Monday, May 28, 2012

A Day Without Buzz

(The majority of the following was written on May 26, 2012)

They say you never forget your first love. I think it is also true you never forget the pets that you have had. I lost a pet today and I have no doubt he will be remembered by those who got to experience him.

Buzz was a terrific dog. He was a cuddly, over-sized fawn-colored pug who never seemed to find a place for his tongue. It always stuck out of the side of his mouth and looked like a red carpet that was being unfurled for a big event. By the day’s end it would dry out, looking like a piece of corned beef. Maybe to honor him we should name a deli sandwich after him.

I kept Buzz’s birth name from the people we adopted him from, for it was a perfect name. I think a publicist and marketer, after all, should have a dog named Buzz. He got his name from the Toy Story character, Buzz Lightyear. The animated film’s character used it to echo a catchphrase that may explain where my dog is now: “To infinity, and beyond!”

I don’t know where Buzz went, but I do know he is gone. As of 12:57 pm on May 26th he left this world. He came into it January 28, 1997 – over 15 years ago. But he entered my world on March 1, 2004. Coincidentally, the day my wife and I adopted him – and another pug, Lulu, was the day my last grandparent was buried, grandma Syd. She lived to be 96 and seemed to pass her longevity gene to Buzz. We felt fortunate to rescue an older dog and give him a loving home for the past eight years.

A month after we adopted the pugs my wife became pregnant with our first child. I always referred to them as fertility dogs.

They were funny with each other. Lulu, named after the childhood dog of Ed Norton in the classic TV show, The Honeymooners, used to run around the house and barrel into Buzz. He would then lick her armpits. I can still hear the soapy-sloshy sound of him showering her little armpits with his slurpy tongue. Don’t ask.

In the afternoons they would hit a witching hour and Lulu would bark (more like a yelp) and run around the house like a crazy dog. Buzz seemed more reserved, by comparison, bordering on looking distinguished and regal in the way he comported himself. Lulu was a lively whipper-snapper; Buzz just wanted to chill out.

He was always a people dog, not a dog’s dog. He preferred the comfort of humans over his own canine kind. But these two dogs would often be seen together, napping or sunning themselves. They loved to be in the sun in the room upstairs that would become our son’s room.

Buzz and Lulu were there to greet Benjamin’s arrival in January 2005. Unfortunately, Lulu died a few months later on May 17 in a tragic accident involving a school bus. I was walking the two dogs together – on leashes – on the sidewalk – but a bus that was errantly speeding got too close to us and Lulu darted just off the curb and was killed instantly.

Though I am sure Buzz missed his friend he seemed to adjust and remained our only dog for over five years, until we adopted a bulldog, Daisy, nearly two years ago. She is an energetic, affectionate dog who loves to chew on our footwear. She is no doubt helping us transition from the Buzz era.

Buzz taught me many lessons about life. One was that he showed my family and me our capacity to take in a dog that wasn’t a puppy and raise him like our own. The other was how to raise a special-needs dog. Buzz wore a diaper. Not quite like that of a baby, but not far off. He liked to pee all over the place. We figured out either he wears the diaper or he goes to another home. We opted for the diaper. It did not stop him from occasionally depositing a poop in the house, but it did allow us to keep him.

Buzz also showed me how one compensates when some of their abilities wane. He was increasingly losing his ability to hear and see. He was also arthritic. But somehow he persevered and hung in there until the end. The decision to put him down was not easy, nor without doubt, but once we finally concluded that Buzz would be better off not having to navigate with the pain, confusion, and dysfunctionality that seemed to pervade his existence, we felt a sense of peace.  There seemed to be little dog left in him. Never mind he gave up outdoor walks or staircases a few years ago. It just seemed like he was sleeping 85-90% of the time and the rest of his waking day was filled with compromise and discomfort.

It had been at least the past six months that he’d wake us in the middle of the night – sometimes several times a night at two, three or four in the morning, to take him out of our bed to go to the bathroom. Then of late he would howl because he couldn’t do something as basic as stand up or shift his body position. Though these were inconveniences for us, more importantly, they became a sign that Buzz was hurting.

He had a good heart and no other diseases. He may very well have lived longer had we not intervened. But we thought his quality of life had deteriorated, that it was the humane thing to end his days with us. Some people think we should do the same for adults. There is something to be said about the compassion that goes into euthanasia.

About 15 years ago my other grandma was dying. She was 95 and had lived a full life. She had lapsed into a coma for the second time since she had hit her head in a fall six months earlier. She had no hope of recovering and her mind was gone as a result of the fall. Though she did not leave a living will, the family respected her verbal wishes that were stated often when she was healthy. We petitioned the hospital to remove the life support machine and to let nature take its course. It was the right thing to do even though it was tough to let go.  Longevity is great, but not when it comes with a price tag of pain and suffering.

I had feared over the last two to three years that one day I would find Buzz dead. I envisioned him in my bed, not waking up one morning. I imagined he’d be on the couch and never get up from a nap.  I was concerned my kids would find him dead in his crate one day after school. But it turns out few pets die naturally. Something usually happens – an accident or an illness – that causes the pet to be put down.

I was very aware that he was on borrowed time and always told my kids to enjoy him because we didn’t know how much longer we would have him. It became a lighter burden to anticipate his death and to expect it rather than to avoid or fear it. It was imminent I guess from the day he was born, but it was also quite expected in recent years, given his age. I tried not to mourn him ahead of his time. But I did have some kind of anticipatory grief every time I tried to imagine life without Buzz.

