“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” — Orson Welles

“Life is short, even in its longest days.” — John Mellencamp


March 1st.

There’s a movie I saw years ago called Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are two scenes that stick in my mind.

In one, a knight has all of his arms and legs cut off by his assailant’s sword. Blood spurts in every direction. The attacker walks away and the torso with a head spits out, “Come back! I’ll bite your legs off!”

In the other scene, a cart is wheeled through a village and the peasant steering it calls out, “Bring out your dead!” A man’s body is placed on the cart and the man insists, “I’m not dead yet!”

As most of you know, our beloved Boston Terrier Caesar has been wrestling with cancer since last summer and in early August, after having his spleen removed, he was given 1 -2 months if we were lucky. He is currently about to complete his 7th month of “I’ll show you.” Each day we get to touch him is a miracle.

Last Thursday, Judy and I were supposed to attend a get-together with a new boss. I got home shortly after 4 PM and it was clear we were in for the night. Judy sat on the couch with Caesar spread across her lap. Tears ran down her face. “I’m not sure he’s going to last through the night.”

Caesar has good days and bad days, but mostly good. And even the bad days have been tolerable. But he’d turned on a dime. Hadn’t eaten or had any water all day. He’d quit going to the bathroom. He wandered around looking disoriented. He could no longer jump up on the couch or the end of the bed and had to be cradled and placed amidst a grunt of discomfort. By the time I got home, his eyes rolled around in their sockets independently of one another and he could barely lift his head.

I called work and told them I would not be making the get-together. I then called Ivan and told him his puppy was in trouble and he needed to come see him. Ivan promised to come over in a few hours after he got off work.

Over the next 3 hours, I wasn’t convinced Caesar was going to make the rendezvous. He deteriorated and seemed to even lose the sheen on his coat.

Ivan spent the evening with us. We all took turns holding the dog. He had come to life enough to act interested in the company. Holding his head up. Ears alerted. Eyes focusing. He got to lick everybody, but mostly Ivan who has always let him. We had a nice evening despite the circumstances. We told stories and laughed. It was all good until we said goodbye at the door. Everybody was a mess, but I was probably the biggest blubberer of all.

As a director once exclaimed in my presence, “Doug Bari cries at supermarket openings!”

Making camp on the couch, Judy and I sat on either side of our fading friend. And now he was fading fast. As if he’d given all his energy for his departed visitor. We turned on the TV and a Chuck Norris movie was playing. Moments of losing something real out of your life make television more of a wasteland than it already is. We could’ve changed the channel, but neither one of us reached for the remote. It wouldn’t have mattered because nothing was registering anyway.

None of us know how long we have in this big story, but man, when Caesar looked absolutely hopeless, it manifested a gravity all its own. Judy and I took turns leaving the room to have little meltdowns and blow our noses. We were trying to surround our little boy with only positive vibes like it says to do in the dog books.

At 1 AM, Judy went to bed and I stayed up with Caesar. His breathing had become erratic and close to imperceptible at times. As a comfort thing, I put in a Lost in Space video. 2 episodes from the second season. 1966.

I watched both episodes on the tape and I can’t tell you what happened in either one. But it was comforting nonetheless. I hoped it was comforting to Caesar as well, hearing sounds he’d heard so often before when hanging out with me alone.

The Lost in Space episodes ended. The TV went to a blank screen. The room wrapped itself in quiet.

I thought of a friend who is recovering from chemo. He told me that the first night after he’d gotten the news he had cancer, he was a mess. His mind raced. What the hell? Why me? Why now?

The second night of no sleep put him into a different sphere of reference. He found clarity and peace. He thought about how he’d been able to do all kinds of things throughout his life that others might only dream of. He’d been faithfully married to his high school sweetheart for decades. He’d lived a pretty great life and had a good run.

I lived both of those nights in a couple of hours.

Why would God be so cruel to such a great spirit? Why should Caesar have to suffer from cancer? Couldn’t he just die in his sleep? And couldn’t he live a few more years?

Then the peace came. He’s had a good run. He’s been well loved and cared for. He brought such love into our home. He’s been a great watchdog and companion and a friend to everyone who was ever nice to him.

