Indulge me for a moment as I ramble on for a while about neither bikes nor bike racing. Our dog, Basil, passed away yesterday. He was 13 or maybe 14 years old. And was with us since he was about two, about the same time I started racing cyclocross, to give this the most tenuous of connections to In The Crosshairs. This is Basil’s story.
My wife, Heather, is a veterinarian and at the time we came to have Basil in our life she was working as an emergency vet at a clinic in Annapolis, Maryland. This was 2003.
One day at work, Heather is presented with a dog at the emergency clinic whose owner is convinced has cancer. “He’s scrawny, losing his fur, won’t eat, and is sickly. Dog has cancer,” the owner told Heather.
“Well, let’s examine him and run some test and see if we can come up with a course of care,” Heather responded.
“The kids have already said their goodbyes,” The man told her.
“I don’t understand. You’re dog may be sick, but he’s not dying.”
“The dog has cancer. We’ve said our goodbyes.”
“Sir, your dog doesn’t seem to be suffering and I’m not sure he’s that sick, if sick at all … I’m not going to euthanize him for you.”
“Dog has cancer, doc.”
This goes on for awhile, some initial test are run, and the dog—named Bear—is a bit dehydrated and does have some sort of skin infection. Heather suggests starting the dog on fluids and taking some blood tests.
“We don’t have any money. Our family has already said its goodbyes. Look how scrawny he is.” Refusing to kill this cute yet skinny black lab looking dog, Heather did something she has only been compelled to do one other time.
For most of us at work, there is only so much we can come home with from the office: A couple pens, box of paperclips, on occasion a ream of paper. When you are married to a veterinarian, however, there is always the risk that what comes home from the office is alive and will require feeding and walks. This happened to us once before when living in Rochester, New York. One day, we were the new owners of two ferrets: Teemu and Persephone.
It almost happened again when we were a whisker away from adopting a pit bull who had been shot in the head by a burglar. The dog’s name was Andre Lopez, which was reason enough for me to take on that guy. But he was adopted by some other person in the clinic who got there first.
On this occasion, Heather told the man who was disappointed that his black lab was too scrawny and would never make a proper hunting dog, that she would take “Bear” off his hands. The man agreed to give Heather the dog and he left this animal who wouldn’t hunt sitting on the examining table of the emergency vet office.
Knowing the dog didn’t have cancer and unwilling to put down a healthy dog, Heather looked at “Bear” and was happy with her decision. “Bear” looked back seemingly appreciative, and as he did so, a stream of diarrhea started to trickle across the examining table and onto the floor. “Hi, I’m yours now.”
Heather’s plan was to foster “Bear” until we could find an appropriate home. We already had two older dogs who had been forced to live with each other later in life and weren’t too keen on each other. Bringing a third dog into that mix was a risk.
I got the call late that night—Heather worked a lot of overnights while I played a lot of late night hockey and drank beer in parking lots in the wee hours of the morning before going to work hours later—that we may be taking care of another dog for a while. I asked what kind and was told he was a black lab type dog named “Bear.” I told her my only concern was that he needed a new name.
Fostering Basil wasn’t a real option and we both knew it. Fostering a black dog meant two things: (1) Either you straight out adopted him, or (2) he went to the humane society and was never adopted. Black dogs don’t get adopted. They are a dime per six-dozen at every pound across the country. If you are a furry little white dog, you’ll have a family in no time. But there’s no love for the black dog in America.
So “Bear” became a part of our family. A course of antibiotics cleared up his skin issues and diarrhea, and all of the blood tests came back negative for cancer. Although, after taking x-rays, we did learn he had the world’s worst case of hip dysplasia. He literally had no hip sockets, just a lot of space where the sockets were supposed to be. It was the most severe case Heather had ever seen. And it was something that never really slowed Basil down. He didn’t know, so it didn’t affect him. That’s basically how Basil operated.
The next step was a name. “Bear” was a goof ball. Super athletic, and fast. But he was not a tough guy by any stretch. Tall, lanky and silly, he became Basil, pronounced, Bazzle. If you’ve ever watched John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, you get it.
Arlo and Cassady were the two dogs who Basil would soon live with. Arlo, in his final year, was a long, large, beautiful German Shepherd dog who was 90 pounds of muscle. Arlo was a boss and he knew it. If you took him to a dog park he’d take his ball, run over to another dog, drop the ball at the other dog’s paws and look him in the eyes, “whatcha gonna do, buddy?” Ten times out of ten, the other dog would look at the ball, look at Arlo, and run in the other direction. When you walked Arlo, people crossed the street. He wasn’t barking or even looking vicious, he was just a guy people were not comfortable taking chances around. Boss.
He was also a loving, loyal dog who I am comfortable saying is Heather’s first and greatest love.
Cassady was a seemingly innocent cute 60-pound golden retriever fluff ball. A fluff ball with serious anger management issues. As much as Cassady loved people, she hated animals.