I had a client a few years ago who wrote the best book on the subject of anticipatory pet grief – The Legacy of Beezer and Boomer: Lessons on Living and Dying from my Canine Brothers by Doug Koktavy  We learn so much from the silent creatures that we raise.

The hardest part of this was making the decision to let him go and then to move from that agonizing moment to tell our kids. How do you tell them that their first pet is dying? It was a two-fold challenge: Tell them their dog was dead and to comfort them AND explain that his death won’t come naturally, but of our doing.

I did not fully understand it myself, but I knew I had to be able to frame the conversation in a way my kids would understand and hopefully embrace. They took it well.

We first told our seven-year-old son. He cried and hugged Buzz like I had never seen him hold the aging, little fella. But, he also asked a lot of questions and seemed to understand. The question that he asked over and over was: How did you decide this now? He seemed to genuinely not just want to question our decision but to understand it.

He then helped us tell his four-year-old sister. She did not cry but asked if we can get another dog. She then said “I love Buzzy boy” and put her head on his.

We scheduled his death the way we scheduled our daughter’s birth. She came two days before her due date because her doctor was to then be gone for vacation, so we rushed the process ever so slightly. For Buzz, we felt this should not linger and settled on this Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day when he passed away. In the afternoon it rained thick tear drops, as if the sky wept for Buzzy.

His demise made me think of all the pets I ever had. I recall having a pair of turtles as my first pet. There was Crackers the parakeet whom I accidentally killed by closing a door on him at age nine. There was Pepper the rabbit who lived to be over eight and half and remains the pet I have had the longest relationship with. There was Brandy, my first dog, a basset hound that I got when I was 26 but had to give up after four and a half years because I was moving at the time from Florida back to New York. And there were others, including parakeets Dusty, Blinky, Patty, and Tyrone. I had fish briefly, too. I even had a cat for six weeks  -- an Abysinion – before I realized the cat was nuts. And there was a diamond back turtle that I rescued from the beach for a week before I realized I should return him back to the ocean.

All of them eventually moved on, one way or another. But I never had to put a pet down until now. It is the ultimate sacrifice a pet owner can make. When you truly love your pet, when the time comes, you set it free.

In Buzz’s final days we videotaped and photographed him. We gave him extra treats and lots of love and attention. We talked about our fond memories of the little creature and marveled how he has been there by our sides during our most important moments, such as when our kids each came back from the hospital after they were born.

His crate remains open and empty for 24 hours proceeding his passing. We will wash and save the blanket that lined his crate. We will toss his diapers that we referred to as “pants.” He did not have a favorite toy, bone or ball. He wasn’t that kind of dog, although he once had a squeaky doll alligator, but I think Daisy chewed it up.

Buzz went crazy for tomatoes and not just for meat. He loved all vegetables, including peppers and carrots. I would also give him barbecue potato chips and feed him burgers, hot dogs, pasta, and whatever food our kids would leave over.

I am not sure what to do with his harness leash that he had not used for several years. Nor do I know what to do with his food bowl. His belongings were special when he was alive but I feel little towards them right now.

I will miss his extra-soft coat of fur. He had beautiful, thick but fluffy-soft hair. Actually, he had two coats of hair, making him extra cuddly. We cut off a few clumps of hair, hoping to savor that pillowy feeling.

He was bigger than your average pug – taller and heavier. Though he was a smaller dog breed, he never felt small. He weighed around 29 pounds at his peak mass and was only around 20 on the day he died.

His breath, at times, used to smell like rotten garbage and each year he would lose one or two teeth after a dental cleaning. He probably had five or six teeth left in the end.

He took his final breaths on May 26 and it was one of the most peaceful moments I had ever witnessed. Our vet, the one who had given up Buzz and Lulu for adoption, gave Buzz his final services. His name is Harlan and he generously gave of his services at no charge for so many years, always looking after Buzz even when he no longer was able to give him a home. How strange it may have been for him to be there but really we all felt strange about what was happening. And yet, as the event unfolded, it all seemed to make perfect sense.

It was this moment of mercy, though filled with guilt and fear, that allowed me to accept his fate. My wife and I looked into his eyes and rubbed his head and paws as he gently and quietly went down. No fuss, no barks, no kicking. He accepted the moment, perhaps, because it was providing relief and closure for him and for us. It was an amazing moment of life passing to death. When it was all over, it looked like he was napping.

I am not sure what I will do with his ashes once they come back to us from the vet. Lulu was cremated and sprinkled across the nation’s first and oldest pet cemetery, in Hartsdale, NY.

I am gonna miss that dog and will cherish the memories he has provided to me and my family. It always hurts to lose a loved one, human or animal, and to each person they mourn according to their needs. But for some, they cannot get past the trauma of loss, so much so that they swear off having another pet. I feel the opposite way on this matter. I believe that the love you exhibited for one pet should continue with others pets. The process of loving another should never end, even when that pet is gone. The love of another being is beautiful and precious and is something I want to repeat over and over. Luckily I have Daisy to love now and perhaps one day in the future I will get to experience a new dog’s love and attention. But when that day comes, my thoughts and feelings and experiences with Buzz will not be diminished, but enhanced.

How appropriate that Buzz was laid to rest over Memorial Day Weekend. He was not a soldier of war but he was a hero to those who loved him.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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