Banjo and the gift of goodbye

We had a sad Father’s Day.

It started out fine: French toast and handmade cards and Noah giving Pat a “gee-tar” pick he found in the playroom “because Daddy likes gee-tars.” Pat took a nap and helped Noah build a parking garage out of diaper boxes.

Pat was in Rory’s room, getting him out of his crib, when the call came. I was swooping in to save Pat from having to change Rory’s diaper – it was Father’s Day, after all – when his phone rang.

There was a quick, quiet, exchange, and then Pat said, “I have to go to my mom’s. Banjo.”

banjolook

Banjo was our first dog. We got him over nine years ago at an adoption fair at Pet Smart. Both of us had grown up with cats. We knew very little about dogs, but we agreed that Banjo (who was called “Stranger” at the time; we spent an inordinate amount of time picking out a new name) seemed like a good one. He was a little shy, with sad brown eyes.

We brought him home. Our first baby. Just like with our first human baby, we had no idea what we were doing. He refused to eat, so we put cottage cheese on his food like the woman we adopted him from suggested. It worked. He howled the whole first night we left him downstairs, so we brought him into our room. We didn’t have a fenced-in yard, so we walked him several times a day, eventually investing in a “gentle leader” to prevent him from tearing our arms off lunging after a squirrel or another dog.

Banjo had his toddler moments, too. He had terrible separation anxiety, which he demonstrated by shredding rugs, pillows and magazines any time we left him home alone. We took him to obedience class, after which he promptly came home and pooped in the guest bedroom. Twice. We took him to the dog park and felt pangs of sadness when other dogs didn’t play with him.  We nervously dropped him off for boarding at Camp Bow Wow, sending a lovie that smelled like home to comfort him, and watched for a glimpse of him on the doggy cam. And I nearly cried when they said he was “no longer welcome” at Bow Wow because of an aggressive food-related incident with another dog.

We got another dog to be his companion, thinking he was lonely while we were at work all day. We may have misread him. While the shredding stopped, he was not thrilled about Nellie’s arrival. They tussled over frisbees and food. But while Banjo wasn’t outwardly affectionate to Nellie, her arrival did seem to relax him. At least a little.

banjonellie

In most ways, Banjo was a typical dog: he was obsessed with squirrels and terrified of thunder. He would do anything for a treat or a walk. He was almost frighteningly eager to greet other dogs when he was on-leash, but gentle when he finally got close enough to sniff them. He let Nellie, our second dog, “mother” him, though he made it clear he was the alpha male. He liked the simple pleasure of a sunny patch to stretch out in, a cool creek to splash in on a hot day.

But he was different, too. Cat-like. Part chow chow, he could be ornery, sullen, stubborn. He liked affection, but only on his terms. Even if he’d stretch out for a belly rub, he accepted it stoically. He wasn’t one to beg for love, unlike Nellie, who sat at our feet eagerly panting and pushing at our hands with her snout.

When I got pregnant, we wondered about the impact of a baby on Banjo. We needn’t have worried; when Noah was born, Banjo ignored him for the most part. As Noah got older, we carefully monitored their interactions, but Banjo was surprisingly amenable to having his ears tugged and eyes probed.

But there was one noticeable change in Banjo. In the months before Noah was born, Banjo moved from sleeping in our walk-in closet, his “cave,” to sleeping snuggled up against Pat’s side of our bed. Pat, kept awake by Banjo’s loud breathing and held hostage by the fear of stepping on him in the middle of the night, pleaded with Banjo to move to the foot of the bed, but it was no use. He wasn’t budging.

banjo

Pat and I laughed when we found this picture last night; it’s a relic of the days when we took time to teach Banjo ridiculous tricks like taking treats from Pat’s mouth.

Banjo may have been the alpha with Nellie, but he respected Pat as the leader of the pack. Pat knew how to deal with Banjo’s ornery side – how to get him off the couch or in the house – in ways that were lost on me. Pat was sweet with Banjo, too. I may have been the one who pushed for us to get a dog, but at the end of the day, Pat was the one who took care of him. He’d make a point to walk him even if he didn’t feel like it. He administered medication and cleaned up puke in the middle of the night. He calmed him during thunderstorms and cut tangles out of his fur.  It was my first glimpse of how Pat would be as a father.

It was Pat, not me, who first noticed the walnut-sized lump on Banjo’s throat.

