Basil died on Thanksgiving Day.
When we found him, I knew he was dead before I even reached his body. Son of a rancher. I’ve seen lots of death. His velvet puddle of a face lay cold and still in my hands. All I could hear is Hannah wailing in sorrow, occasionally managing to push out his name between the heaves, “Basssssill.” Despite whatever I thought I might think or feel when then day came, I thought and felt nothing at first, nothing but tearing inside myself. No thoughts would come to me. It was as if I didn’t move, didn’t accept the moment it wouldn’t be real. After a couple minutes my mind lurched forward through the haze, and my first realization was that it was Thanksgiving Day. My boy died on Thanksgiving Day. That’s when the memory hit me…
You see, it’s not the first time Basil has brushed up against death. His stomach flipped years ago and was saved because I knew what to look for and we got him to the vet with but a couple minutes to spare. So fast did it all happen that I helped put him up onto the operating table and stayed in there throughout the entire surgery as they released the trapped pressure then sewed his stomach to the abdomen wall so to prevent it from ever happening again. Last year he came within an inch of death, again. A virus ravaged his body, and for days he shook with fever and pain as the vets gave him IVs and meds to give him a chance at fighting it off. At one point, in between trips to the vet, I just lied down next to him as he shook and trembled. One of the greatest joys in my life over the last decade has been to come spoon my big mammoth son of a dog. Every time I would do so I could feel endorphins and joy and happiness coursing through me. Not this time. He was my boy, and it ripped my guts out as my fingers tips fell in the ever deepening valleys between his ribs as his body wasted away. The longer I lied there with him the more the darkness grew around me. I was spiraling under a wave a horror, rage, and disgust at the thought of losing him. Hannah, watching me with concern from our bed, with her tender voice asked me what was going on. She could see the change it my countenance. I told her about the darkness, the rage, the horror I felt. For several minutes she was quiet, but then she said this…
“Nicholas, Basil might die. You can either choose to let the darkness wash over you, be upset that he might soon be gone; or, you can choose instead to be thankful. You can be thankful for nine years with him, nine years of joy and wonder with Basil.”
I chose thankfulness, because she was right. Basil was nine and a half and that’s over the average life expectancy for bloodhounds. I let go of the entitlement that was tempting me to be unhappy that I might soon not have him, and gave way to thankfulness, knowing that I didn’t deserve such a wonder as Basil in the first place, and yet he had been my boy and I his father. When I thought of it that way the darkness was blasted away by light, and I felt joy and delight instead of rage and horror. I continued to beg God to spare Basil, and He did! That spirit of thankfulness has been a marker of this last year. Every time we walked in the door into our apartment from being out and called out his name and heard that loving thwap thwap thwap of his mighty tail against the leather of our sofa, aka, his bed, my heart warmed with joy and gratitude, for I knew that the day would come when it would no longer do so.
That memory is what came to my mind as I thought about Basil dying on Thanksgiving Day and I knew it was no accident. It was a gift, just like Basil was, and I couldn’t help but not only not feel entitled to more, but be humbled and grateful for the obvious gift that was the last year of our lives after he had come so close to death before. My mind flooded with memories as tears and snot poured down from my face. An hour later, after Hannah’s family had sweetly packed our things up so we could drive Basil’s body from New Braunfels to the ranch to be buried, Hannah and I stared bleary eyed at the road ahead surrounded by the darkness of the night, and she told me something that blew me away.
She told me that her first thought after realizing that Basil was dead was to remember a year earlier when he almost died, what she’d told me about being thankful, and that Basil dying on Thanksgiving was a gift from God to sweetly remind us the gift that Basil has been. When I told her my story we both returned to bawling tears of joy and sorrow.
This last week has been brutal and sweet. I know how Americans work, and how they fear death and sorrow so deeply that few deal with either well, usually embracing any method to JUST MOVE FORWARD, to rationalize away “HE’S JUST A DOG,” whatever it takes to not feel the hurt, for hurt is the enemy. I just disagree. Hurt isn’t the enemy, Apathy is the enemy. Hurt is the countermeasure to joy and delight and you can’t have love without hurt, and I want love with all my heart. So, I feared what people would say, but the truth is no one has said anything of the sort. In fact, time and time again, the sweet words of friends has brought Hannah and I to wonderful tears. I wake up every morning wishing so hard for Basil’s death to not be true that my teeth begin to hurt from grinding them together, the muscles in my face start to cramp from squeezing my eyes shut. My tear ducts ache from overuse, and my heart physically hurts.
He was my buddy. If there were a pie chart showing who I’ve spent my time with since his birth, there would be tons of layer thin slices where most people fit in, some thicker ones for family and friends, thicker ones for some women who once wanted to be in my life but no longer are, a thick one for Hannah, then seventy five percent of the rest of that chart would be Basil. Basil endured depression, death, divorce, remarriage, moving from New Braunfels to Dallas to Brownwood to New Braunfels to Dallas again. Truth be told, much of the last ten years has been more painful than I can express. So much so, that I rarely choose to remember any of it. I enjoy my memories from before my depression and after, but that leaves fifteen years of horror and darkness and betrayal I am content to have learned from, adapted, and moved on. Save for Basil.
Basil has been the one constant source of love, joy, and devotion present in my life during it’s darkest times. He has been my only constant present family throughout that time, and now he is gone. His body is buried in a gorgeous spot, a hilltop at the ranch, next to the grave of my parent’s dog and his buddy, GW. I planted a magnolia over him because he was from the south, Alabama, and Magnolia leaves are shaped almost exactly like his ears. As my Italian sister, Giulia said, “I look forward to one day sitting beneath a big beautiful tree of his ears.” It sounds way more poetic when an Italian says it.
Most dogs are good dogs. Dogs are just great. Basil was special, different. So sweet and magnetic was his personality, so regal and beautiful was his stature that whether we were at dog parks, hotel lobbies, wherever, people walked past other dogs to come up and marvel aloud to me how amazing Basil was as they asked if it was okay to pet him, which I always told them, “Please do, you’ll make his day. He loves everyone.” I’ve had hundreds, yes, literally hundreds of conversations with strangers about my boy, Basil, because he was a one in a million dog, and we were a one in a million duo.
What gift to have been his. I can still remember the day I picked him up. He was bought from a breeder in Alabama and they flew him to San Antonio. I went to the freight area of the air port where I had never before been. It was a warehouse. I gave the man at the check-in counter my info and the papers needed. He yelled out into the warehouse to a guy in a forklift who then drove over and retrieved a crate FROM A SHELF FORTY FEET IN THE AIR. Idiots. They slid the massive crate onto the desk with the door away from me. I occasionally heard some whimpering as I signed all the papers, but I couldn’t see him. The crate barely fits into my car. I was tempted to just shut the door and wait to get home to open the crate and see him, but I couldn’t. I opened the car door, then the metal door of the crate, and looked inside. Way in the back of the crate was this tender ball of wrinkly, red fur with ears so outsized they almost touched the ground when he stood. And that was it. That was the moment we met, when our worlds collided, and we would never be the same. Nick and Basil. My heart is full of thankfulness to God for every blessed second. I am even grateful for this immense pain I feel as I write these words and the tears upon my keyboard, for love is worth it, love is worth the hurt, and love and gratefulness are acts of war against the hardness and harshness of life. They are beacons that dispel the notion of the void, that lay waste to such madness. The code is in our hearts, and Basil has kept mine soft and full of love no matter how dark the darkness.
Thank you, God, for my sweet boy. Thank you for letting him be mine and letting me be his. Thank you for bringing Hannah to restore a broken family and give Basil a mom.
Thank you, Basil, for being my boy.