Newfoundlands aren’t bred for Texas but they are Texas-sized and Buddy was not only big, he was gentle, too. He was born a rescue dog who ended up in a rescue shelter, destined, it seemed, for a life both troubled and blessed.
When Erin brought Buddy to the farm he was thin and mangy but we accepted him just the same – his pound-given name, as well as his breed’s reputation for saving fisherman fallen overboard in icy waters. We had recently bought river-front property and Erin was comforted by the idea that Bud could ferry our floundering children from the warm yet swift currents of the Colorado.
Bud never was very good at navigating the river but he excelled in his other traits. He was so gentle that kids could crawl over him like pups and he would lie there, still as a rug, yawning with delight. And he was so big that just the sight of him stepping out of the farmhouse would send strangers back inside their cars.
Yes, Bud was our Clifford, 150 pounds of love — clumsy, overheated, unconditional love.
Which is why it was so hard to bury him this morning.
There we were, the four us down by the river, standing over his grave instead of heading into school, traffic, and record-breaking heat. Buddy would have hated today as he did most days in Texas. Yet he never complained. He would find the coolest spot on the farm, always in our path, of course, and wait it out. Emerging in the coolness of night, he loved to chase skunks – spray and all – or dig up pig parts and bring them tail-wagging proud into the kitchen.
Whether Buddy stumbled into a water mocassin or mistook a rattler for a skunk, we’ll never know. He returned around 9, the black shagging mass of him lumbering from the pitch dark river bottom with what appeared to be a cut above his eye. We wiped the blood off and gave him water and left it at that.
An hour later I returned to the kitchen, to the sound of heavy panting. I tried to wipe his eye but it was swallowed up, along with the rest of his face, by a monstrous swelling that could mean only one thing.
I called Erin, who was still at the city farm. Go get Benadryl, she said. I drove into Bastrop and returned with a bottle and syringe. Getting it in Buddy’s mouth was nightmarish. His head was so heavy by now, his mouth so thick and salivating, he nearly choked whenever we lifted it up. We got a few doses in before he started biting us.
Erin, meanwhile, had called the only emergency vet open on a Sunday night. Yes, they could give him anti-venom – if we knew what kind of snake it was. That uncertainly, plus getting him in the van, driving 45 minutes to Austin and paying a thousand dollars for an uncertain outcome was staking up against Buddy’s favor.
Fighting back guilt and resignation, I checked on Buddy throughout the night. I dreaded going downstairs. The sound of his fierce watery breathing was almost unbearable, as if he had sunken to the bottom of that cold dark ocean of his genes, beyond reach yet right beside me.
It was dawn when I woke the kids up. Buddy lay sprawled on the kitchen floor. His breathing had slowed. He whimpered softly when the spasms came. He had hung on through the night, as if waiting until we could call his name, rub his head, kneel at his side in the morning light until the last breath.
Buddy had survived two car accidents, chronic skin and ear infections, being stepped on and cursed at and made fun of. He bore it all without complaint, gentle to the end.
Erin drove up a few minutes later. Tears all the way around. Then shifting to the task at hand. Digging a hole big enough for our clumsy Clifford, in soil that had not seen rain since spring.
We chose a site close to the river he loved so much. It was the river that had brought him into our lives. And it was the river that had taken him out of it.
If needed, God forbid, Buddy could never have rescued us. And today we were unable to rescue him. We did it once, that first time we laid eyes on him. And again years later when he lay crumpled and broken by the roadside. But not today.
What Bud did do — and do so well — was give us his love. Big, overheated, unconditional love.
We did our best to do the same.