C got home from Switzerland today and promptly came down with a case of food poisoning. He thinks it might have been something he ate on his flight to Nashville. Welcome back to America, Frenchy.
I put him on the couch with our two biggest blankets, lit a tea light underneath my new oil diffuser, and swapped my pajamas out for sweatpants and Birkenstocks to walk to the gas station for Gatorades. Later I lied there, holding him tightly, trying to get his chills to ease off with my added body heat. I have no idea how science works, but my clenched arms seemed to help dull his shakes just a tiny bit. As I stared across the pitch black room at the flickering tea light, I thought about how I wanted to love this man until the very end. And then I realized how helpless we both were to know when that would be. Is this what gives you lines on your forehead? Finally realizing that you’re hanging on by your fingernails to a whirling planet ready to fling you off at any minute?
Holding on to C reminded me of another helpless creature I once held while he too had the shakes, but for a very different reason. This was my small, mixed-breed dog, Buster. One of my most vivid memories of him was in his spot on the unused side of my childhood bed, trembling with seizures brought on by a late-onset liver condition. Lying there, my arms enveloping his soft rolls of caramel-colored fur, squeezing him tighter with every wave of shakes, I felt helpless then, too.
It was a warm, sunny Sunday in Edmond, Oklahoma. I was 7 years old, and within a year (unbeknownst to me), my family would be moving to Flower Mound, Texas. We were attending a church that I foggily remember--it was painted white with a sprawling, ranch style design. The sanctuary was slightly sloped downward toward the podium, and from the back pews, if you craned your head, you could see the carport awning with the church van parked underneath. Towards the end of the sermon, when you knew that the service was drawing to a close and could feel the eyes of the room begin to shift their attention towards the door, you could see the rolling shadow of the van pulling up, signaling that we’d all be home soon.
This Sunday was different. The sermon ended, the last song had been sung, and the announcements were being read before the congregation dispersed after a closing prayer. Most kids paid no attention to the announcements: hospital visit schedules, charity bake sales, and things we were generally needing to pray for. All were things our moms would eventually have us do anyway.
This Sunday, the preacher approached the podium looking slightly confused.
*throat clearing noise*
“Uhuh..erm, we have a box of puppies that have been left underneath the carport. We don’t know much about them, but there is some information written in the box—“
My seven-year-old heart leapt out of my chest. I re-oriented my body, like an Olympic track runner, in the direction of the awning. I could see the sun shining and the promise of puppies awaiting me in the open air. No one tried to correct me or make my intent any less noticeable. They could see the seriousness in my eyes, and that come Hell or high water, I would be holding one of those baby dogs.
The benediction was spoken and I shot out to the front of the pack. I could see grown adults speed-walking behind me, propelled by their own mad curiosity. The double doors flung outwards, and there before me was a jostling cardboard box filled with fluffy love. I picked up a black and white one and held it gingerly. I saw another girl, slightly older than me, holding a golden-colored one. We switched.
My much younger dad walked over to me with a look of bemusement and resign. This was an inevitability, and you could see the exasperation in his eyes. I suggested the ironic name of “Beatrice”. He scrunched up his nose.
And that was it.
Buster was a smart dog. Over 14 years, he developed an almost telepathic communication with each of us, and this was because he was the most silent dog I have ever known. We joked he was mute. Over the course of his life, I heard him bark just a handful of times. He would instead stare at you, willing you to do his bidding (in a very cute way, I might add).
We thought he was a mix of terrier, chihuahua, and some other much docile breed like a golden retriever, due to the length and color of his unshorn hair. But as with all dogs found in a box, it was difficult to trace a lineage.
He would run in and wake me for school each morning, launching into my bed and refusing that I sleep another wink. He would lie beneath my piano for hours on end while I practiced and wrote. The reverberations were calming to his tiny frame. And good lord, this dog loved cheese. He learned the word, and would perk his ears up to the ceiling as soon as it was spoken. If no Kraft singles were produced within a minute, you had committed a grievous act.
Towards the end of his life, he developed seizures and liver issues, culminating in his refusal to eat. He never showed the slightest hint that he was in pain. I had gone away for college by then, and in a final visit between home and moving to Nashville, I fed him with a feeding tube. He continued his silent rounds throughout our emptying house, sometimes sleeping in the sun-drenched carpet like a cat, or outside in the shade by our backyard pool. He held on for a long time, and I missed most of the final years. I remember him healthy, which I cherish now. However, I regret that I wasn’t with him in the end. I was on a trip with my then-serious boyfriend to a wedding out of town, and was gone for four days. On our drive back to Nashville, my parents called to say that they had put Buster down a few days prior. They thought the news would upset me too much for the wedding. I stopped the car and cried for a little while. My boyfriend then drove the rest of the way back while I stared out at the open fields next to the highway.
When I got back, I planned an all-night stay in the Vanderbilt music building's practice rooms. I had long since made friends with the unfazed Slovenian custodian who worked the graveyard shift. She would give me a nod and a smile as I would wave to her, arriving at 7pm and leaving at around 1am. The next night, I got there just before the doors locked at 7, and left at dawn with a new song recorded in my phone, called “Little Friend”. I did my best to pay homage to the warmth he brought into our home: In the very first days, I held him suspended above my face with my back flat to ground; later, he would lie beside us for days whenever any one of us got sick; and there was always the tinny jingle-jangle his collar made as he passed from room to room. When I had a car in high school, driving all over to shows and coming home way too late, I would hear his little chimes greet me in the darkness as I slipped through the front door.
In the backyard of my parent’s new house is a small plaque with Buster’s face etched into the dark stone. On it reads, “To our Little Friend.”
In the middle of the night, I reached over to find that C’s fever had broken. Resting my hand on his clammy back, I felt his breathing slow and his body begin to cool down. At about 5 am, he had finally stopped shaking.