January 31, 2014

Saying Goodbye To Buster With YEAR OF THE DOG

"Something's gonna happen.  You know, but it don't know.  It's just another moment in its life, but you know it's its last.  Its last moment."
I know, I promised to start digging into the Oscar slate next, but you'll have to allow me a brief diversion.  First of all, allow me to quote myself:
I never had a dog growing up, mostly because my sister was terrified of the creatures until she got to high school.  The irony is that my parents had planned to get a dog when they first got married, but changed their minds when my mother got pregnant with me.   (The running joke in my family is that I was supposed to be a beagle.)  A week after I moved to college, they finally got themselves a dog named Buster, but he always felt like my parents' dog, not mine.  My wife, on the other hand, always had a dog growing up.  When Jamie and I started dating, her dog Nemo was included as part of the deal.  The love between a person and their dog is a very specific sort of relationship that really can't be understood until you have a dog of your own.  Not only did I previously not appreciate it, I didn't even fully grasp my lack of understanding.
That came from my review of Frankenweenie, way back in The Daley Screening's first few weeks.  In the time since, I've only grown closer to my dog Nemo.  Sure, he can be a tremendous pain in the ass sometimes - he has a fondness for shitting on the floor and he barks incessantly whenever my upstairs neighbor walks past our door - but he's also goddamn adorable.  He sleeps on the bed with us (something I've secretly always wanted since I was a little kid) and lately he's taken to climbing up onto my chest once he senses that I'm awake and then licking my face until I sit up, at which point he promptly curls up in my lap and goes back to sleep.  The cuteness...it is overpowering.

For reasons passing understanding, Nemo's mortality has slowly started to sink into my brain and I'm finally starting to realize just how much I'm going to miss him when he's gone.  He's only six years old, but he also had a stroke when he was two so his health has always been a little suspect.  Still, I should have plenty of solid Nemo years left before things start to get really depressing.  (Knock on wood.)  Weirdly, the universe has recently been determined to make sure I've got dead dogs on the mind.  A few Facebook friends have posted messages about family animals passing away recently and then Wednesday night, while walking to the theater for an encore screening of Wolf Of Wall Street (holy shit I love that movie) I ran into a buddy coming out of an art supply store.  He was working on a cut paper portrait of a friend's dog that had recently died.  I immediately thought of my parents' dog Buster, who was pushing 15 years and really starting to slow down and have trouble with stuff like walking.  When I saw him over Christmas, I had a sneaking suspicion that he might not make it to the next one.  But just last week my folks had asked me if I'd be willing to watch him while they were in Florida at the end of February, so I figured he was still in okay shape.

Thursday morning I woke up and put on an old episode of Louie while I got dressed for work.  Louie was doing a standup routine about being divorced and how all good things eventually end in sadness, using a new puppy as an example.  "Coming home with a puppy is like saying, 'Look everyone, we're all gonna cry soon!  Look what I brought home!  I brought home us crying in a few years.  Here we go.  Countdown to sorrow.'"  It's a good bit, but again I thought of Buster.  Two hours later, in a moment of depressing synchronicity, my mother called to say that they were putting Buster down that afternoon.  He'd developed some tumors in his stomach, he couldn't keep any food down and he wasn't sleeping.  My folks had spoken to the vet and agreed there was little left to do and that dragging it out any further would be too painful for Buster.  I was sad that I couldn't drive down to the Cape to see him one more time, but I felt even worse for my brother Tim who's still finishing his senior year of college in Ohio.  If Buster was anyone's dog, he was Tim's.

The only reason we'd gotten Buster in the first place was that my parents had made a deal with my brother (who was about ten at the time) that when my sister Cait and I had moved out of the house, they'd get him a dog.  Since Cait went to a boarding high school, that day came a lot sooner than my parents had anticipated.  But it turned out that the house parents in Cait's dorm had a West Highland terrier who'd recently given birth to puppies.  Most had already been sold off, but one of them was still living in the dorm and had actually managed to win over my sister, the girl who had been scared to death of every dog she'd ever met.  My parents knew an opportunity when they saw one, and so Buster joined the Daley clan.  We all fell in love with him immediately.  He was small enough to be playful and fun, but large enough that you felt kind of silly trying to pick him up.  He'd sit on the couch with you and watch TV for hours and the only time he ever barked was when another dog would appear on the screen.  Eventually he even got to recognize the jingles for dog food commercials, so if one came on TV, Buster would come barreling in from the next room, trying to jump through the screen to play with the virtual puppies.  When my brother was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, Buster was always there for him through the toughest of times.

Yesterday afternoon my parents brought Buster to the vet's office and he lay on the examining table, wrapped up in his favorite blue blanket.  My folks sat next to him, stroking his hair as he gently drifted off to sleep for the last time.

When I got home from work, all I wanted to do was lie on the couch with Nemo curled up next to me.  I didn't quite know how to react.  The only pets I'd had as a child were goldfish and hamsters, the kind of pets that live in a box and didn't offer a lot of chance for real human interaction.  I had a frog in college named Theo, but I gave him to a friend when I moved to L.A. and by the time he died Theo had been someone else's pet longer than he'd been mine.  But this was different.  Buster was different.  I've never been one of those people who thinks of dogs or cats like people (in the sense that I never refer to Nemo as "my child") but Buster was inarguably a member of the family.  Even now, I can't quite believe that the next time I visit my parents, he won't be lying in his bed in the middle of the living room.

It felt appropriate to watch something canine-centric and Netflix was only too happy to oblige me in the form of Year Of The Dog, an indie comedy with a streak of serious darkness from writer/director Mike White.  Molly Shannon plays a shy woman whose dog suddenly dies and sends her over the edge while trying to fill the puppy-shaped hole in her life.  Shannon is excellent, although the story goes a little bit off the rails towards the end.  Still, it's a movie that is chock full of dogs, including a sweet little West Highland terrier named Snowball.  It was exactly the right fit for my mood, and I was happy to have Nemo sitting in my lap for most of the film.

As I said, I knew that Buster didn't much time left in the world and given how infrequently I make it down to my parents' house, I had a feeling that when I left there the day after Christmas it might be the last time I saw him.  As my in-laws gathered their bags and prepared to drive back up to East Boston, I sat down on the floor and Buster slowly wandered over to me.  I scratched his belly and the back of his neck, pushing my face into his soft white hair and breathing in the scent that was so familiar and yet so different from my own dog's.  I looked into his eyes, which had started to grow milky blue and glassy with age, and I said goodbye.  I hoped it wouldn't be for the last time, but deep down I think I knew.

I wish I had been wrong.

Title: Year Of The Dog
Director: Mike White
Starring: Molly Shannon, Peter Sarsgaard, John C. Reilly, Laura Dern, Tom McCarthy, Regina King, Josh Pais
Year Of Release: 2007
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant

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