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Dear Baxter

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Dear Baxter,
I woke up this morning to a text message from my daughter telling me you died. I can’t say it was unexpected since you were about 14, but the finality still makes me sad. In your later years you spent so much time with me that I felt like you were partly mine – another child in the divorce dance of living in two houses and sharing holidays. You grew on me to the point that I wanted my own full-time dog which I eventually got and who was ultimately one of your best friends.

My ex brought you into his home not long after the divorce and at the time I swore it was another spike in the wedge that made the kids enjoy themselves more at his house than mine. But for me those years were all about reinvention and I was much better suited to my feline company when I was alone and the kids were with their dad. But I digress because this is about you Baxter. I soon learned that you were a handful and, I believed, certainly more than he’d bargained for. Your early years with them were a blur of barking, obedience schools, barking, electronic fences, barking, escape artistry – and did I mention the barking? Nothing seemed to calm you down nor keep you there once someone did manage to get you to sit still. I can’t imagine what my ex-husband dealt with when he was alone with you and the kids were with me. And back then it occurred to no one to suggest that you be part of a package deal alongwith your kids because you came along post divorce.

But then you got older – and calmer; and you began to miss your kids when they were gone. And in the meantime, I had married a man who was allergic to cats and had to find new homes for the (by now) two that I owned. I was petless for the first time in my adult life. But the idea of you going back and forth between the houses alongwith your kids didn’t occur to us all at once. It started gradually, following my return from Iraq. To make up for lost time the kids would spend a couple weeks straight with me and given your age we all agreed it would be better for you to stay with them.

That first morning I awoke in my own bed to realize there was a dog in the house but I at least knew enough to let you out. I didn’t however know enough to put you on a leash to keep you from chasing the deer in the woods at the end of our property. I began to rethink this plan as I slid down the hill after you. What ex-husband is going to believe “no, seriously, he took off after the deer – I just couldn’t catch him” is what I was thinking as my bathrobe caught on tree branches and wet leaves coated my slippers. At least you were small enough that I could pick you up once I did catch you. I think even then I knew I’d enjoy bringing a little bit of a circus atmosphere to our home.
You were always an attention getter. Paige was your indulgent human, allowing you on our furniture when no one else was home. I even caught you in her lap once and when I told you “down!” you looked at her to confirm that I was actually allowed to speak to you that way. Dixon was more a human version of you; the attention you got from him usually took the form of food, grossing out anyone who happened to observe him holding out his sandwich for you to take a bite. My husband Don gave you attention centered around food too – do you remember how he’d pretend to pick up a piece of food from his plate, hold it in front of you then toss it across the room for you to chase? And you fell for it time after time after time. But now I wonder whether it was you who was humoring him by only pretending to fall for his corny joke.

As for me, you gave me someone else to mother as my children rushed headlong into their teen years. By now if it was the kids’ turn to be with us, you were part of the deal. It just made sense since the older you got the more you missed them during the half week they were away. You always enjoyed my company even when they didn’t and often either buffered or outright facilitated our interaction. And I enjoyed taking you for walks although it never occurred to me to try running with you – you were more of a sprinter afterall, still heading into the woods at every opportunity. But by now I had become more relaxed about it because I’d learned to trust you to come back. I was also learning to read you and understand you and gain confidence in caring for a dog instead of the independent cats I’d always owned.

But you must have had some cat in you as well – because you certainly used all of the proverbial nine lives. You chewed through the power cord on the hot tub, while it was plugged in and running, only stopping long enough to yelp. Then there was the time the dog next door bit you on the bum but we didn’t know it until it abcessed a week later. Of course by then I was preparing to host about 10 family members in town for Dixon’s high school graduation. You had a bladder stone removed the day before Dixon and his dad took a weekend road trip which they had to cut short when I called on Saturday afternoon to say that you were pulling out your staples on my living room carpet. And you got hit by a car and lost at least one claw, again you were with us for some reason, hopping around on three legs and pitifully holding up that bandaged paw to anyone who’d look. I seem to remember my dog-lover sister-in-law being in town that weekend and she fell for your act hook-line-and-sinker. Note that by now you’re with us even if the kids aren’t because I had come to enjoy you and couldn’t stand the thought of you in a kennel when I was available to take care of you.

I don’t know that I would have adopted my own dog if it hadn’t been for you, but I do know that you and she were the best of friends. Once when your trick hip acted up and you yelped, Jersey came running to check you out. She sniffed around you and licked your little face, concerned for her playmate. And you loved her right back. You two were so great together that the shoe was suddenly on the other foot and the ex was asking to have Jersey at his house so you two could play – everyone loved to watch you two together. After Paige graduated from high school, my job took us to Hawaii and she decided to join us. During a Skype conversation with her dad she of course was saying hello to you which made Jersey think you’d managed to join us here. Jersey went running down the hall to Paige’s room expecting to find her little friend and it broke my heart to see her disappointment. How would I ever explain now that you’re gone for good? I’m still explaining it to myself. You loved and were loved. RIP old man.

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