Just before Noah’s second birthday, in December 2010, Banjo was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The vet recommended a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. They couldn’t guarantee success, but it could add several years to his life. Without it, she estimated he probably would die before the next Christmas.

I cried. Pat and I debated the pros and cons of treatment. In the end, we decided against it. It was expensive and it would be time-consuming. We both worked full-time and had a two-year-old to take care of. Moreover, we could put him through all of that treatment, only for it not to work. We decided to give him the best last year possible.

We walked him daily, something we had slacked on since moving into a house with a fenced-in yard. We played frisbee and gave him treats. We gave up on trying to keep him off the couch. He snatched a dead squirrel off the road during not one but two walks, the second time running next to me for almost two miles with it proudly clutched between his teeth before finally dropping it.

banjocouch

The year ended. Banjo was still with us. We had Rory, and another year went by.

“Wow, he’s a miracle dog,” the vets would say.

“Or he’s so stubborn he will never die,” I’d joke.

The tumor was growing, but for the most part, Banjo was his old self. Well, a slightly crankier version of his old self. On Rory’s first birthday, Banjo bit Noah. It was only a nip – Banjo was eating, and Noah reached in to move his food bowl – but it was upsetting for Noah and us both. Last October, we moved to a different house in our neighborhood. Pat’s parents moved down from Chicago to rent our house. We agreed that the dogs would stay at the old house with Pat’s parents for a while, to give us a chance to get settled.

Then, when we were visiting one morning last fall, Banjo bit Rory. It was a more aggressive bite, and more dangerous, too: on the face, just missing his eye. We decided that we couldn’t have Banjo at our house with the kids. Pat’s parents agreed to keep him.

banjorory

I can’t pretend I didn’t feel a guilty, even if it seemed like the best thing to do. We saw him regularly, and while he was happy to see us, I always wondered if he was thinking, “Where did you go?”

I’m glad that Pat was at home when his mom called yesterday to say that Banjo had fallen when he stood up to come inside for dinner. Pat got there just in time. When he arrived, Banjo was lying in the grass, breathing shallowly and trying to get up. He couldn’t, but when he saw Pat, he stretched out onto his side, feet and legs extended: his “get over here and pet me” pose.

Pat was there for Banjo’s last moments. Then he wrapped him in a blanket and drove him to the vet. He placed him on the gurney that rolled him into the vet’s office. He said his final goodbyes.

I’m struggling with the fact that I didn’t get to say mine. By the time Pat called me, Banjo had already died. Pat thought it would be best for me not to see him that way. And while I agreed at the time, still in shock from the news, lying in bed last night, playing the entire scenario through in my head, remembering everything about Banjo, I wondered if he was right or not.

I’m taking this harder than I thought I would; I have the swollen eyes this morning to prove it. I accepted that having kids had moved Banjo down the priority list; I incorrectly thought it had also toughened my heart to losing him. I thought that knowing this day was coming would make it easier.

noahbanjo

But it caught me off guard. It was not how we expected it to happen.

Over the last few months, Banjo’s the tumor grew to the size of a grapefruit. He was eating regularly, but his weight dropped. The last time I saw him, I sat in the backyard, stroking his nose and scratching behind his ears and trying to pet his bony body, all ribs and spine. We knew we’d have to put him down soon. It was just a question of when.

But we thought we still had time. He was still eating normally and going on daily walks, still barking at squirrels and lunging at other dogs he encountered along the way.

That said, I guess it couldn’t have happened in a better way. Banjo lived a good life until his last day, and then he died like he lived – on his terms. In the backyard where he chased squirrels and barked at birds. Where he wrestled Nellie for frisbees and leapt like a deer when we tossed treats off the porch in a game we played called “bones.”  Where he pranced gingerly after his first snowfall and lazed luxuriously on hot summer days.

And I have to believe that part of dying on his own terms meant waiting for Pat to get there. His pack leader. It certainly was not how Pat expected to spend Father’s Day, but in a way, it was Banjo’s gift to him. The gift of goodbye. Because while we had left him behind, we had never stopped loving him. And while we knew it was coming, we had never had a final goodbye. Maybe Banjo knew we still needed a chance to say it. And maybe he needed, in his own way, to say it, too.

banjo eyes

Rest in peace, buddy. We miss you.