As a kid, I never had a dog, or any pet for that matter. My mom was terrified of cats, and perhaps had OD’d on pets as a child, as my grandfather kept everything from dogs to monkeys to bears to sheep as housepets. I got a cat on graduating from college: Buffett is now sixteen years-old and looks likely to dance on my grave someday. But it was April who brought dogs into my world.
April and I married in October of 1999, right as we were moving to Charlotte in my first attempt to start a business. Her first birthday as my wife was a couple months later, and it was clear that she wanted a dog — not just any dog, but a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
I was reluctant: Although we were in a nice townhome that was more than we could afford, we didn’t have a yard or a place for a dog to romp. But April wisely pointed out that since she had recently taken a night shift job, we would have almost full-time coverage during the critical puppy training period. I was still reticent, but after dragging her across the country to a place where we didn’t know a lot of people, I didn’t think I could say “no” to my new bride. And, while my brain saw the downsides, I had always wanted a dog and was infected with her enthusiasm.
She had known a great Chessie while in college and liked the breed, seeing, I think, some of herself in a creature that loved deeply but only to those it knew and respected well; a breed that was fiercely loyal and independent-minded. She found a breeder in South Carolina who had a litter of Chessies and we went down to check them out.
Now you can argue against breeders and for adoption — and we’ve since adopted three dogs rather than go the breeder route. But for our first dog, April knew what she wanted and we both believed in it. So we went to visit the breeder and he brought out the newborn pups. I was instantly hooked. “Look at that one with the white toes,” I whispered. “I bet he’d cost extra.”
Moments later, the breeder pointed: “That one with the white toes– Those aren’t breed standard, so he’s not worth much. You can have him for less.”
He was Ours. We had to wait a few weeks for him to be whelped, and then we excitedly brought him home. April had gotten a book on raising puppies that suggested a two-syllable name with a vowel ending that would be distinctive to the dog. We loved Americana and Bluegrass music. So, we named him Banjo. He rode home swaddled in a sweatshirt in April’s lap as we sang a modified version of the children’s song: “There was a family who had a dog and Banjo was his name-o.”
It wasn’t long before we realized Banjo was special. Don’t get me wrong: We’ve had four other dogs since; April had a dog growing up and we have cats — all of whom we love and cherish. But Mr. B (his popular nickname, indicating the respect he deserved) was smarter, more loving, more intense and more personal than any other. He was “more” in lots of ways: He was big even for a chessie, weighing up to 105 lbs. and his head always seemed adorably huge. We always assumed it was to house his gigantic brain. He did everything with extra gusto, from fetching to swimming to tug of war to greeting us. And with the serious looks of intelligence he’d give us, we used to joke about him being a “real boy disguised as a dog.”
There was also an early indication that he had a problem to face. I remember being frustrated that my big, manly dog didn’t lift his leg to pee. After a while, we noticed that a long walk or run could give him a little hobble. Although our first vet gave him a clean bill of health, by the time we moved back to Dallas, our vet here diagnosed him with a problem too common to the breed: hip dysplasia.
Banjo was tough as nails and sometimes to his detriment, he didn’t let that slow him down. He (and we) had constant adventures and misadventures:
He was always water-obsessed: His first swim came when apropos of nothing he jumped off a ten-foot-high pier into a sea inlet as a three-month-old pup. We went on as many lake trips as we could to sate his water mania, although he didn’t retrieve so much as fetch. He was too strong-willed to just bring back a stick. You had to wait for it, like his love and trust, on his terms. Part of why he was so precious to us was that you felt that you had earned something special when you got his cooperation and affection.
I won’t go so far as to say that he saved my life on one of those lake trips, but I can’t definitively say that he didn’t. There was a lakebed area where the water had receded and I had thrown one of his toys there. Strangely, it seemed to me, he didn’t go fetch it. So I walked down to get it and learned (as I often did) that Banjo knew more than me. I quickly found myself waist deep in mud and sinking fast. Banjo ran to my side and I grabbed his harness, so he could pull his fool owner out. Banjo knew that you never leave anyone behind.
Banjo raised us during our Salad Days, teaching us how to be competent dog owners. He taught us not to leave around panty hose for a dog to eat. He taught us how to communicate what we wanted in a way a dog can understand. And he was with us during times when we weren’t able to provide the best environment for a dog, and still made the best of it. At many times, our best available exercise was long walks that must have been hard on his hips. There was no yard to frolic or potty in, so we’d have to walk together in all kinds of weather, stopping daily at an abandoned house we dubbed “The House on Poo Corner.” We didn’t have a pool like we do now, nor did our work schedules allow frequent enough lake visits. But when we bought a small inflatable pool (that nearly blew off the car on the way back from filling it at a nearby gas station), he bounded in and out of it like it was the Atlantic. After a time, we had to move into a smaller two room apartment. Wrestling with a neighbor dog in adjoining parking lots and playing fetch on a cracked tennis court had to be his main diversion. There were times when our walks had to be in bad neighborhoods, but even without me there, I never worried about April any time day or night so long as she was with Banjo.
