A few weeks ago, I was headed downstairs with a basket of laundry and when I got to our kitchen doorway, I automatically raised my right leg to clear the baby gate. We haven't had any babies in the house since Clinton's first term, but we wound up using our long-neglected toddler barriers as a method to contain Bosco, our rambunctious Boston terrier.
Initially, we thought we'd use the gates for a few months while Bosco got acclimated to our spacious family room and kitchen, and to give our two cats — ancient 15-year-old Sushi and weeks-old and then just-acquired Pansy — a safe haven to escape from his brilliantly maniacal bursts of energy. Bosco would patrol the rooms like a perimeter guard, listening for the sound of one of the cats jumping over the gates, his signal to tear off in their general direction. This behavior inspired one of his many nicknames: Officer Bosco.
His relentless pursuit of the cats and his propensity to carry off, and sometimes chew on, various shoes left on the floor resulted in the gates becoming a semi-permanent feature of the downstairs blueprint. As I began to step over the gate, it dawned on me that this leg lift was pure muscle memory.
I didn't need to step over the gate because the gate wasn't there anymore. Bosco wasn't here anymore.
Bosco became a part of the family in 2004, a present for our daughter Isabelle's 10th birthday. My wife Melissa had been pressing me about the possibility of getting a dog to teach our ADHD-challenged daughter some responsibility, but I had been hesitant as I had just discovered a rather virulent allergy to certain hound breeds. Melissa's on-line research indicated that pugs, Yorkshire terriers, Welsh Corgis and Boston terriers were relatively non-allergenic so, with slight reservations on my part, she started the search for a dog.
After several missed opportunities and lack of follow-up response, Melissa found a Boston terrier breeder in Kentucky who had two males left from her last litter. She e-mailed Melissa photos of the pair, which she printed out and brought home for Isabelle to inspect. She gravitated toward one that was mismarked for a Boston; mostly white with brindle spots and black around the eyes that made me think of Jonny Quest's dog Bandit (not an actual mask but whatever). Isabelle noted that he looked like a scoop of chocolate chip ice cream (we all have different reference points), and so she chose him. At that point, Chip was probably the leading contender for the dog's name.
A check was mailed out and arrangements were made to meet at a rest stop halfway between our locations (several other prospective owners were meeting her at the same spot). Just before the big day, which by coincidence was Isabelle's actual birthday, Melissa and Isabelle sat down to compose a list of possible puppy names. Chip was high on the list, of course, as well as several others that seemed fairly promising, but when they presented me with the choices, I reacted to the very first thing Melissa had written down: Bosco.
For Melissa, it was simply a riff on the fact that he was a Boston, and maybe it was a touchstone left over from our childhood days (Bosco was a chocolate syrup back in the '50s and '60s, and remains available today). But for me, it was a blast from my teenage past.
When I was a junior high school student in southern Michigan, one of my favorite regional bands was Brownsville Station (ultimately famous for their No. 3 hit single "Smokin' in the Boys Room," covered in the mid-'80s to great effect by Motley Crue). Their debut album, 1970's No BS (it was actually self-titled but came to be known as No BS because of the graphic prominence of the phrase on the album's cartoon cover), featured a song that became a fixation for my best friend Kevin and me. It was a jumped-up little Rock number written by Brownsville's guitarist/vocalist Cub Koda and vocalist/guitarist Michael Lutz and titled "Do the Bosco."
At that point, albums were an expensive luxury and there was no single release for "Do the Bosco," so it was left to Kevin and me to monitor local Rock radio, armed with our ridiculously cheap cassette recorders and a .39¢ tape (which was actually video tape cut to cassette width), in an effort to capture our favorite song for posterity. We finally did, but between the indistinct signal, the tinny transistor speaker, the ambient room sound bleeding into the hand-held microphone and the hiss of the cheap tape, it sounded like someone was filling a blimp with a fire hose next to the radio.
But it didn't matter because it was the Bosco.
"That's it!" I shouted when I saw the name at the top of the dog-names list. "He'll have his own theme song! How could we not name him Bosco?"
My wife and daughter laughed at my rather animated reaction to naming the dog, but I was convinced, running to the Bunker to find my CD copy of No BS and cranking it up on the portable player in the living room: “(Bosco) Because it's easy on your feet/(Bosco) While you're walkin' down the street/(Bosco) Yeah, with your radio on, the Bosco makes you feel alright."
We met with the breeder south of Erlanger and I tested any possible allergic reaction by rubbing the puppy on my face. With the assurance that I could see and breathe, we crated the newly christened Bosco in our pet carrier and headed for home.
