He sleeps most of the time as he approaches his 14th birthday, according to the record of the Los Angeles County Animal Care Center, where I could not leave him behind after a 2008 animal shelter adoption event where we fell in love.
Beyond chewing through the seat belt in the back seat of the car on that first trip home, his behavior has been flawless. He eagerly greets all who regularly provide services at our home (although, as is wise with any pet, he is not allowed unlimited access to them.) He loves strangers, dogs, and adores children. He is a hunter/gatherer, who — to my consternation — picks up such treasurers as left-over corn cobs and empty McDonald's coffee cups left on the street to carry home during morning walks.
His waking hours still include occasional bursts of youthful exhilaration and a few traditional Boxer spins, except now he is on the ground, rather than whirling in the air. He is still at ideal weight, but his skin now reveals little lumps over much of his body (the largest of which we have had removed). Soon, quickly exhausted, he slips into such a deep sleep that I find myself watching and touching him often to assure he is still breathing. His favorite pastime now is just lying close to me or on my feet or snuggling on my bed while I'm at work.
I am trying to prepare myself for that moment when my touch does not bring him immediately nuzzling closer and those beautiful soft brown eyes do not open to assure me of his love. This is not going to be easy.
I want to share some paraphrased words of wisdom by Dr. David Viscott, long-time Los Angeles radio talk-show host, who was called the "Psychotherapist of the Air Waves," and also was the author of many books, still available.
The New York Times describes his approach as "affirming love of oneself and others and searching for unadorned truth." Dr. Viscott passed in 1996, the year his last book was published.
This is essentially how he described surviving the loss of someone you love. Although he was speaking of humans, I have found his wisdom equally appropriate and helpful regarding the passage of a pet.
The good doctor explained one day to a grieving caller who had lost a spouse that we are all like diamonds and we have many facets of ourselves that shine on others and others shine back. When we meet or are in the presence of someone we love, we feel special and wonderful because a unique experience occurs when their light shines on us and causes an undiscovered facet of ourselves to light up in return.
This describes “falling in love” at many different levels -- the positive, empowering feeling we may never have felt before or may never feel with another and we do not ever want to lose.
So, when that person [or pet] dies and leaves us physically, we grieve not only for the loss of their light, but also for the part of ourselves that is lost without their presence and which we believe has darkened and will never exist again.
Dr. Viscott encouraged us to remember the loved one -- not try to run from the pain or shut ourselves off from those feelings, because when we remember him/her and our moments together, we can still be in their presence in our heart and mind and they can still shine on us. In that memory, our own light will shine back, keeping the love and specialness alive.
I have a friend who was a K-9 officer and deeply loved his dog. After retirement, the beautiful German Shepherd stayed with the family until his death. He did not replace him professionally -- transitioning, rather, into another area of law enforcement. It is obvious when he speaks of him that, many years later, the wound of separation is still raw -- not because he lived through the dog, but because their lights shining on each other made them both “whole” and able to go into the darkest dangers together.
He keeps the dog's commendations and photos on his office walls, along with those of his children, so that he can share all their love daily, and when he speaks of any of them, their lights shine through his eyes.
We try to be brave for our departing pets, but the tears well up at just the thought of the final moment that is near or has passed. If they are in pain, we must always make the most humane decision for them, based upon the advice of a veterinarian.
We are never ready to lose our best friend. But, even in the deepest moments of our grief, we can be grateful for having been the one who was there with them through the good and bad times and that we were able to keep our promise to love and protect them to the end. Perhaps that, more than anything else, can help us through the ravaging pain of never seeing or holding them again.
Sadly, I recently experienced the loss of another dog, a small terrier that was born feral and found in some bushes in East Los Angeles about six years ago. She was so tiny that she literally did not fill the hand of the homeless man who rescued her and called me to please come and get her. Because that was the day before Thanksgiving, we named her "Grace."
Gracie made her permanent home with a friend who travels frequently, so she would spend time visiting us, rather than being left with a sitter. She was an adorable little ball of grey fluff, but she never trusted strangers. She had suffered from seizures her entire life, which at first were controllable but later worsened. Gracie died suddenly and peacefully a few weeks ago, curled up in my lap on a Sunday morning while I was writing a CityWatch article.
So, now anticipating a second loss – Baxter -- puts an extra strain on emotions. There is no easy way to say "goodbye." But having permission -- even encouragement -- to embrace our pets' memories and feel their light shining from the other side. and sustaining the miracle of mutual love, at least eases the sense of physical loss.
Personally, I am comforted by, and choose to also believe another very poignant reminder by Dr. David Viscott, who assured us that, "old loves never die; they just live in a quieter place."
(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.