Even in those days, we did get out for some adventures. We went to Charlotte’s then-unofficial and illegal dog park at the Mint Museum so he could frolic with other dogs, running around the lawn and up and down a steep hill to a nearby runoff creek. One day he and I were greeted by a phalanx of police cars and trucks, closing in on all of us who were gathering illegally off leash. We went on the lam through Charlotte’s tonier neighborhoods, dodging sirens at each turn until we found a phone booth so that we could call April for a rescue. Another day, we met a dog owner who didn’t understand that a group of dogs fetching toys together don’t respect individual property rights. I remember laughing as he bellowed at me: “CONTROL YOUR DOG!!!”
We took advantage of any body of water we could find, often swimming in questionable ponds with as much goose poop as water.
And we would occasionally slip off as a family to the Myrtle Beach Mariner, a dog-friendly hotel, for cheap weekend vacations. Banjo loved nothing more than to frolic in the waves, and we would all spend the evening in the hotel having cheap snacks and beer.
The point is that our other dogs have generally had it much easier, with a yard, a pool, more time, more comfort: And yet none have loved us like Banjo loved us.
Banjo was an amazing judge of character. He, like most Chessies (but more so), was home-protective and didn’t like strangers coming inside. But he warmed quickly to our true friends, and even three years later would remember someone he’d only met once. That said, there were people we considered friends, people who thought they were dog people, that Banjo never cottoned to. I later learned in enough cases that those people weren’t true friends, that if Banjo didn’t like you, I probably don’t either.
Banjo’s only weakness was food: He was the most food-motivated creature I’ve ever known. There was always something joyous as he chomped and schlurped, and I loved the “crazy eyes” that came with any special treat. Even so, he was the model of restraint around foods he wasn’t supposed to take. He knew discipline. That didn’t mean he didn’t ask for the food– he knew how to sell too.
Chessies are known to make a sound of excitement commonly called a “roo.” (It sounds like what it sounds like.) Banjo had the mightiest roo you’ve ever heard. It most commonly came out at dinnertime, before a swim, and when we came home. I stress “we,” because it didn’t matter which of us got home first or second, the roo came when the second arrived — Banjo had a strong sense of duty and responsibility for his family. And he knew that he couldn’t rejoice until everyone was accounted for.
Banjo was our confessor-counselor. Perhaps because we knew his love was not easily won, he was a great comfort at our most difficult hours. In ten years of marriage, including multiple jobs and start-ups, there have been many of those. He was always there for us jointly and severally, and I can say that all but one of my toughest moments has been salved with a leaning-hug from a hundred pounds of Great Dog — my tears wiped on his fur and licked away by his tongue.
Banjo taught us much about resilience and care-taking. I know that his hips hurt him mightily over the years. Yet he always plugged on, always cheerful, never downhearted. And we learned to do all we could for him. For a variety of reasons, surgery wasn’t the right option, but we did everything else in the book. We bought the house we’re in, in a less desirable neighborhood, so that we could have a pool for his exercise and therapy — something that I am convinced added years to his life. (We incidentally got to use it too.) We bought and tried every pill, remedy and comfort we could think of, even as he started waning we bought things that we knew wouldn’t get much use.
As time wore on, Banjo got progressively gimpier. April, I think, started dealing a long time ago with the fact that he was going downhill and that we weren’t going to be blessed with him for as long as we thought we should. It made her sad and I tried to divert her, noting that besides the hips he seemed in great shape, even as he got new distinguished white patches in his fur. April noticed him losing weight, but I looked at the bright side that less weight meant less stress on the hips. About six weeks ago, even I had to acknowledge a marked increase in the hip problems, which led to him walking in strange ways that caused injuries to his feet. He still loved to swim and fetch in the pool, but he could no longer jump in from the side, making a mighty splash. And getting out was hard to watch.
Over the past few weeks, we kept battling back against the onslaught of age and arthritis. Getting out of the pool hurts him? Let’s keep him in by leashing him up so it’s like a treadmill swim. (The strong-willed boy didn’t like that.) More pain? New drugs. Steroid shots. A new orthopedic bed, embroidered with his name. New varietals of herbal remedies. Concrete tearing up his feet? Buy 15 area rugs and cover the patio. Can’t get up on his own? Lift him. Can’t walk from fatigue? Carry him like a sack of potatoes. Falling while pottying? Hold him up. Having trouble staying horizontal in the water? Get him a lifejacket. Swimming tires him quickly? Lift him up on his raft so he can float and enjoy our company while we exercise the other dogs.
The problem had always been with the rear hips, but last week, he started acting like the front legs weren’t working, meaning he couldn’t stand or walk at all. He had whined during the night, and given Banjo’s high tolerance for discomfort, that meant it was bad. I took him to our vet, Wade Dunn (who has done an incredible job, along with his staff, in doing everything possible for B) and we changed his meds, fearing that one of them was causing some loopiness. He gave Banjo a steroid shot, hoping for a rebound, cautioning me that there could be something neurological at work now compounding the hip issues. I carried Banjo, now 85 pounds, out slung over my shoulder while I uttered a fervent prayer, something I rarely do.
