One of the most beautiful things about sharing our lives with animals is that they provide a remarkably clear window into our souls. They reveal us to be desperate for unconditional love and some semblance of control over the uncontrollable, capable of projecting the most absurd of human notions onto non-human animals, and occasionally willing to engage in the most grotesquely indulgent displays of baby talk using nicknames like “Schmoopy” and “Boo Boo Bear” even when we swore we would never do such a thing.
They also provide us with opportunities, welcome or not, to wrestle with our own mortality, often through theirs. Our pets are forever at our mercy. Which is why goofy, unfounded notions of dogs acting “dominant” toward us have always rung so untrue. We decide when they eat. We decide when they drink. We decide when they go to the bathroom. We decide when they get medical care. We decide when they get to destroy their favorite squeaky toy and where they sleep. If we suddenly fail to get up one morning or fail to come home one evening, they may very well perish in our absence. Having that kind of control over another living creature is profound. And we’d do well not to squander the privilege.
Last month, we said goodbye to our dog Hudson. Also known as The Buds, Hudson Budson, Budsy Bear, and Sonny Liston. Unlike previous pets we’ve lost, Hudson was the first pet whose final days we had control over. While previous dogs and cats were taken from us by unanticipated fates, Hudson was our first dog whose death came down to a quality of life decision made by us.
Around seven-years-old, Hudson was diagnosed with an extreme case of hip dysplasia. In fact both the veterinarian who took his initial x-rays and the physical therapist who looked at them were shocked that a dog with that hip composition had so much mobility and displayed so little physical discomfort. And that was quintessential Buds. Stoic as a motherfucker and just happy to be enjoying life from one day to the next. Crippling hip pain be damned.
Hudson lived life to its fullest. He was always the one willing to smile for the camera (when nobody else would), go for a walk in inclement weather, and jump in the car, even when his destroyed hips made it impossible for him to settle into a comfortable position in the back seat.
In the end, it was the combination of his hips and dementia that led to the decision to give him the comfortable, dignified and loving end he deserved. Leading up to the decision to euthanize a pet, there’s a tremendous amount of angst and second-guessing. Am I robbing him of good days he still has ahead of him? Am I making a decision I don’t have the right to make? Should I wait? Will I regret this? How the fuck does anyone ever make this decision?
In the end, I took a great deal of comfort in just how intimately I knew my dog and what he was telling me. His behavior, his way of carrying himself, the number of hours he spent sleeping on his dog bed in my office, the increasing difficulty in rousing him from that sleep, the slow decline in frequency of play. Because I’d paid enough attention throughout the course of his life, studied and learned who he was as an individual, and relished every minute we’d had with him, I knew exactly when it was time to let him go. We knew Hudson was a dog who deserved to go out on all four legs, capable of walking on his own, eating on his own, and never knowing what it was like to lose the ability to engage in the activities that gave him pleasure from one day to the next.
On January 23, I sat in my office and worked, while Hudson napped in a pocket of sun shining through the window onto his dog bed. We went out multiple times to sniff around the yard aimlessly and take in whatever smells a cold week in January in Michigan was willing to offer. At the end of the day, I stuffed a giant treat bag full of bacon, drove to the vet’s office where he’d always been lavished with attention and treats, and at 14 years and three months, Hudson went out of this world with a belly full of bacon and my voice in his ear.
Some fun facts about Hudson:
- We adopted him from a Toledo-based rescue group called Planned Pethood
- He was the runt of his litter and the only dog whose original name at adoption we kept
- He was 50% Rottweiler, 25% Malamute and 25% Labrador Retriever (He was also the only dog whose breed make-up we knew something about at adoption. The rescue group knew his father was a purebred Rottweiler and his DNA test confirmed that.)
- All of our cats were obsessed with him while he wanted nothing to do with them
- We used to think he was leash-reactive until we stopped walking him with our other dog, Charlie and suddenly realized that Charlie was the reactive one and Hudson was as chill and relaxed as a dog could be on leash
- He drove cross-country from Michigan to California and back again
- His nickname “The Buds” was inspired by our favorite character, “The Bunk” from HBO’s The Wire
Goodbye, Sonny Liston
One of Hudson’s nicknames was Sonny Liston. A name bestowed by my dad, a boxing fanatic who could tell you exactly who fought who on what date in what year and in which venue upon request, along with various personal attributes and what type of music they listened to. Sonny Liston was a tough, complicated and controversial figure who just so happened to be heavyweight champion in the early 1960’s and fought Ali in 1964, when Ali was still Cassius Clay. Upon meeting Hudson the year after we adopted him, my dad was convinced there was something in his face and character reminiscent of Sonny Liston, and that was the only name he was willing to call him by ever since.
Coincidentally, over the last two years, I have watched dementia slowly and excruciatingly rob me of Hudson, and my father. For Hudson, this shitty, little-understood disease came at a time when you might expect it to in a dog’s life–at the end. For my father, it came far too early.
I live 2,300 miles across the country from my father, who is trapped in a never-ending nightmare that is slowly and excruciatingly robbing him of his comfort, identity, dignity and agency. Dementia is a brutal disease. So much so that I often wish there was a better word for it. I’m a writer by trade, but the only thing I can come up with is “you’re fucked.” Or maybe “worst fucking scenario humanly imaginable.”
For those with dementia, there’s a phenomenon called “sunsetting” that happens early evening. It’s like a witching hour when a patient’s confusion and anxiety amplifies late in the day. Each evening, when this pronounced state would set in for Hudson–the tell-tale whale eye, the incessant nervous squeaking and wandering, the staring at invisible boogeymen in the ceiling–I’d see my dad. And I’d see, through my dog, the unbearable tragedy unfolding for my dad with the same disease many miles away, knowing that while I do have the power to help ease the pain of this animal in my home, I do not and will never have the same agency or ability when it comes to my father.
One year, my dad came out from L.A. to visit us in Michigan during a particularly brutal winter. And true to form, and in the spirit of so many tough guys like Sonny Liston who my dad idolized, he made a point of routinely going outside to stand in the wind and cold. And each time he did so, Hudson went outside with him.
For however much longer my dad is with us (and it could be awhile, despite his disease robbing him of everything that matters) I will never tell him that Hudson no longer is. And every time I think about Hudson and the dog he was, I am reminded of my dad and the person he is. Our pets, if we’re lucky, become inextricably bound up in who we are as human beings and the things that matter to us most. And if we’re lucky, losing them will hurt in places we don’t expect and remind us of those things we will never forget.