4th of July

We’ve talked about holiday traditions, and the way that we’re accustomed to celebrating certain holidays. Growing up, for me the 4th of July always included Parades, Picnics, Music & Fireworks. The most important aspect for me, as usual, is Family! As long as I was with those that I loved, all of those elements were just icing on the holiday cake.

But then there are times when something changes. What happens when a holiday doesn’t go the way you plan? What happens when the routine is disrupted?

*Names have been changed, to protect anonymity of those in the story ahead

Trigger Warning

***

The summer of 2013, I was living in St. Petersburg, Florida in an anything-but-ideal apartment with two roommates that I honestly couldn’t stand. Any excuse to spend the holiday with my nearby family was embraced wholeheartedly. I trooped over to my Aunt *Em’s house on Indian Rocks Beach before noon to start the day-long party that was Independence Day. My Aunt’s house was full to the brim with her, her fiancé *Steve, Aunt Em’s son *Sam (he was nine years old at the time), Steve’s dog BooBoo, a fourteen year old black lab, and the family’s new white Husky/Lab puppy, Harley, who was a year old, but over a hundred pounds.

Noodles, my red four year old Dachshund/Beagle (he came in full grown at twenty pounds even) and I arrived late morning, and I let him loose in the yard to play with BooBoo and Harley. Those three dogues were three peas in a pod normally, but today, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. Steve seemed to be down in the dumps; a stark contrast to his usual boisterous, loving and silly personality. I asked Aunt Em what was up, and she told me that BooBoo had had three seizures in the last thirteen hours. It seemed that she had one paw out of the door of existence.

Immediately I rushed into the house to find BooBoo. She wasn’t in her usual spots on the living room couch, or under the dining room table, searching for a stray crumb… Finally I found her in the small back bathroom. She had walked into the shower, and seemed to be unable to get herself out. She had no idea where she was, nor how she had gotten there, or why. This poor black dog had more than one paw out the door of life. She was breathing heavy, and Aunt Em told me she had been doing so for hours. She hadn’t sat down since they had woken up that morning at seven am.

Aunt Em and I eased her out of the bathroom and back into the backyard where we were all gathered. She was clearly suffering. What were we going to do?

In the family and culture that I had grown up in, we would have said, “Take her to the vet, and let them put her down humanely.” Nearly every vet on the face of the earth would be able to identify her condition as fatal. Clearly she was in pain. My family in Florida, however, is used to different ways. Steve had grown up out in the country in Florida, had raised countless dogs, and never took any of them to a vet once in his life. When a dog got too sick, or old, the dog was taken to the woods and shot.

This was the humane way to do it. Of course, the act was done with the utmost respect, and love. Please understand that there was and still is no maliciousness to this concept. It’s just the way things are done in the country. I do not necessarily agree with this practice, but I absolutely hear his stand on the process. As I write this, I am half horrified and half heartbroken that this is, indeed, a true story.

While this decision was being explained to me, I glimpsed BooBoo in the corner of my eye, heading towards the lit bonfire pit. I turned my head in the nick of time to notice her not slowing down. I stopped midsentence, and sprinted across the yard to intercept her before she headed straight into the flames. She was confused again.

Suddenly, the decision seemed to make sense, in a different sort of way. Steve couldn’t watch his dog, his companion for the last 14 years of his life fall apart this way. Poor black dog. Poor, poor black dog. To quote him directly, “BooBoo had been by my side through my wife’s passing, and every girlfriend I had before I met Em. She’s never once been away from me.”

Poor Steve. Poor BooBoo.

Aunt Em and I conferred with each other on a course of action. We thought, we’ve got to get her to settle first, at least to lie down and rest for a few minutes. But how… Perhaps a sedative? Where would we find one of those? Suddenly those terribly awkward conversations that I seemed always on the sidelines of clicked into my brain:

I bolted down the street from Em’s house, because I knew the young man that lived there might have a connection to something far stronger than could be purchased over the counter that I would need to implore for the first and last time in my life, and for a good reason at that! When I explained the situation, he exclaimed, “No, not BooBoo. She’s such a good dog! I will get on it right now. I know I can find something that will settle her.”

