A guest posting from Todd VanBeck – of our profession’s guru’s – a story well told
He weighed eight pounds. He had little ability to learn much. In fact he actually never learned how to play. He was with us a short time; just a year and a half, and on Thursday last he died.
His name was Baxter Van Beck, and he was a very small little tiny dog who changed our lives, all for the good. Playing was not on his radar screen, and probably with very good cause – the little dog had lived the first two years of his life locked away in a cage, and was thankfully rescued by some mighty kind people who discovered him lost and alone, abandoned in the backwoods of lower Alabama.
We saw Baxter on the internet, and when we were all introduced we brought Baxter home the same day. I thought I would try to teach him a few lessons. I tried to toss a ball in our yard with the high hopes of bonding with him, but he just sat and stared at me and did nothing. Actually he looked at me like I had lost my mind. Baxter never learned how to chase a ball, let alone bring it back.
Truth is, Baxter did not bond with me much. The little fellow however became enchanted and addicted to my wife Georgia. (I totally understood what Baxter felt like on that subject.) Baxter’s short life was one of eating, doing his business outside (which he was very good at) and following Georgia around constantly and begging food from me constantly. However, his crown achievement was getting to curl up on Georgia’s lap and take naps. He took hundreds of naps on Georgia’s lap in the time I personally knew him. He never took a nap in my lap.
I was so desperate and frustrated in my failure to bond with him or even to interest him in chasing anything, let alone a ball, that I even tried to get him interested in role models by showing him old Lassie TV reruns, or Rin Tin Tin TV reruns, or Roy Roger’s Bullet TV reruns, but alas, Baxter just stared at me like I had lost my mind and in moments Baxter once again sought out Georgia’s lap and took his 10,000th nap.
That was little Baxter’s contribution to the world, save for the fact that he endeared himself to most everybody that he was introduced to. It was very hard not to like Baxter even though he did almost nothing. But endearment is the word concerning Baxter. In his short little life I once again experienced the process of our abilities to profoundly attach ourselves to people, sight, sounds, experiences, and yes, even to little napping eight pound dogs that do not have a clue on how to chase a stupid little ball.
A great blessing for Baxter was that he was well tended to. He ate well, he got his baths, he got his walks, and we talked to him constantly. He liked to be talked to. He went on trips, and he even attended a graveside service in the mountains of Virginia. He behaved very well during this solemn ceremony; he did not bark once, but he did curl up on Georgia’s lap and, you guessed it, took a nap while the preacher was saving souls.
I thought Baxter would live another 10 – 15 years. We only had him a year and a half. Baxter’s downhill slide all started when two things happened almost simultaneously. We took him to the vet for his shots, and we got him trimmed all in the same week. Shortly afterwards he started shaking with tremors, then strange sores broke out in his ears, he started licking his paws and his energy level and usual spurts of excitement just seemed to vanish.
One trip after another after another was made to the vet. One test after another was made at and by the vet. Here and there a weak diagnosis was made, but all the while the veterinary profession scratched their heads and we waited for yes more test results Baxter, our little friend and buddy just slipped day by day, and there was nothing we could do – I once again felt the horrible feeling of hopelessness.
Hopelessness is something I have witnessed tens of thousands of times being a funeral director, and I have myself experienced it, but I feel a person can really do little to prepare for or anticipate what needs to be done to possibly lessen the pain of hopelessness ahead of time, no matter what the Dr. Phils of the world preach. It seems to me that hopelessness is a human experience that the Creator designed to be dealt with by just going through the valley, just going through the fire and feeling the depth of the painful emotions, and putting your head down and no matter what just marching forward. I have read nothing that possesses a magic quick fix formula for dealing with the desert isolating feeling of hopelessness, and hopelessness is what I felt when I left on Memorial Day for a business meeting at “The Farm,” the world famous Batesville Casket Company in Indiana.
During the drive up to Batesville, numerous phone calls were made concerning the most current updates about our little friend and good buddy Baxter Van Beck. None of the conversations we had possessed a tad of hope. Baxter was deteriorating further, and Thursday on my drive back to Memphis my wife (who is a RN) called and reported that Baxter could not walk anymore. My heart sank to the floor of the car. For the first time the phrase “we’d better put him down” entered into our conversation.
What a phrase, “put him down.” Who the hell dreamt that one up? Of course we all knew what that cold sterile phrase meant, regardless of who invented it. So while I was driving back, the final appointment to the vet was made for 5:00 p.m. Thursday, May 30, 2013. This day would be Baxter’s last day alive. Every mile I got closer to Memphis the more I wanted to turn around and go anywhere except where I knew I had to go. I guess that is what the grief brains call denial, escapism, fear, anxiety or just the good old-fashioned human emotion of grief, the emotion of loss.