For the first few nights, we kept the carrier in our bedroom. Bosco would cry occasionally, and for two nights I camped on the floor next to his crate, leaving my hand in the open door so he could snuggle up next to it. During the day, I brought him down to the Bunker and let him sleep on my lap while I wrote.
Because I was home with him all day, he probably bonded closer to me than with Melissa or Isabelle. And while Isabelle adored him and gave him copious amounts of attention and love, the actual mechanics of his care and feeding fell to Melissa and myself. We realized within a few short weeks that it's not feasible to teach responsibility to a child by way of a living thing. At least someone learned something.
Three weeks after bringing Bosco home, Melissa found a fairly new kitten abandoned by the roadside on her way to work. We were a week away from going on vacation so we arranged for our neighbors to take care of our elderly cat and the new arrival, which Isabelle named Pansy, after her late grandmother's favorite flower.
We realized that we couldn't really leave Bosco home alone in our neighbors' care so we decided we would take him on vacation with us. We're not really travelers by any stretch of the imagination, and while a certain part of me would love to see various locations around the country, a bigger part of me knows that the stress of getting to a place we've never been and the planning required would undermine the restive benefits of the vacation. And so we rent the same cabin by the same lake in northern Michigan every year, and have a lovely and relaxing time doing something short of nothing.
The day before we left for vacation, Melissa was fired from her job (via an answering machine message left by her gutless employer). The relief of knowing she wouldn't be returning to that snake pit allowed her to have the most relaxing vacation of her adult life. And we all had a solid week paying very close attention to our new addition.
Bosco was an absolute champ on the 10-hour trip to the lake. We stopped and walked him constantly, he peed and drank, and then hopped back into his crate in the back seat. And once we got to the lake, Bosco loved everything about the experience; swimming in the shallow water, romping in the grass, chasing squirrels and napping in the sun. We kept a close eye on him because nature is fairly wild up there; a pair of mating bald eagles have an aerie on the other side of the lake, and naturalists have found pet collars in the nest so we were careful to make sure Bosco didn't wind up on the menu.
In subsequent years, Bosco could sense the excitement surrounding our imminent trip to Michigan and his excitement matched our own. We had taught him the word "adventure" meant a car ride for him and whenever the magic word was spoken, he immediately ran to the hook on the kitchen wall where we hung his retractable leash and waited to be collared and taken out. He was equally excited about "walkies," a word we pulled from Wallace & Gromit's The Wrong Trousers, but that was just a stroll down the walking path near our house. Bosco lived for adventure, which could mean a trip to Sharon Woods or Winton Woods or the vet's office or PetSmart, but he knew the time of year when that the biggest adventure of all would be taking place.
Bosco loved french fries and ice cream, neither of which were given to him in any great amount or with any substantial frequency. On his regular trips to the vet, his weight was always in the acceptable range for his age and relative size; we saw a Boston at Sharon Woods one afternoon that looked like he needed a roller skate under his belly to keep it from scraping the path. The Boss was always trim and healthy.
“The Boss” was one of a number of nicknames we had for him. Mister B, Pee Pee Raymond (from an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond), the Bosconator, Count Pupula, Bossy (he was marked like a cow; his first vet held him up and said, "He's my first Holstein"), Francis Ford Puppola, the aforementioned Officer Bosco. The obvious love and affection we invested in each new and often incomprehensible deviation of his actual name and beyond (Biddly Boy? Idder Bidder?) somehow let him know we were referring to him and his ears shot skyward in recognition to every stupid thing we called him.
For nine years, Bosco was our constant and brilliant companion, an animal with a better code of loyalty and love and a more defined sense of humor than a lot of human beings we encountered on a daily basis. Bosco claimed the couch in the family room as his combination bed and throne; he would drag pillows and blankets from end to end as his canine caprices guided him, fluffing and kneading and pulling until everything was in place and prepared for him to crawl under and within, emerging only for food or a good cat chase or, of course, any adventure.
Last year, Bosco's trim physique started taking on a more portly appearance, which we initially passed off as our boy entering into middle age. He had become slightly more sedentary, still interested in walking the path but actively deciding when the walk was over; he would simply turn around and head for home. Still, he seemed in good spirits and health overall.
Last winter, we noticed a patch of dry skin on his back that seemed to scab up and get flaky. When it started to spread, I took him into the vet, who informed us that he had the symptomatic appearance of a dog with Cushing's Syndrome, characterized by the dry patches, distended belly, voracious thirst and hair loss on his legs and elsewhere. The tests to confirm this diagnosis were wildly expensive and we decided against them for the time being as his health didn't seem to be compromised significantly and we were assured that dogs could conceivably live with the disease for many years without adverse effect.