There were times when I felt a rush up my arm that started at my hand pressed gently against his shoulders. Coming up through my palm. I can’t explain the feeling any other way than to go out on a limb and tell you it seemed like he was transferring his soul to me in some kind of Spock mind-meld.

After this happened several times, he went into silent running. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or not. You couldn’t feel breathing on your finger when placed under his nose. He was stretched out on his side and there was no place that rose and fell. At all. When I felt his chest, I couldn’t feel a heartbeat. Several times, I got down and caressed his face and each time, he’d ease one eye open, then let it slide shut confirming he was still with us.

I spent a lot of time looking at the pictures we have on the walls.

Judy’s brother Barry who died unexpectedly almost 20 years ago.

Humphrey Bogart.

My long dead father.

Caesar as a young pistol.

A small abstract painting by Lydia Gasman.

Lydia was an artist. She was one of the foremost recognized experts on Picasso and had written more than one authoritative book about her favorite subject. At one time, she taught art at the University of Virginia and would sometimes show up wearing sunglasses and a leopard skirt. Always with a cigarette in hand. By many accounts, her students worshipped her.

Judy met Lydia months ago when Lydia was on the home stretch. In her 80s. Admirably vain and arrogant till the end. Judy and Lydia got along well and continued to see each other.

On one visit, Lydia looked at Judy and said matter of fact, “I just want to die.”

Judy burst into tears.

The last time they saw each other, Lydia offered the painting to Judy.

We didn’t know Lydia had died until we read it in a local newspaper.

I talked to Lydia that night. And my father. Barry. My old friend John Ramondetta who died from cancer. A few other angels who watch over me. They now had a job to do. “Take care of my dog when he gets to the other side.”

About 4:30 in the morning, when I thanked Caesar out loud for being one of the greatest and sweetest inspirations in my life who would live forever in my heart, I told him it was okay to let go if he had to.

It was about that time he snorted, stood up, and jumped off the couch.

“I’m not dead yet.”

He wanted to go outside. I went out with him into our fenced in yard. When he was peeing, his back legs partially collapsed. I had to help him back inside. He let his treat drop to the floor as he struggled to maintain his balance.

I called work and left a message. I was taking the day off.

I picked up our pet and carried him to the bedroom where I set him on the end of the bed.

I only slept a few hours, but it was a deep sleep. I was emotionally exhausted.

When I awoke, Caesar was right where I’d left him. Didn’t look like he was breathing. I put my hand on his side and he cocked an eye open. I left Judy and the dog and went out into the living room.

I sat on the couch and turned on the drone of CNN.

I was running over scenarios in my head. It was time to stop being selfish. As soon as the vet clinic opened, I was going to call our doctor and have him come to the house to put Caesar down.

On the morning news, they were interviewing Walter Koenig and his wife. Walter played Chekov in the original Star Trek, a show that was first shown on network TV when Lost in Space was having its initial run. Mr. Koenig was responding to questions about his son’s depression and subsequent suicide. His body had just been found in a park. Walter could barely hold it together. He begged people who were suicidal to please talk to someone. Anyone. It was so heartbreaking, I almost had to turn away.

At 9 AM, I called the vet’s office. Our vet was off for the day. The receptionist put me on hold and checked with the other vets at the clinic. Nope. No one could do it until after the weekend. Then they recommended I call Liz who is a roving Dr. Kevorkian for animals. I called and left a message on her answering machine telling her I needed her to come put down my dog.

Right after I hung up the phone, Caesar trotted out from the bedroom. He went outside and peed. Took a dump. Bounded inside and took his treat, crunching the hell out it. Drank a bunch of water. Ate his dog food.

“I’ll bite your legs off!”

I put him on the couch and we curled up together. Judy came out and we had coffee. Both of us were stunned at his recovery. Judy chalked it up to Ivan visiting.

Judy and I hung out with Caesar all day. We both worked on little projects, taking breaks to watch TV here and there. Other than not being able to jump up on the couch, Caesar was acting normal. He could jump down with no problem. He was stretching. Eating. Drinking. Defecating.

Liz never returned my call. And I must admit I didn’t want her to.

Unlike the long night before, I didn’t find myself getting emotionally wrapped around the axle. I had found a cried out clarity. Enjoy and live in this moment of relative peace. It is what it is.