At 1:00 p.m. I looked at my watch and thought, “Baxter has four more hours to live.” At 2:00 p.m. I thought, “Well, he has three more hours to live.” Then a sense of overwhelming sadness engulfed me, because I felt the haunting feeling that Baxter didn’t have a clue as to what was being planned for him and that in a terribly short time he would never hear, see, walk, or bark again. And there would be absolutely no chance that I could try one more time to get him to chase a ball. I was mighty sad. I arrived home at 3:30 p.m., and as I drove up in the driveway there Georgia sat in the shade and you guessed it, Baxter was taking a nap in her lap. She looked so sad.
During my time at Batesville over the last three days things had just gotten worse. Baxter had not eaten or drunk any water for three days. He now could not walk, nor could he open his mouth, and one of his eyes was clouding up with some unknown type of film. It was time. Enough was enough. I knew now that I could not be selfish, for on the drive home most of my anxieties and fears were centered on TVB’s issues, not around Baxter’s issues.
Georgia held him, she petted him, and she talked baby talk to him, which he utterly adored. We got back in the car and made the short trip to the vet.
Forty five minutes later, it was all over, and we were back home with Baxter. I got the shovel, and in 15 minutes the grave had been dug. Baxter was placed in the hole and the dirt was shoveled over his little box (we wrapped him in his favorite blanket) and in 10 minutes a small mound of dirt was present behind a garage on a small parcel of land in West Tennessee. That evening all Georgia and I did was talk about Baxter. We laughed and cried. We comforted ourselves, taking great solace in the reality that Baxter’s last year and a half was a good time for the little guy, and it was a good time for us also.
It has now been four days since we buried Baxter as I write these words. The would ofs, could ofs, and should ofs still pop up in our conversation. The house seems strangely quiet without him barking at sounds real and imaginary. Baxter had a habit of immediately assuming that any sound was obviously really bad men outside who wanted to break in our house to murder Georgia and me. Even when the door bell actually rang, Baxter always went running and barking insanely to the wrong door, to protect us. At dinner time I miss him looking at me with sincere eyes begging for one more, just one more morsel of food. We miss him and are grieving for him.
Since Baxter’s death I have been pondering what this all means, and have been exploring my own feelings about what has happened in our lives. Once again I have concluded that I have to link this experience up to the noble and grand purposes of our great profession – funeral service and cemetery service. For example I was digging Baxter’s grave I thought about the gravediggers across the world, including those who work for the same company I work for, who dig thousands of graves for mothers, fathers, children, friends, rich people, poor people, old people, young people. They dig thousands of graves and the feelings and sentiments I have been experiencing are truly a core ingredient in being attached and sensitive to the experience of grief and bereavement.
I also thought of the noble pioneering of the great individuals in the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance that is now connected with ICCFA, and was struck once again just how important their work is, and how thankful and appreciative we should be for the work they have already accomplished, which is impressive and credible.
I thought about how this experience of pain has once again reawakened in old grumpy TVB yet another deeper level of empathy as to just how people are really feeling when they walk in the door of the funeral home or cemetery office. In these wacky times, I personally believe these “wake-up” calls are something that ought to be paid attention to. There are lessons to be had, great wise lessons about life in the hopeless, the lost and the grieving experiences in life. As my old seminary professor used to say, “All true human wisdom and growth comes through the suffering experiences of life.” Don’t hear that kind of stuff much these days, do we?
Grief is grief and pain is pain, and in the end it makes no difference what has happened or to whom it has happened—the raw emotion is still the same. It can be the death of a president of the United States; it can be the death of a parent, a friend, a stranger; or it can be the death of a little tiny dog named Baxter. Most times when this happens, with great appropriateness the world, or at least a portion of the world, comes to a standstill. Most times what I am writing about is truly a “stand still, be still” experience. It seems this is a wise and insightful thing for human beings to embrace; the ability to stand still and be still. When I placed the last shovel of dirt over Baxter’s remains I stood still and was still. I felt and I learned.
On Sunday, I gave a three-hour seminar to the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association. I drove up to Nashville in the morning, and drove back last night. It was a long but a good day, as the Tennessee FDA group is indeed mighty fine people. Georgia was gone when I got home. I came in, took my suit coat off as usual and I sat down on the sofa to watch “60 Minutes.” As I sat on the sofa, I noticed a small yellow ball roll out from under the sofa. It was Baxter’s first and only toy, which utterly baffled him, a little toy ball that cost no more than 60 cents.
I sat on the sofa, lost all interest in “60 Minutes,” and just held the little 60-cent yellow ball. It is just a ball. I could feel myself start to well up, and in short order tears were flowing. I miss Baxter. He drove me nuts at times, but I miss him very much. He was a good little fellow, and was a devoted little friend, even though there were times he just didn’t know what to do or how to do it. But as I composed myself, I thought that even though Baxter was a dog, and I’m a human being, we were not that far apart in the end, for I have had times in my life that I just didn’t know what to do or how to do it either.
By the time Georgia returned, I had had my moment and was composed, but I am thinking long and hard that Baxter did teach me something about life, about respecting God’s great creation and the wise ability to be just who you are. There is one thing for certain about Baxter Van Beck: What you saw was what you got