Last summer, I was checking e-mail on my laptop in the Bunker when Isabelle ran down and said, "Something's wrong with Bosco, Mom wants you to come up right now." When I got to the kitchen, I found Melissa kneeling on the floor next to Bosco, who was in the midst of some sort of seizure, tongue lolled to one side, legs stiff. I took Melissa's place and started talking calmly to Bosco, petting him and trying to soothe him. In a couple of minutes, he came around and didn't seem any worse for the wear.
When he had a second episode a week later, I took him to a different vet for a second opinion, which turned out to be twofold: A) Bosco most likely did have Cushing's, and B) his seizures were not connected to it. The cost at the new vet for tests was considerably less so we went ahead and got the confirmation that he had Cushing's Syndrome and then set about planning for how we would try to work out the source of the seizures.
That's where it stood toward the end of last August when Bosco suffered what I came to believe was a massive stroke. When his seizure ceased, his personality was almost completely erased. He no longer responded to his name, he was disinterested in any kind of affection or attention, he was oblivious to the presence of the cats. All he did was walk around the family room and kitchen in a shuffling gait that seemed robotic and programmed. He only turned to the right, and if he got under a chair or pushed his nose into a corner of the room, he didn't seem to understand how to get out his predicament. He would just cry.
The most alarming loss in his training concerned the basement. As a pup, he seemed unaware that he could go down the stairs to the basement. I had always carried him down when I took him to the Bunker, and he somehow got it in his head that he couldn't go down any other way. We went ahead and let him believe it because it gave the cats a safe place where he wouldn't chase them. Even though he would run up and down the stairs to our bedrooms without a thought (when we would spring him from his baby gated rooms), he would not go down the basement stairs.
With that part of his training seemingly vanished after the second seizure, he was suddenly very curious about the basement. And because he was a little shaky on his feet, once he started down the steps, his momentum would be so great that he crashed into the wall at the bottom of the staircase. We were terrified that he was going to break his legs or his neck, so we closed the basement door, bringing the cats' litter boxes upstairs so they wouldn't need to go downstairs.
He kept us awake most of the night after his stroke with his thumping around and crying. Melissa went down and kept an eye on him, and I took over during the day after she left for work. That night, she was exhausted and so I camped out on the couch in the living room with the hope that I could get him to lay down with me and that maybe after a good night's rest, he might bounce back a little. There would be no bounce back.
I got maybe two hours of sleep that night, the brief amount of time that I got Bosco to lay down with me on the couch. The rest of the time he wanted nothing more than to walk in his shambling pattern around the two rooms. He constantly got tangled up under the kitchen chairs or stuck behind the couch or caught in the cross braces of the coffee table, all of which required me to extricate him.
All the time I was with him, I desperately tried to reach him. I asked him if he wanted to go for walkies. Nothing. I tried to get his medicine down him with food. He spit it out. Finally, I kept chanting the mantra, "Do you want to go on an adventure?" I swore to myself if I saw even a glimmer of recognition in his demeanor, I'd pack him up in the car and take him for a ride, somewhere, anywhere, just to reinforce his slight return. There was no recognition, just a dull and lifeless look when I spoke to him.
At one point, I sat on the floor and called to him. He walked over to me, which seemed like a hopeful development, and he pushed his head into my stomach, a move that used to signal he wanted to be petted. But I quickly realized he wasn't looking for affection, he was just trying to push his way through me, a giant fleshy obstruction that was keeping him from his appointed rounds.
Melissa came home for lunch the next day, and asked how Bosco was doing. I tried to recount the day's events as rationally as possible but the long night and the inevitability of all that I had witnessed came welling up. I said, "He's just not in there anymore," and broke down.
We packed up our beloved boy and drove him to vet for that last awful time. She gave him the sedative to calm him down and we spent a good half hour petting him and telling him everything would be fine, and as emotional as we all were, Isabelle provided perhaps the most poignant and heartbreaking observation of the day.
In second grade, Isabelle received her ADHD diagnosis, and the severity of her developmental challenges often separated her from her peer group. Kids at school and in the neighborhood would accept her for a while but ultimately decide she was too different or weird and give up on her. She did eventually make some good friends within her Individualized Education Program, but it was a long time coming and not before a considerable amount of loneliness and angst.
As Isabelle stood scratching his ears and gently stroking his face, she looked at us and said, "Bosco was my first friend."
In that beautiful, terrible moment, we knew that bringing this 15-pound bundle of energy and incalculable jaw strength into our lives nine years ago had been exactly the right thing to do, no matter how difficult the end game was proving to be. Because he was the Bosco. And the Bosco makes you feel all right. Did he ever.