On Saturday morning, I got up early and went out to make coffee. Judy came out.

“Have you seen his head? It’s all swollen.”

About that time, Caesar ambled out. The swelling was noticeable. He looked like he’d gone 12 rounds with Joe Frazier. The whole right side of his face was puffed up and his right eye was showing half of the white.

He was lost. And I was incredibly sad.

If I thought I’d exhausted my reservoir of emotion Thursday night, I was wrong. I was still available for supermarket openings.

Saturday was a rollercoaster day. He was still eating and occasionally drinking water. Going outside. He was trying to keep up and maintain routine, but he looked like it might be over.

By the evening, his right eye had almost swollen shut completely. And the swelling on his head had increased.

Judy got her chance to say her goodbyes and let him know it was okay if he had to go. We both told him how much we loved him.

After carrying him to the bedroom for the night, Judy and I sat down and talked. Even though the next day was Sunday, we would call some vets and see if one would come to the house. That had always been the plan to put him down at home because of how anxious he got in the clinic.

Sunday morning, Caesar got up right after I did. He was still swollen and out of it. I waited until noon to call around. I got Liz on the phone.

Liz asked me to tell her about what we’d been seeing. She was amazed that he was alive at all with the kind of cancer he has. Should have been dead months ago. She kept saying how amazing it was that he’s survived this long. She used the word amazing several times.

Liz was nice and she certainly sympathized, but she lived in Charlottesville and couldn’t make the trip out to Stanardsville on a Sunday. She recommended an emergency clinic we could take him to.

She said the swelling could be from anything including an abscess. I told her I still had a few of his pain pills from his spleen operation. Should I give him some until we can drive to a vet clinic?

“Sure. Couldn’t hurt.”

I gave the dog a pill and right as I was getting ready to call the clinic, we noticed Caesar’s face. His swollen eye was opening up. And the rest of his face was shrinking back to normal.

Over the next hour or two, his face virtually changed in front of our eyes. He snapped back to attention. Eating lots of food. Drinking water. Pissing and crapping.

The swelling is mostly gone tonight. He’s practically running around and at dinner, he leapt up onto the couch when Judy offered him a bite of steak from her plate.

“I’m not dead yet!” and “I’ll bite your legs off!”

So flash forward a month.

March 29th/30th.

His spirit departed his little body on a Wednesday shortly after 3 PM. March 17th. St. Patrick’s Day.

In the classic movie Raging Bull, Robert DeNiro plays mercurial boxer Jake LaMotta who’s practically beat to death by Sugar Ray Robinson in a 1951 match. Jake gets punched from all angles. Unable to put up a defense, he simply stands against the ropes and lets Sugar Ray pummel him. The fight is called for Robinson and LaMotta taunts the winner with, “Hey, Ray. I never went down.”

Well, Caesar never went down either. We had to put him down. Otherwise, he would have tried to keep going and we just couldn’t let him.

After rebounding at the end of February from what in retrospect must have been a stroke, he lived a couple more weeks in relative comfort. There were certainly noticeable physical changes. His back legs were steadily weakening. The tumors growing in his stomach region became more pronounced. So did the one on his left shoulder and the one on the left side of his neck. Making jumps up on the couch and the end of the bed were hit and miss.

Still he was beautiful.

He slept a lot toward the end. But that wasn’t out of character in his later years. Some days he seemed confused and walking was labored, but then, often within hours of appearing on a downhill slide, he would trot around and hop up on something.

“I’m not dead yet.”

The first weekend of March, he and I curled up on the couch for most of the weekend to watch movies. Judy was gone to a dance festival and arrived home on Sunday the 7th to share some time with him while we watched the Oscars.

On the 16th, Caesar stopped eating. He occasionally drank water. But he was lost.

In the evening, he wanted to go out to pee, and as he stood at the door waiting for me, his back legs collapsed from underneath him in slow motion. I scooped him up and placed him outside on the grass. He still couldn’t make it to a standing position and sat looking up at me with eyes that didn’t seem to comprehend his failing. Eventually, he got to a standing position and was able to pee, but just barely.

I brought him inside and tried to give him a pain pill wrapped in a small piece of sliced ham. Normally, he would be unable to resist, but he just sniffed it and turned away.

