Friday, January 23, 2015

A TRIBUTE TO BASIL, THE GREATEST OF DACHSHUNDS

The unconditional devotion that characterized Basil
On Sunday, we picked up a foster greyhound who we bought as a companion for our dogs Adam and Basil.  A week later,  I find myself writing about the death of Basil - our thirteen year old dachshund who passed away on Wednesday.  What extraordinary timing.  Basil, Adam and Izzy were all getting along so splendidly.  But Basil was ill and elderly and maybe he realized that we'd be fine. In any case his death came as a sudden shock.

He had an enlarged heart and we'd recently been told by the vet that he might pop off at any minute.  We didn't know the end would come that soon.  But there was nothing they could do to correct the damage.  They could only recommend a doggy cardiologist and an MRI.  He was already on the "Silver Whiskers" insurance plan at our vet's, for which we paid a handsome price. We thought that for a thirteen year old dachshund who doesn't understand that he is mortal, it would be more cruel than kind to put him through exhaustive treatments and yet more vet visits.

We opted instead to keep him comfortable - with several prescriptions and periodic blood tests.  He continued to go on two walks every day, and to eat his two meals a day, mostly without loss of appetite.  He barked at the neighbors and at other dogs, driving them all a bit nuts.  He barked at the cable guy.  He waited for me when I came back from teaching or back from my yoga practice, sometimes lying in the closet so as to be close to the door. He always greeted me effusively.

In his final months, he had us carry him up the stairs. But he continued to go in and out of the garden and let us know, by barking and whining that he knew when it was time for a walk or time for him to have his pills.  That is, Basil was himself until the end.
Basil barking, with his friend Adam

Then on Tuesday night, after his walk and his dinner, he began to show signs of distress. It was terrible to watch him trying to breathe.  But he settled down, and although we had him on the bed, he jumped onto the floor. Then we all fell asleep,  in the same room. I woke up at around 1:00 to find he had passed away.

Our house is not the same.  For one thing, it's a lot quieter.  Ben said he hadn't realized that one of us in the house was making 95% of the noise. He was the little engine that drove our walks.  He'd always be out ahead of us, pulling on the lead. And we would obediently trot on behind.
with Alex and Elliot (and Adam) at Great Falls

It was Basil pulling the lead, that caused my frozen shoulder. Getting frozen shoulder led me to practice Bikram yoga.  So I guess that's a backhanded way of thanking Basil for the enormous improvement to my life that has come from practicing Bikram.

But let's go back to the early days of Basil - to 2002, when everything was going wrong with our lives. One of the kids noticed an ad in the Washington Post for wire-haired dachshund puppies. So we drove out to Culpeper to look at the litter.

We were only going to 'look', mind you.  Obviously we bought one.  I remember wondering, as we drove back home, and Basil threw up in the back seat, whether I had made the right decision.  But it was after 9/11. We had just moved back to the States from Belgium and my father had recently died.  Ben had cancer and there was a sniper on the loose in our county.  We needed something to perk us up.  And boy, did Basil do that.
sweet puppy Basil

Never was there a more charming puppy.  Our Labrador, Hannah also found a new lease on life.  She taught him how to play with sticks in the back garden, and when she got tired of him, she ran up the stairs so that he would follow - and then ran down again, leaving him stranded on the landing.  He was too small to run back down.

Basil with his friend Hannah


Two years later, we moved to Italy. Basil of course came along.  In Rome he was an apartment dog, with more or less mixed results.  He tried his best to protect our territory - barking at the vicious Jack Russell who lived across the hall from us, and who once tore my jeans, trying to bite me.  Basil also barked at the dog who lived in the apartment directly underneath us. He'd position himself on the balcony, staring down between the floor and the guard rail, waiting for movement below. This earned him the reputation of a nasty little dog.  Our friends Ian and Francesca visited. They had coincidentally had the same apartment before we moved in and the portiere told them,  "Quello piccolo e un diavolo!" 

But we knew better. We knew he was only, misguidedly trying to protect the family.

In those days, his greatest joy was to go for walks on Monte Mario.  On the walks he often got absorbed with watching lizards. He was like a gambling addict at the slots - on a loop of endlessly trying to make a score and losing track of time. We'd be walking, and suddenly realize he wasn't there. And then we'd have to back track, only to find him with his nose to the ground watching lizards move too quickly for him to catch.
a younger more robust Basil

On our flight back to the States, Basil came in the cabin. Technically he was too big to be in the cabin, but we took him anyway.  The Italian customs people let him go through. Only trouble was, to keep him from whining, we had to feed him pills.  At Fuimicino at the pharmasists's suggestion we purchased a herbal concoction to help with sleeping. Then one of the passengers behind us gave us one of her prozac pills and we cut it in half and fed it to him.  Poor Baz.  But I must say, it did the trick.
Basil with Rozzie

Back in Virginia again, he continued to live with Sol the cat and Hannah the labrador and outlived them both.  Then we got Adam, the greyhound, and Baz taught Adam how to be a normal dog. Greyhounds are not normal.  Nevertheless, the two became devoted companions.  The neighbors thought them marvelously incongruous- one with no legs to speak of, and the other with very long legs - both in perfect harmony.
Basil spooning with a sleeping teenage Elliot

Another important person in Basil's life was my friend Helen.  She would often come out to look after him when we went away and whenever she came over to visit us, Basil barked with joy, moving from one foot to the other. Then he would tuck right in next to her and she would sing to him.

When I told her he had died, Helen cried. "Who am I going to sing to," she sobbed.  Basil's favorite song was Helen singing: "What a man, what a man, what a man, what a mighty good man" - and when she sang this, he licked her face and snuggled in.

Mind you, he also once bit our friend John quite badly, when John put a hand out to greet him. We felt terrible about it. Baz could be a piece of work.

The mailman was shocked today when he met us on our walk without Basil. "His heart?" he cried. "No!  How come? But he walked every day!"

We have received some lovely messages since he passed.  My friend Gail wrote, "He was such an English gentleman. What a charming fellow he was... it is so sad to lose a pet that has been a part of the family for so many years."
He of the illustrious paws

Our neighbor Jacky, who has gone on walks with Basil more times than I can count, along with his wife Sara and dogs Charlie, Boris and Daisy, said, "One really nice thing about Basil is that he kept chugging on until the last meal, the last walk, right to the end.  He may have had a geriatrics's list of afflictions, but he remained steadfast in doggy determination."

Basil was mourned in San Francisco, in Paris, Boston, New York, Sydney, in Richmond Virginia and of course here in Washington.

He was a piece of work, was Basil. But he gave us his all.  And it makes me reflect on the people in our lives.  Sometimes we might be tempted to opt for hanging out with  'easy' people - those less complicated folks who give little but also take little out of us.  But the ones who are a bit higher maintenance, often have a lot more to give. And they give it, generously, passionately and unconditionally. They are the ones who make us feel alive.

How relatively small must be the heart and mind of a dachshund. And yet to be on the receiving end of that sweet little heart reminds me of Jesus' parable about the widow's mite. What he had to offer may have been small but all of it was trained on us, with unconditional devotion. And that was a supreme compliment.

little man,  how we will miss you

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