Good. That part was set into motion. Next stop was next door, and across the street: *Walter, our resident Polish old fart. He was sitting out on his deck, shirtless, smoking a cigar, as I suspected he might be. Again, I explained the situation. “Oh no. Thees ees terribole. She ees such a goot dowg. I will be over een a few meenutes.” Again, good.

I reported back to Aunt Em. Now, all we could do was wait. Every ding on our cell phones, every click of the gate was reason for us to become hopeful. Finally, after what felt like ages, Aunt Em’s neighbor across the street came over; he had found someone who had four Xanax. He just needed a lift down the road to pick them up. Perfect! I knew this was a risky maneuver, and completely illegal. I looked at him straight in the eyes, and said with as much seriousness as I could muster to convey the gravity of a situation that he was no doubt jaded by, “This is the one and only time I will ever do this kind of thing. This better be the safest and quickest operation you’ve ever run.” He understood completely. He promised me that I had nothing to worry about. We jumped into my car, and drove down the road to make our transaction. We arrived at an unassuming little house in a quiet, charming neighborhood, with a lot of lawn decorations. I gave him the forty dollars in cash Aunt Em had given me, and told him I would wait in the car, “And for the love of mud, hurry.” Again, he completely understood.

I refused to watch him go into the house, because I didn’t want to know who was behind the door. I wanted as little as possible to do with the transaction. The minutes felt like hours. What felt like ages, was probably more like seven or eight minutes. I felt nauseated. I just kept thinking of BooBoo. Poor BooBoo. Poor black dog. I continued to deliberately look the opposite direction of the house he had disappeared into, so the sound of the car door opening nearly made me lurch out of my skin. The look on his face which I read immediately said, “We’re good to go.” He got into the car, and we headed back to Aunt Em’s.

By the time we arrived, *Conall, another one of Aunt Em’s neighbor and Walter, the Polish man had arrived and the sky had grown a little gray. The smell of rain was in the air. Aunt Em and I grabbed some slices of cheese, and wrapped the pills up nice and tight. We found BooBoo in the corner of the yard, staring at the dirt, breathing heavily. We offered the cheese to her, on any prior occasion she wouldn’t be able to contain her excitement for such a rich treat… This time, she just continued to stare at the ground.

Conall & Aunt Em informed us that she had had another seizure while I had been gone. Poor BooBoo. Aunt Em and I assisted with administering all four of the pills, BooBoo didn’t really protest, thank goodness. Now, all we could do was wait for her to settle, perhaps she would lie down, and perhaps she would just fall asleep in a nice easy way, and just not wake up. This was our hope…

An hour ticked by, and finally her legs let up, and we were able to lie her down in the screen porch, where we faced a fan right at her, to help cool her down in the July Florida heat. She was still laboring tremendously to breathe. We each exchanged glances, and silently agreed that each of our hearts were breaking. This was painful. We all took our turns saying goodbye in our own way to BooBoo privately. We knew this was the end.

When it was my turn, I sat down on the floor right next to BooBoo. My dog Noodles, who had been taking turns with Harley standing guard over BooBoo since we arrived came and sat next to both of us, as if he knew that this was our last moment all together. I patted BooBoo on her head, I cleaned the gunk out of her eyes and wiped her drool from the corners of her mouth. She looked at me with her big brown eyes, a nuance of gratitude and affection flashed through them. My eyes could no longer stay dry. I wept, and Noodles whimpered. He knew I was saying goodbye. I told BooBoo what a good girl she had always been, and still was. What a wonderful companion she had made, how much she meant to this family. All of this she probably already knew in her big dog heart. I finished with a kiss on her forehead, and another playful pat on her head. I cried some more. It was Conall’s turn. He had lived next door since before Aunt Em had moved in. He had known BooBoo since she had been a puppy. He cried as he said goodbye; Walter, Aunt Em, Sam, Steve, all of us. We all cried. BooBoo lay still, accepting our love, but continuing to hyperventilate, despite being completely still beneath the fan.