So my decision was made. I told Judy I would call the vet the next morning.

She verbalized what we’d both wished for. We’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this. That we would wake up one morning and find he’d simply passed away in his sleep.

But life rarely comes to us on our own terms.

That night, with Judy snuggled against my right side, I placed him at the end of the bed. He settled between my lower legs and rested his head on my left ankle with a sigh. I stared up at the ceiling knowing this was the last time he would be in this place.

I thought about a lot of things that night.

Judy found him among a litter in an un-air-conditioned trailer in South Carolina. July of 1997. He was 6 weeks old when she first set eyes on him. He was to be Ivan’s 12th birthday present and we didn’t return to get him until he was 8 weeks old in August. He was among several siblings and Ivan and I got to pick which one we wanted. We settled on the one with the longest tail that walked towards us.

Ivan picked out his name on the way home in the van.

He had fleas and worms and his ears were flopped over. You could lay him along your forearm and still have room left over.

He was bathed to rid him of the fleas. Medication took care of the worms. His ears eventually stood straight up.

He seemed to genuinely appreciate being in a house with air-conditioning.

As a puppy, he chewed buttons. Only Judy’s. If she left a blouse draped across the bed, he would chew all the buttons off. He also chewed the heels of her house shoes and he ruined a brand new bathing suit she never got to wear.

Not long after we got Caesar, we caught him sleeping in the bed like a human. He had literally peeled the covers down, inserted himself lengthwise underneath the sheets, and with his head resting on the pillows, somehow managed to pull the covers up over his neck so only his head was showing. When we discovered him, he looked up at us as if to say, “Hey, I watched you guys. Isn’t this what I’m supposed to be doing?”

I house-trained him. He would go over to the door and just stand there waiting for you to catch on. If you didn’t let him out, he would let out a single bark to let you know you weren’t paying attention.

Early on, we sent him to obedience school for a week and till his dying day, he could still remember most of the commands even though we weren’t consistent in the follow-up enforcement.

Besides his given name, he was known by other pet names around the house. Puppy. Puppy-boy. Dog-boy. The Boyfriend. And in his later years, the Old Man.

He only got away from us one time. That was in Virginia Beach when he was only a few years old. It was on a Mother’s Day weekend. We’d had a family work day, left the garage door up, and he slipped by us to go on an adventure. We stayed up all night. Ivan waited on the front porch of the house while Judy walked adjoining neighborhoods and I scouted nearby roads cruising in the car.

On Sunday morning, Judy put up a big sign at the front gate of our housing community. A family had taken him in and they called us. They wanted to keep him and were amazed that he so cavalierly hopped up to sleep on the end of their bed in the evening.

He was friends with just about everybody and never ever nipped or bit anyone. Although he was quick to come to your defense or challenge an unfamiliar presence outside the house.

Before he got old, he often spontaneously went nuts and ran as fast as he could up and down the hallways in our various homes. Just tearing it up. Then he would go curl up somewhere and sleep. Often warming himself in a patch of sunlight streaming in through a window.

Until he had his spleen taken out last August and got hooked on special canned food, he ate dry dog food almost exclusively with an occasional scrap thrown in. Vets would always comment on how clean his teeth were.

He didn’t beg and he didn’t steal food. Like the true southern gentleman he was, he would sometimes sit obediently at your feet hoping something might come his way. But he never forced the issue.

When I finally drifted off, I went deep and was awoken by a single sharp bark. Caesar was at the door waiting to go out and pee. I leapt out of bed and walked in a fog out to the kitchen. No Caesar.

I walked back to the bedroom and he was right where I’d left him on the end of the bed. Sleeping. Maybe I’d dreamed it. But I swear to you, it was crystal clear when I heard it.

On the morning of the 17th, he stood up and hopped off the bed onto the floor. Normally you’d hear a light double-thump as his front paws hit the carpet followed quickly by his hind legs. On this morning – his last morning – I felt him push off and heard nothing. A ghost jump.

At 9 AM, I called the vet’s office. It is always interesting to me how in times of turmoil, we can weed through the clouds of emotion and find a moment of focus to do what has to be done.

We were given an option. Bring him in at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I opted for the earliest time.

The rest of the morning went by in torturous drips. I’d placed Caesar up on the couch and we took turns sitting with him.

