I knew the minute he left. My eyes popped open at 5:45 the morning of January 17, 2015. Little Sunshine had her front paws wrapped around my neck, and the others were awake and looking around . . . not the typical morning behavior especially so early. The mourning doves outside were cooing very close to the house. But mostly, it was reverently quiet in the house. No one seemed to want to disturb the unsettling tranquility . . . it was almost like a prayer. . . and Banjo wasn’t calling me like he did every morning.
No matter how prepared you think you are, and you see the inevitable around the corner, the loss of a loved one, human or not, simply brings you to your knees.
I “rescued” Banjo from people who were not “dog people,” and who were honest enough to admit it. What a bundle of fluff and energy he was, not just the day I brought him home as a two month old puppy 17 years ago, but all his life.
For many years it was just Nicky and Banjo, and me. They went everywhere with me As a principal, I would take them both to the office many times because I kept such long hours. I couldn’t stand being away from them for a long time.
When we would go visit my mom in Roswell, her pack and my two became a single happy pack, and during the last years of my mom’s life when she lived with me, we were all together . . . the five dogs and we, two humans, who were “owned” by this group of furry five. . . Nicky, Banjo, Maxi, Snowflake and Jojo.
It was always important to me that the dogs knew each other by name, so I would always teach them “Where’s Nicky?” or “Where’s Banjo?” . . . and one would find the other. Nicky was obsessed with tennis balls, and Banjo learned to chase and bring them back, too. Of course, he could not keep up with Nicky’s speed, so I would throw one for Nicky first, and as he was absorbed in his own pursuit, I would quickly throw one for Banjo, far enough but close enough so he could get it before Nicky. That was our daily routine.
Banjo hated to be groomed, and whenever I would brush his coat, Nicky would quietly try to intervene by placing himself between me and Banjo as if to say, “I think you should leave him alone. . . . PLEASE, mom?” So I kept his coat short.
When Nicky died in 2009, the year after my mom, it devastated me. The only thing that seemed to keep me getting up every morning were the little ones who were still with me. For a long time when I would feed the dogs, I would still put Nicky’s dish out with food . . . Maxi always enjoyed finishing it. I would also call Nicky by name, and all of them would look around, especially when I asked, “Where’s Nicky?”
One by one, the little ones left. Snowflake, the most fragile, Maxi, and then Jojo. But Banjo was determined to stay . . . the last of the pack of five that shared both me and my mom.
As Banjo got older, his vision got worse and I would have to help him find the ball. During our walks I had to keep him on a long leash so that he wouldn’t accidentally run into the horse pen. In the last six months, he had become incontinent, so it was hard to keep him sleeping with us, because he couldn’t find his way off the bed. So I moved him to the sunroom with the kitties, Peaches and Danny.
Banjo was always very vocal and when he needed something or ended up in the cat tunnel and couldn’t find his way out, he would bark to me for help. In the last week, he needed help finding his food and his balance was not good, so I couldn’t leave the water dish out because he would fall into it . . . my worst fear that he could drown. So he would simply “call me” when he wanted to drink something.
He was always the first I’d tend to every morning. Despite his age and eyesight loss, he could hear me well. Often when I’d get to the sunroom, the cats were asleep on either side of him in his bed. All the dogs loved Banjo. He would get smothered with doggie kisses as all the pups were on their way out.
His appetite was always good, so when he didn’t want to eat on Wednesday night, I was concerned, and gave him some acidophilus/yoghurt, in case his gut was a little upset. Usually that cleared up anything and he was back on his food the next day. But he still didn’t want to eat on Thursday. I still felt encouraged because he was drinking water, so I spoon fed him baby food mixed with yoghurt, which he threw up that evening.
On Friday morning, I heard him calling me, so I quickly got up and got him to the water dish. He drank a little, but was clearly weaker . I kept monitoring him for signs of pain . . . every pet owner wrestles with the decision of euthanasia. But he seemed to be calm and comfortable . . . so I spent the day carrying him around, talking to him, and remembering.
As I held him close to my heart, I could feel him sigh, nice deep breaths that showed he was relaxed. He seemed to sleep, but when I spoke, his eyes quickly opened, especially when I asked, “Where’s Nicky?” . . . something I had stopped doing for the past three years. Those little eyes would widen and his pupils would dart around. He remembered and was looking for Nicky. The longer and the closer I held him, the more I could feel his determination to defy death. He almost had me convinced that he could be cured and for a minute I thought of rushing him to the vet.
I had spent years trying to cure my mom of “old age,” trying to fight death off for her, and then for every one of my beloved animals . . . a list that seems endless today. As I held him, I realized that this was a choice he did not want to make. Like my mother, when the “house around you” collapses, you simply have to “move.”
That evening, I placed Banjo on my chair while I let the “bedroom crew” into the house. Every one of the dogs went over to him and gave him the usual kisses. But it was Gemma who amazed me. She not only covered him with kisses but sat in the chair with him and politely kept the other dogs away.
After I put my little gang to bed, I sat with Banjo long into the night. Each time I clutched him and talked to him, he would sigh. I knew as long as I held him, he would not leave, and I did not want him to get to a stage where he would feel pain. I told him that I would always love and adore him, and to go find Nicky. As I kissed him goodnight, I covered him with a warm blanket and turned the chair so that the morning sun would reach him.
The next morning, as I let the dogs out through the living room, they all glanced at Banjo, some went over to check on him and seemed to accept that he was gone. Gemma jumped in the chair and kissed him, tail wagging a mile a minute, and then went on outside.
Amid my tears, I wrapped Banjo up in a pretty blanket and knew I had to get the grave dug before dark, and certainly before the predicted snow storm arrived. Pippa was quietly watching me, and the two kitties were sitting at my feet, watching what I was doing to Banjo, their charge for the last few months. They knew and were also mourning, and I realized that I needed to let them have their chance to say good bye.
He died between two winter storms, during a warm spell while the ground was still soft enough to dig. I buried him next to Nicky, with angel statues to watch over him.
If Banjo could put his feelings into words, I know it would be, “I’ll never leave you . . . I’ll stay with you forever.” . . . and he would have.
Every now and then, I get a glimpse of him hopping around and running after the tennis ball, and in those moments I talk out loud to him, because I know he’s here. My precious boy is forever with me, at my side and in my heart.