Butch spent his first nine years of life in the lap of a spinster. When her infirmity deepened, she left Butch the Boston terrier with my father, the veterinarian. Dad brought the dog home to his three young kids.
Butch’s life changed. No more sedate walks and long afternoons gazing out a quiet window. Butch engaged, fetching homered baseballs and shredding sweaty socks in pull contests. Butch chased deer and stole cat food. He snorted his congenitally smashed nose. We kids squealed in mirth. Butch scented our world with digestive aromas for which Boston bulls are infamous. We giggled and pinched our noses. Butch bathed us at every opportunity with a long, slathered tongue, and ran with us until he dropped—quite literally keeled over. So young, I never pondered Butch’s repeated swoons, his frequent faints. In retrospect, Butch was happy, but getting old.
Drifting sub-zero snows drove us kids underground. We transformed the unfinished basement into our playground, skate park, trouble zone. Butch careened, typically. A brainstorm: I suspended Butch’s favorite pull sock with the big knot in its end, on an elastic rope from a basement rafter. Butch seized his prize, swung up in the air, a bulldog pendulum on a muscular neck and vice-like jaws. He loved the game. Our excitement and laughter spurred him. Butch fainted, then rose to attack his sock afresh. Then collapsed.
When Butch stood again, tongue lolling, he wanted out. Fatefully, I opened the back door for him. Butch dove into drifts and rooted in the arctic snowscape. Father hollered, “Don’t let Butch out. He’s overheated.” Too late.
The end came slowly. Butch lost interest in food, began vomiting. Dad took Butch to his veterinary clinic and nursed him with intravenous ministrations. Still, our friend weakened. Some days later, Father shook his head. We shuffled to Butch’s cubicle. Butch lay glazed. Dad said, “It’s time.” We kids consented silently. A fatal injection; Butch breathed his last. We rode silently home in our green Oldsmobile. Mom turned to her brood in the back seat. “It’s okay to cry.” We erupted. Butch was gone.
I cry now, as I write, these decades later. "I killed Butch" imprinted on my juvenile soul. The adult in me knows better—declining immune system, opportunistic infection, congenital cardiac insufficiency, nine years in a lap, love of life to excess. These killed Butch. But the adult yields. A tar of regret has congealed. What if I . . . is forever glued to my memory of Butch. T.S. Eliot (American, 20th century A.D.) wrote: “Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden” (Burnt Norton).
Butch bequeathed me joy, and the wisdom that a thoughtlessly flung door may open to unanticipated loss. Dog mentors boy.