He’d taken a dump outside earlier. Judy looked at it and showed me. One half of it was normal, the other half of the stool was a bright metallic green color. Pure toxin.

We were hungry, but we weren’t hungry. We ate a bite here and there out in the kitchen because he couldn’t eat anymore and we felt bad about eating in front of him.

We’d bring his bowl of water to him and hold it right under his head. He drank some, but not much.

Right around noon, Judy and I went outside to a pre-determined location next to a patch of woods on our lot and we dug his grave.

I got on the computer and printed out a photo of him in his prime that Judy had taken and put some words under it. I then placed the paper inside of a Ziploc and sealed it.

We were ready. Prepared. As much as you can be.

At about 1:45 PM, we picked him up and carried him in his favorite blanket to the van in the driveway. I drove and Judy sat right behind me with Caesar on her lap.

We drove to Charlottesville and stopped off at Ivan’s work so he could say goodbye before we drove to the vet clinic. Ivan spent about 10 minutes talking to him and letting him lick his face.

At the clinic, I asked if the vet – Al Smith – would come out to the van to do what had to be done so we could avoid Caesar going through any more anxiety. Of course. Two female techs came out – one held his left front leg straight while the other introduced a catheter. Caesar jumped a bit when they stuck it in, but settled down quickly.

Then Al came out. He was so gentle and kind. He explained he would give Caesar a tranquilizer first followed by the drug that stops his heart. He said there would probably be a final breath and that would be it.

We didn’t even get that. The tranquilizer took about a minute to take effect and when the lethal dose was applied, Al didn’t even finish injecting it before Caesar was gone. He slumped into complete relaxation within a second. They’d provided an absorbent pad to put under his rear end in case his bowels let go. But even in death, Caesar was a gentleman.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I looked over and saw the two techs crying. I thanked Al for being so kind. He told me I’d done the right thing. That’s what Judy had said after I’d phoned to make the appointment earlier that morning. I discovered that even if you think you’re doing the right thing, playing God has its drawbacks. Because if I was really God, what I’d really want to do is reach inside of every spirit afflicted with cancer and rip it out and make my friends healthy again.

We drove home.

I carried his lifeless soft body to the hole we’d dug. He seemed so heavy. I placed him as gently as I could down into the hole in a sheet with the picture we’d put in plastic. Judy looked over at her flower beds and a single Daffodil had bloomed. She went over, broke it off, and stuck it atop the mound of dirt.

The next couple of days were not easy.

For the next week, we both tried to keep it together, but when you least expected it, something would trigger an unseen hand that grabbed the back of your neck and shook you around to remind you of your loss.

Normally, a plucked flower stuck in the dirt wouldn’t get past a day without wilting, but a week after Caesar was gone, the Daffodil on his grave was standing tall.

March 31st.

There are probably 6 or 8 weekends a year that Judy leaves me to my own devices while she goes off with her friend Lucy to dance festivals. I always love the first night alone because I get to control everything. Caesar and I would curl up with a few glasses of wine and watch war movies, The Three Stooges, Lost in Space. Whatever. But I was always lonely by day 2 and Caesar would somehow sense that and stay close to me.

In a way, Caesar kept an eye on me. It would be just like me to want to get lazy, but having him around kept me responsible. I always had to be cognizant enough to take care of the dog who was taking care of me.

I don’t like being alone alone. When I came in the house late Sunday afternoon, it was lifelessly quiet. I was in bed early.

About four in the morning, I heard the single bark from the kitchen. Clear as day. Did I dream it? I’m not so sure. But I wasn’t freaked out about it. I welcomed it.

Last night, I couldn’t get to sleep until after midnight. My mind was racing. I finally got under the covers and was drifting off.

And I heard a noise. A big noise. Like someone was dropping something in the other room. I didn’t dare move. My heart was thumping. If Judy was beside me, it would have been one of those “You’re the man – go find out who’s come in to kill us” moments.

But I was alone. Chest pounding. Frozen in fear. I mean, what the hell was that? I heard it again.

And then I got a grip. Hey. What would Caesar do? He’d growl and immediately shoot out of the bed to go straighten out the situation. That dog was only 20-something pounds and he never backed down from a fight.

