Almost four years ago, my mom gave me a great gift. She moved out of my childhood home in Virginia and into a retirement community near me in Pennsylvania, giving us more time with her and fewer worries about her health and safety. Along with that gift, came another one—Grandma’s standard poodle, Barney, came to live with us. When you think of a standard poodle I know you imagine elegance and intelligence. Not so much with Barney, affectionately dubbed “Big Weirdo” by one of my sons. It’s not that he wasn’t smart, he was just a little awkward and neurotic. I joked that it was like having a slightly “special”, indulged younger brother come to stay.
To say Barney was high maintenance when he moved in is a bit of an understatement. After years of living with my mother after my father’s death, he had developed a few un-doggie-like behaviors. As my mom grew more isolated in her house, she treated him like Tom Hanks’ Wilson in the movie Castaway—and her running monologue to him made him a bit neurotic and more than a little needy. He whined non-stop whenever I took him in the car. My groomer called him a diva because he couldn’t be groomed if any other dog was in the shop (including mine). When he first came to our house he would only eat if fed by hand—probably a result of sharing meals at the kitchen table with my mom. But if he turned his nose up at dog food, he wasn’t adverse to eating other things that got him in trouble.
A few months after he moved in, I had to drive an hour through an ice storm that had paralyzed Philadelphia to take him to the specialty vet clinic because his ill-advised snacking on some unknown item now had his stomach blocked. (The fact that his blockage made him outrageously flatulent just added to the fun of the drive.) After surgery to remove the foreign matter, the adorable young surgeon told me Barney was recovering well. “But,” he said, “You might be missing a pair of underwear. Or two.” He then handed me a ziplock bag containing my lacy underthings. (Not sure why he thought I’d want them back.) At that moment of mortification, I realized this Barney gig might have a silver lining. Surely I was getting years off purgatory by taking him in. (And that wasn’t the last time he needed to be opened up. The following year he ate a purple dinosaur toy. We think he was having an existential crisis over having another Barney around.)
But as the months went by, Barney became part of the family. He got along well with our dogs from the start, and after realizing he wasn’t going to get fed by hand (and that he wouldn’t be getting any more cheeseburgers, either) he actually began to eat dog food. He frolicked with his new pack and got long walks in the park. He gained muscle tone and confidence. At his checkup about a year after he came to us, my vet took one look at him and said, “Wow, you’ve made a real dog out of him!”
The end of the Barney era came in the wee hours of last Monday morning. While he had started to weaken in recent months (he was nearly 13), a checkup a couple of weeks before showed him in good health. He simply stopped eating Saturday morning and on Sunday he went to his dog bed and didn’t leave it. I sat with him Sunday night, rubbing his ears and ridiculously oversized paws as he faded away. Our two other dogs wouldn’t leave his side. In the end, Barney’s final gift to us was not just his companionship and a few laughs, it was in his passing. Here he was, the elegant, intelligent poodle, saving us the heartache of watching him slowly get sicker, and saving us the agony of deciding the “right” time to euthanize him.
So thanks to Grandma, for sharing Barney with us. And thanks to Barney, for going out on his own terms, for shaving a bit off my purgatory time, and for being our own Big Weirdo for a few years. We will miss him.