partner, worksite foreman, and best friend.
The vet’s office had a special room for euthanasia, outfitted like somebody’s living room. As well-intentioned as their effort was, the framed pictures of serene desktop backgrounds and faux stained glass tiles in the fluorescent light panel aroused more general unease than comfort. My father couldn’t stand being in that room, so he waited in the parking lot.
A nurse led Buddy in with a catheter port on his right front leg, wrapped in a blue bandage adorned with a little red heart. She laid out before him his last supper, a smorgasbord of Milkbone biscuits, brownies, and a milk chocolate bar. Twelve years of care and Labradors for Dummies elicited from me a Pavlovian response to snatch it away for his own good. My mother looked at me as if to say, What does it matter now? I’ve never been so sickened by the smell of chocolate.
The veterinarian administered a sedative first to calm him. I laid beside him on the floor and buried my face in his dandruff-speckled fur. My mother said her goodbyes and joined my father outside as the vet readied the syringe one last time. I whispered in his left ear over and over, I love you, Buddy.
As she depressed the plunger, I remembered something from Leonard Bernstein’s lecture at Harvard about Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which he believed to be the sickly composer’s farewell to the world. He considered the symphony’s last page “the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying — of giving it all up.”
“It is terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate,” he said. “We hold onto them, hovering between hope and submission, and one by one, these spidery strands connecting us to life melt away, vanish from our fingers even as we hold them.”
I listened for Buddy’s breaths as they grew shorter and shallower.
And then, silence.
Yesterday I played hockey with other media types on the rink constructed in the middle of Fenway Park. The biennial get-together is a deserving reward for the hard-working Bruins and college hockey writers grinding away on the beat, and a coup for interlopers like me.
Two years ago, I packed my bag in the living room just a few hours before my flight out of Newark. I couldn’t find my hockey socks, so I went hunting for them in the laundry room.
When I returned, I found a toy duck sitting atop my bag, and an old black Lab doing an awfully bad job at looking innocent.