Caesar. My inspiration. I got up and put my bathrobe on. Grabbed the baseball bat from under my bed and went through the house, turning on lights as I went.

Turns out it was a metal bucket blowing around in the wind outside, but it sounded like it was coming from inside the house.

I got back in bed and thanked Caesar for making me be brave when I didn’t want to be.

We went through 8 months of mourning. There were times when it was dead in the house. Some might say he was just a dog. Maybe. To us, Caesar was much more than a dog. He represented everything that was good in our lives. He brought a lot of love into our home and drew it out of us on our worst days. He was with us for 13 years. A fixture of beauty colored with enough attitude to make him a true man’s man.

For us, it would have been disrespectful to not mourn him.

Not long after Caesar left us, Al Smith sent us a card of condolence. Inside the card, he’d inserted a poem about losing beloved pets. I still have it. It’s special to me. Because you see, just a couple of years after Caesar died from cancer, Al died from cancer, too. I am happy I got to thank him while he was still with us. This is the letter I wrote him:

April 4, 2010

Dear Al –

I have just completed a 20-minute walk on a gorgeous Easter Sunday morning. It is the same walk I often took with Caesar. Indeed, going for a walk was a highlight for him. He would get excited as soon as he saw me putting on my walking shoes.

Judy and I received your lovely card over a week ago right before we headed to Myrtle Beach for Judy’s 40th high school reunion. We both thought it was the kindest gesture and it was greatly appreciated. The poem you enclosed spoke volumes.

Judy remained in South Carolina to spend some time with a childhood best friend she has known since she was 8 years old. So I am home alone today. Reflecting. And in a good way.

Back in the summer of 1997, when our son Ivan asked for a dog for his 12th birthday, Judy and I discussed what kind of dog we should get. She suggested a Boston Terrier. “But just to let you know. That’s a dog with personality.”

That was certainly the case from day one. Aside from chewing a lot of buttons off Judy’s clothes when he was a puppy, he was a joy to experience. The amount of love he brought into our lives could never be measured.

When I spoke to you that March day we brought Caesar to you, I asked you how you dealt with so many emotions. You told me it was the hardest part of your job. No doubt. It’s hard for everybody. The kindness and understanding you and your techs brought to the situation touched our hearts.

Watching Judy at her reunion put a lot of things in perspective. I knew none of these people. But it was a gentle reminder that we don’t live forever and living is about what we do in each moment of our lives.

We had Caesar just shy of 13 years. He was intelligent. Funny. Caring. Brave. We still have not washed his blanket because it reminds us of how soft and warm he was. Truly one of the finest creatures God ever created.

I imagine it will be a while before we bring another dog into our lives. I also imagine it will be another Boston Terrier. It won’t be Caesar, but that’s okay. He was one of a kind and that’s the way it should be.

When we do bring another guileless spirit into our home, we hope to come see you. A dear friend recommended you as a vet and we will be forever indebted to her for sending us your way. We’ve known some fine vets in our time, but you were and are the best we’ve met. The wonderful people who work with you complete the picture.

So keep doing what you do. As for me, I will continue to take my walks. And Caesar will be with me each time, not led by a leash, but carried in my heart…

January 2019

Next year, Caesar will have been gone for a decade. His physical self anyway. For me, his spirit still swirls around us – a protective angel leading the pack of other angels that oversee my shenanigans. I still visit his corner of the property and talk to him. Judy sometimes points out the narrow path I’ve created from my daily visits. Judy makes sure his gravesite stays maintained.

Caesar’s departure paved the way for another Boston Terrier to come into our lives. Sophie – the mistreated rescue who brought color back into our world 8 months after Caesar’s passing. It doesn’t seem like Sophie’s been in our family almost as long as Caesar’s been gone. To me, they are intertwined souls.

And in turn, my soul has become intertwined. Attached.

I try to live in the present moment. It’s important that I stay on that. It keeps me sane. That way I don’t get caught up in Caesar’s sad end or Sophie’s unthinkable beginning. I try to concentrate on all the good. Being present allows me perfect moments, and in this world, God knows I need a perfect moment here and there.

Because in the end, in my life anyway, all a perfect moment has to be is the gentle snoring of a dog lying beside me on the couch.

Soft exhales on my forearm.

I am so blessed.