By Friday, he’d perked up and was able to walk outside with his now-trademark funny swaying momentum-enabled sashay. For the first time in a couple days, he roo-ed when I headed out to the pool, so I helped him in and was elated to see him swim with more gusto, vigor and endurance than I’d seen in maybe two months, pumping the back legs as fast as the front. It only seemed natural that he was extra tired afterward. It wasn’t the ultra-efficient, tail-as-rudder, fast-as-me swim of yore, but it was beautiful.
That evening’s swim will always be both glorious and haunting to me. For I now fully believe that Banjo knew it was his last. That’s the only explanation that makes sense — It was too strong, too buoyant, too perfect for a dog who had been as infirm as he had been. That night, he wasn’t hungry, ignoring his dinner and only eating the bits of hotdog that contained his cocktail of meds. I chalked it up to fatigue, but became concerned overnight as he began to whimper a bit without acting like he wanted to move. I sat up with him off and on until nearly 3 AM, when he seemed to quiet down.
An hour later he woke April, this time by his head flopping over from his bed onto the wooden frame of ours. She was up with him from then, and by the time I got up it was clear he was having trouble keeping his head up. We took him to the vet’s office, carrying him together, with a growing feeling of unease. We were in crisis-solving mode, so stayed bright and focused, even as I sped to the vet, weaving lanes.
The vet wanted to try hydrating him, giving him some liquid nutrition, and running some blood tests, but we’d seen the look in his eyes when testing Mr. B’s reflexes. He sent us on our way saying he’d call in an hour with the results of the blood tests. I didn’t need to hear them. I was straightfaced walking out the door, but convulsing and sobbing by the time I got to the car. April and I held each other and cried, composed ourselves and got breakfast. Moments after we got home, before the blood tests should come, we got the call that Banjo was breathing his last. We again raced to the vets, but he was gone before we arrived. We sat with him on the floor and talked and cried and petted him for a half-hour before leaving.
I initially felt horrible that we weren’t there, but once again Banjo was smarter than us and more considerate than anyone should be. First, by going in this way, he saved me from the thing I most dreaded in this situation: Having to actively make the choice that he needed to go because his suffering was too great. We’ve had to do that with one of his younger siblings, and that was a terrible and hard. In this case, I frankly didn’t think I could do it. Secondly, Banjo always pushed harder and worked harder when we were there to encourage him. I think if we’d been there, he would have tried to fight on for us — when what he really needed was to rest.
We went home and cried and petted our other dogs. They could smell it on us — and became unusually calm and quiet while we grieved. After a while, April went outside with the dogs and found herself tearing down weeds that had overtaken our fence. Then, hot and sweaty, she climbed into the pool without really thinking about it.
I got some beers and joined her, and we held an impromptu afternoon-long wake in the pool, the place that Banjo loved best, playing fetch with the dogs, reminiscing, laughing and crying. Through that I realized even more things that Banjo had taught us — the chief among them being that you regret the things you don’t do — every missed opportunity — far more than any of the things you do. It was a cathartic experience, and we came out feeling better than I could have ever expected. We even went out to dinner that night and continued to quietly remember Banjo and to talk about the things we want to do, rather than the things we haven’t done yet.
Still, we are incredibly sad and we miss our boy. I went on several crying jags Sunday, and despite the portrayal to the contrary above, I’m not a big crier. Ditto while writing this. Very selfishly I know, I miss him so very much. Having to remember he was gone when I woke up the last couple mornings was terrible. Leaving the house without him on patrol in the living room is depressing. Perhaps it’s because my father’s side of the family is full of sentimental stoics and my mother’s substitutes treacle for connection. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t lost a loved one who wasn’t already aged or not terribly close. But I have never felt a loss this hard for me to face. I know that people experience much worse losses — I have friends who have lost close loved ones in recent years. But still, the feeling is real.
At the same time, I feel very fortunate. I always thank April for bringing dogs into my world — and that started with Banjo. And our three younger dogs, while not Banjo, are wonderful and special in their own way.
And, we had Banjo when we needed him most — the salad days. April says we all grew up together. She says he trained us. She’s right.
He also taught me that you don’t have to be a simp to be selfless. About a week ago, I knew that I’d done a long-term wrong in a personal situation. I knew it was something that I was going to have to fix over a long period of time, but I just hoped that a.) I had it in me and b.) it wasn’t too late. While we floated in the pool together, without any sense of irony, I begged Mr. B to stay around long enough to help me get my footing on that path. Time will tell, but I do believe he did just that.
There’s an old saying that “I wish I could be half the man my dog thinks I am.” That’s a good one. But someday, I also hope to become half the man my dog was.
“Banjo Dog” (Gene Parsons)
“Little Brown Dog” (Taj Mahal)
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” (Alejandro Escovedo — I used to sing along with this version while taking long walks with Banjo in Charlotte.)
“Blue” (Gene Parsons)
“Gimme Back My Dog” (Slobberbone — Dedicated to whatever supreme being runs this rotten universe)
“Sulphur to Sugarcane” (Elvis Costello — my cheer-up song for the last few days)