When dog’s fight—dogs who are not trained to kill—they normally fight until one dog submits and then it’s over. Cassady was a fighter and she didn’t play by these rules. She was out for the kill. When I moved from Richmond, Virginia, to the Twin Cities in the late nineties my initial plan was to move to Minnesota and live with friends for a month while I found a place to live. Cassady was going to stay with my parents in Richmond during that time. Right before I was to leave, Cassady tried to kill my parents’ dog. She was evicted from the house and my moving plans became chaotic.
Needless to say, Arlo and Cassady did not get along. As soon as Heather and I moved in together the trouble began. Cassady would attack Arlo, Arlo would beat her down, usually by first biting her paws and then her ear. Once he had the best of her, Arlo would assume the fight, won fair and square, was over and let her up. Bloodied and limping, Cassady would then try to attack him again.
After a couple episodes like this, and having to put too many sutures into our own dogs, we had to cordon off our house, with one dog upstairs and the other downstairs. When they were together, Cassady was muzzled.
After moving to Rochester, New York, we thought they could once again live together. We were wrong and I ended up in the hospital needing minor hand surgery after getting bitten by Cassady trying to break up a fight. The wound was a bit infected and I actually ended up passing out the next morning (before realizing a hospital trip was the smart thing to do) trying to tie my shoes.
By the time we arrived in DC, the dogs were both over ten years old and the fighting had stopped, but they still did not get along. Basil didn’t seem to mind. He was more than happy to be the submissive little brother and seemed to strive in that role. He was playful and fearless. Would run around the yard hopping over the dogs, barking at them and just being the life of the party. But we put the muzzle on Cassady just to be on the safe side.
Once Arlo died, it was only Cassady and she pretended Basil didn’t exist. He would be in the yard, three inches from her ear just barking at her. This high-pitched yelp. Over and over and over again. Yarp! Yarp! Yarp! … Yarp! Cassady never acknowledged that Basil even existed. She never turned her head towards him or walked away. Just stared in the other direction as if saying, “I can’t hear you …”
When Cassady passed, Basil became lost in the wilderness. He was scared to go in the backyard, terrified of any loud noises and would hide in the basement closet at the hint of thunder. This thankfully changed when we adopted a super-smart, intense, driven, German Shepherd Dog named Apache. We changed her name to Patchee and she brought Basil out of his shell. He was happy to go in the backyard again, and started his high-pitch barking in Patchee’s ear. Yarp! Yarp! Yarp! … Yarp! Patchee ignored him too. But Basil didn’t care. He became more confident and returned to his goofy happy-go-lucky self.
Throughout it all, Basil’s greatest talent was the ability to know exactly where you didn’t want him. Lying in the middle of our small kitchen first thing in the morning. Lying in the bathroom when you wanted to shower, taking up 3/4 of the bed when you wanted to sleep. Always in the path you took through the living room with the lights out in the middle of the night. This knack to always be where you didn’t want him to be, earned him the nickname “Basil-In-The-Way.”
Although Basil also had the nickname Bad Basil, this one was in jest. While Patchee would get into mischief out of sheer boredom (and we’re convinced from the cat whispering dares into her ear), Basil stayed out of it. The good dog. The time I came home to find Patchee and the cat standing on the dining room table devouring the gingerbread house, Basil was in the other room, innocent but still sure he had done something wrong. Like he should’ve texted to let me know what was going on.
Despite returning to his old self, many of Basil’s phobias remained for years. However, getting old had one side effect that made his quality of life much better this past year or so: he started to go deaf. As soon as he lost his hearing, Basil was fearless. Thunderstorm? No problem. You’re frying eggs!?!?! Oh, that’s no longer scary. Basil went from a scared dog who hid in our bedroom many hours a day to one who was always hanging out. It’s like somebody had given him a sweet pair of noise canceling ear buds. The world became a much easier, less scary place to be.
Near deaf Basil was cruising along without a worry in the world when last fall Heather was concerned about his skin. He was starting to form lesions and his hair was falling out. This quickly progressed but Basil hung in there. He was still perky, goofy, and in-the-way. For a seemingly wimpy, willingly submissive dog, Basil wasn’t going down without a fight. After more tests, the diagnosis confirmed, nearly a decade later, that the dumbass who gave up this amazing dog because he was too scrawny was right: Basil had cancer.
But Basil was undeterred. Maybe because of the deafness he didn’t hear his days were numbered. Much like he never knew he wasn’t supposed to be so athletic without any hip sockets. Basil beat the odds. He was a survivor. He hung around and had a great time despite his body falling apart. He did this until in the past week he could no longer walk, the cancer progressed and his organs became enlarged.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when it’s time. With Basil, it wasn’t hard. He had a bowl of popcorn, yesterday afternoon, a couple muffins after that, and then he went to sleep. Dreaming of barking in Cassady’s ear for eternity. Yarp! Yarp! Yarp … Yarp!