Steve was last to say his goodbye. By the time he was through, it had begun to drizzle. When he gave the ok, Conall picked up the shovel, wiped the tears from his eyes and walked out of the screen porch, and into the side yard. We could hear him begin to break into the earth, and dig a hole. The feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach grew three times as large as it had already been, I remember wondering how that was even possible. I grabbed an umbrella from the living room of the house, and made my way to the side yard. “Conall, can I help you?” I asked.

“Nah. It’s ok. I need to do this.” I heard a break in his voice as he answered.

“Well then here, let me cover you from the rain.”

“No, you don’t have to do that.” He responded.

“Yes, I do.” I left no room for argument.

He shot me an appreciative glance, and I prepared myself for the long haul. Perhaps my awareness of time was skewed at this point, because it seemed to me that Conall approached super human speeds while digging that grave for BooBoo. The umbrella proved to be only slightly affective for us both, but I felt better that I had assisted in some small way. We made our way back onto the screen porch, and it began to pour. Conall looked at Walter, and seemed to convey that it was now Walter’s turn. Walter turned to Steve, and asked one last time, “Are yoo suure yoo are ready? Yoo are suure yoo want me to do dhees?”

Steve responded in earnest, “Walter, I only want you to do this. You’re my best friend. This is the greatest favor a man can ask.”

Walte nodded, and looked at Aunt Em who was crying. Em looked at me, and asked, “Will you help me wrap her up in her favorite blanket?” I nodded. Was that even a question?

We did so delicately, and as we did, she seized again. If my heart could break any more, it did just then. Noodles and Harley whimpered and barked from inside the house. They knew. BooBoo, wrapped and swaddled tight and held by Aunt Em and I, seized for the last time. Conall had dug her final resting place, Steve lifted her up, Walter walked with Steve carrying his loyal companion to the side yard, and Conall followed with his shovel, but stopped short.

I made sure that both Harley and Noodles were inside the house with me, on the couch, where I held them both close to my sides. Sam and Aunt Em stood in the screen porch, Sam with his arms wrapped around his Mother, and Em with one face around her son and the other covered her face. Steve came back in, and stood in the kitchen staring blankly at the ceiling, taking long drinks of Crown Royal straight from the bottle. Conall stood just outside the screen porch, in the pouring rain.

Walter had laid her down gently in her fresh, damp grave, and aimed carefully to ensure absolutely no pain. He pulled the trigger once, and she was gone. He shot twice more into the dirt as a means of respect for this beautiful and loving creature, his best friend’s dog. If I close my eyes I can still hear the gunshot that sent BooBoo to the next life. I remember that with each shot I nearly jumped out of my skin, and so did both dogs that I held closely to me.

When all we could hear was the rain, again, Conall walked back over to the side yard, and traded places with Walter. He was covering BooBoo. No one else moved. We all cried.

Finally Conall came back from the side yard. He said, “It’s done. She’s at rest.” I remember breathing out for the first time in a very long time. How long had I been holding my breath? Who knew. Finally, I let go of the dogs, who hadn’t even tried to move from my side. We all met in the screen porch, exactly at the spot where BooBoo had been lying for the past few hours and hugged one another. We wept with one another. No one remembers just how long we stood there holding each other, but it must have been a while. When we finally broke apart, the rain had let up. Aunt Em, Steve, Sam, Conall & I, went to the fridge, and each grabbed a beer (Sam got a juice box, of course). We popped the caps off, and clinked them together in a cheers: “To BooBoo!” We all said in unison, and for the first time in hours, we tried to smile.

Slowly, for the rest of that day that knot in the pit of my stomach dissipated. BooBoo was free from her seizures, and all of the pain she had. What we did that day can be considered horrifying, if you look at it harshly. What we did can also be considered paying the utmost respect to BooBoo, and Steve. That was the way Steve wanted it, so that was the way it happened.

The end of that 4th of July day we spent lighting off our own firecrackers, and toasting BooBoo. We stayed together, comforted by each other, knowing that we had one another to lean on. That day, family was of utmost importance, just like on any other holiday. There are now beautiful rocks and seashells surrounding her final resting place and several plants and flowers growing permanently around and atop. We all know she’s there, but to anyone else, that spot just looks beautiful. That Independence Day will go down in history as one of the most bittersweet.

All dogs do go to paradise. Rest in peace, BooBoo. You were, and always will be loved.

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