He’d been spotted by students at Central Michigan University, where I taught freshman composition while studying for my second English degree. The university police caught up with the fully-grown, black lab-chow mix running around campus. They knew I took in strays, even seemed to have success finding their owners or new homes. So they called me.
I had a big back yard. Yes, I would take him. But this was temporary. I was going to find his owners.
When I picked him up, he bared his teeth at me and growled every time I looked him in the eye. Once inside my tiny duplex, he cornered my own dog, Onyx, a black lab-dachshund I’d had for five years. Despite my desire to find his home, I knew I couldn’t keep him in my own. He was hostile. He was menacing. And he scared me.
I took him to the local shelter, but overcrowding led to a quick verdict from an unimpassioned shelter employee: “If you leave him here, he’ll be dead tomorrow,” she said.
I sighed and turned toward the door, the big dog following closely behind me.
For days I juggled teaching and my own studies with finding the dog his owner, any owner. Twice, he attacked Onyx. Every day, he left a pile of awfulness on the carpet after spending hours in the backyard. I refused to name him – he wasn’t staying – and would refer to him as “buddy,” “pal” or “guy.” We forged an uneasy coexistence. I was determined to find a place for the dog and, more than anything, solace for Onyx and me.
One night, I reached my breaking point. I had just held the elderly dog of a friend who was in Alaska as the canine took his final breath. I came home to another pile of putrid awfulness on the living room carpet and the big, aggressive dog I did not want. I was going to have to take him to the shelter. I turned him out into the large backyard before I went to work cleaning yet another disgusting mess.
After scrubbing the carpet for what seemed like forever, I heard a cry outside unlike any sound I’d heard before. I ran into the backyard, blasting the screen door off one hinge, and saw the dog stuck by his neck in the crevice of the huge willow tree in the far corner, at least four feet off the ground. “Oh, God, Big Bud!” I yelled. “Hang on!”
Within seconds, I lifted him up and jerked him out of the tree. He fell into a heap on top of me and, for the first time, he stayed there. I held my breath as I realized how close his teeth were to my face. Then he licked my cheek – just once – with his thick, slobbery, half-purple tongue, and I did the only thing that felt right: I hugged him and stayed that way until his heart rate slowed to normal and I realized I was bleeding from jerking my hands against the bark of the willow tree.
Just before we got up, I realized I’d found Big Bud a name – and a home.
For the next few months, we both endured obedience classes at the country home of a woman who believed in teaching wayward dogs and their owners how to coexist with her pack of Pygmy goats. Bud and I got head butted too many times to count, thanks to his stubbornness and mine, but finally, I had an obedient dog who also trusted me to lead him. The night I found Bud asleep on the floor with Onyx snuggled on top of him, I knew we were going to be OK.
Over the years, Big Bud served as the fiery protector of me and Onyx. And eventually Herbie, a beagle mix. When Onyx died, Bud watched over Herbie and Jack, a Jack Russell-corgi. Three months after Jack passed, I adopted Yoda, a chihuahua-dachshund, who adored Big Bud and always seemed to be standing underneath him or lying on top of him.
My favorite moments were our three-dog hikes. “Who wants to go for a walk?” I’d say nearly every day. The girls, Herbie and Yoda, would bound toward the car. But Bud would do a little hop-jump, run a few steps, look back to me to make sure I was coming, too, and then wait for me to step in front of him so he could follow me into the garage.
The last hike Bud, Herbie, Yoda and I took together occurred two days before Christmas in the woods of Cherokee Park. Weeks before, Bud had begun experiencing several episodes of incontinence and unexpected falls that required my assistance to get him back on his feet. He was also unsteady on his feet more often than not. It was merely a case of old age, the veterinarian said. As long as he remained happy and wasn’t in pain, I would do whatever needed doing. Big Bud had always done that for me.
On Christmas Eve, Bud took a nasty fall. It took several minutes to get him upright and moving. I took him to the Shively Animal Clinic. When I pulled into the parking lot, my friends Larry and Robin Kihnley were waiting for me, much to my surprise. Together, we waited until it was Bud’s turn and then listened to the doctor explain his X-rays showed what appeared to be a strong but aging heart and set of lungs. Big Bud and I could go home. Several hours later, the doctor called with the blood test results: all of Bud’s major organs were failing. We were on borrowed time.
On Christmas morning, I fed the dogs and then put the girls in their kennels. “Who wants to go for a walk?” I asked. Big Bud jumped up, stumbled a bit and then lumbered out the door. We went for a walk around the man-made lake at Cherokee Park and ate Slim Jims in the car at the nearby gas station. I cranked the heat up and put the windows all the way down so he could rest his head on the ledge as we listened to music, driving through the nearly deserted streets. We stopped at a Chinese diner and I fed him sweet & sour chicken from the carton.
Back at home, Bud jumped into his chair and I settled on the couch with Herbie and Yoda. I fell asleep until I heard a sound I’d never heard before and saw Big Bud’s body arcing unnaturally. He’s dying. Right here. Right now. In his chair, I thought. Yoda ran to the door. I let her out. Herbie jumped off the couch to stare at Bud. I pet him and told him how much I loved him. His eyes rolled back into his head. I held my breath. And then he breathed again. So did I.
I put Herbie and Yoda back in their kennels and looked at Big Bud. “Who wants to go for a ride?” I asked. In moments, Bud was out of his chair and heading toward the garage. He stopped to make sure I was coming, too, and gave a low wag of his tail. On the way to the clinic, I picked up my friend, JD Dotson, who looked at me and then in the back seat to Bud, who lay stretched out. “Honey,” JD said, blinking back tears. I swallowed hard. “What music should we listen to? How was lunch?” I asked.
In the parking lot, Bud took the time to sniff everything he could and leave his mark. I laughed and pet his head as he followed me through the entrance. As we stood at the counter, Bud suddenly turned away from me, walked back toward the glass door and stopped, standing motionless.
I slipped around him and knelt down. “It’s time to go, Big Bud,” I said. He looked at me for a long moment. Then, he turned and followed me for the last time.
Contact Angie Fenton at 502.551.2698, email@example.com or @angiefenton on Twitter.