Adapted from Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man. Copyright © 2012 by Brian McGrory. To be released by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc., on November 13.
WE SAT ON THE FRONT STOOP trying to hold on to the moment: me wishing for the world that I could push back time, Harry, my golden retriever, sprawled in his usual spot next to the faded pot of impatiens, his front paws dangling over the top step. I was leaning against him, absently rubbing his furry ears.
When Dr. Pam Bendock arrived, clutching a brown paper bag, Harry thumped his tail and struggled to rise, then remembered that his bones were too weak and his muscles too sore. She began to speak but realized there was nothing good to say. So she leaned down and kissed his forehead, and I said, “If you’d like to head in, we’ll be there in a moment.”
In those few moments, Harry gazed forlornly at the world before him — the century-and-a-half-old side street where we lived, the brick town houses that lined it, the sidewalk from which his friends and admirers so often approached, schoolchildren and neighbors and workmen who always had time to talk. It was a nice world, a soft world, a generous world — Harry’s world.
“Come on, pal,” I finally said, standing up, my voice starting to crack. He pulled himself obediently to his feet, heartbreakingly so, his gaze falling downward as I held open the heavy door and gently guided him inside.
Harry was a month shy of his 10th birthday then, the most intuitive and wonderful creature that I have ever known. He was, to the end, as smart as ever, as kind as he had always been, as knowing as any living being I had ever met, my constant companion on foot, in the car, at home, in stores, in parks, never on a leash, always getting my jokes and playing more than a few himself. We had battled his lymphoma hard these last five months, battled it with steroids, chemotherapy, a new diet; any straw of hope, glimpse of a prayer that we could find, we tried. He hated it, every bit. He’d flop under my legs in the waiting room of the oncologist’s office in suburban Boston and force me to carry him into the treatment area when his name was called. Finally, the stern oncologist told me there was nothing more she could do.
We spent much of that August at a rented house in Maine a mile or so from the beach he loved, and Harry made the most of every minute. He padded slowly along the sand, waded gloriously through the cold surf, and slept soundly in the shade of the wooden back deck as I pecked on a laptop beside him. When I picked up my keys, he didn’t even look at me with a question about whether he was coming, he just sashayed over to the car.
He still loved his morning walks, his evenings on the stoop, his time under the coffee table as I watched the Red Sox make an epic run toward their first World Series victory in 86 years. All the while, he was fighting intense bouts of stomach pain, but he refused to surrender, to give me a sign that it was time to go.
“Harry, it’s OK if you want to give up,” I would tell him softly as he moaned in the dark of the night. But no, he didn’t, or wouldn’t, not until the Sunday in the middle of September when he refused to go out for his last walk of the night and hung his head so low that his nose just about scraped the floor. He slipped into my study and slept alone under my desk, his breathing labored when I got up in the night to sit silently with him.
He appeared even weaker and more dejected the next morning, so I called his veterinarian to let her know it was time. I had vowed not to keep him going on my account, and another day would have been cruel. Dogs don’t fear death, I convinced myself. They don’t even think of it. It’s just what comes at the end. I was adamant that his last hours would be as natural, as dignified as the life that had led up to them.
Inside, Dr. Bendock had unpacked the blue solution and needle and waited. Harry stunned me by picking up a stuffed toy and tossing it around for the briefest moment, showing off for the vet on whom he had always had an obvious crush, until he collapsed on the floor in his favorite spot beneath the bay window with a raspy sigh. He lacked the strength or the will ever to lift his head again.
After some long, silent moments, I nodded, and Dr. Bendock brought over the syringe. I placed my face next to Harry’s as she rubbed fluid on his leg. “Not yet,” I said softly, and I told him I loved him, familiar words by now, that he was the best friend I would ever have, which was also old news, and that I wouldn’t trade one minute of one day with him for anything in the world. All of the thoughts fit together into an irrevocable truth.
Harry had taught me patience. He had instilled empathy in me. He had made me slow down, take my time, collect my bearings along life’s winding path. He had gotten me up on quiet, beautiful mornings that I would never have seen and taken me out in invigorating night air that I would never have felt. He had introduced me to dozens of people, very good people, I would never have met.
Tears rolled from my face onto his, despite my best effort, and he looked up at me from the corner of his eye, knowingly, it seemed, though that might just have been me. I nodded to Dr. Bendock, and soon I could see the fluid flow slowly through a tube and into his leg. Harry closed his eyes. I stroked his face. Dr. Bendock cried softly. A moment later, he was gone.
We didn’t talk much in the minutes after, Dr. Bendock and I. Hours of consultations and conversations in the weeks and months before, and now there was nothing left to say. Her cheeks were glistening as she collected her things.
I thought about his paws slapping the water the first time he swam. I thought about playing in the Public Garden, just the two of us, in a late-night blizzard. I thought about our first nights alone when my marriage had ended, the drive to Washington to cover the White House. I thought about the thousands of miles we had walked together, the tens of thousands of throws he had fetched. I wished I could remember every minute, every step, every toss. As Frank Skeffington asked in the classic Boston novel The Last Hurrah, how in the world do you thank someone for a million laughs?
As I sat on the floor with Harry that day, I thought only of what had been, not of what might come. I didn’t realize, couldn’t realize, that Harry, even in death, would lead me to a wife, and that wife would come with a family, and that family would include — there’s no subtle transition to this, in print as in life — a rooster named Buddy.
SIX YEARS LATER, I found myself living in a new house in a distant suburban town with Harry’s veterinarian, Pam Bendock. We were engaged, living with her two daughters, and their two cats and four rabbits and our two dogs. And yes, I was also living with Buddy, who had free run of the yard, constantly pecked at the doors, and slept in an outsize rooster house with transom windows in the side yard. He hated my guts.
Buddy developed numerous ways to attack me, like an all-star pitcher expert at changing his speeds. He was so slick, so seemingly knowledgeable about my movements around the yard — where he might trap me, how I’d react, when he would thrust, whether he should parry — it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d sat in his rooster house in the dark of the night studying film.
Interesting that when he’s with the dogs, he never looks behind him. And when he’s reading the paper, he’s essentially blocking his own view of anything in front of him. Look at how he’s lamenting the condition of his lawn in the far corner, basically trapping himself in an area with no escape.
There was, of course, the blitz. I’m out in the yard, Buddy says, “Screw it,” and charges like a linebacker jacked up on every imaginable steroid. There was no finesse involved with it, no fakery, no mild chicanery. No, it was just Buddy sprinting in my direction, usually while ca-caw-ing in as menacing a voice as he could muster, his beady little eyes bulging out of the sides of his furious, puffed-out face. Unless and until you’ve had a 20-pound rooster racing at your legs and midsection at a speed you didn’t think possible for him to achieve, it’s hard to imagine the gamut of emotions involved — white shock, abject fear, a hazy sense of regret that you may never partake in sexual relations again.
Then there was the “Wouldn’t it be nice to be friends” approach, where Buddy gradually, casually pecked at the lawn as I threw the tennis ball for the dogs, slowly coming closer, closer still, don’t-mind-me-I’m-just-finding-all-kinds-of-interesting-bugs, until, Bam! he’s on me, euphorically going after my legs, the expression on his face scarily similar to Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining. The dogs give me a look like You didn’t fall for that again, did you? What a waste of thumbs.
Finally there was the stand and peck. It basically involved him picking the door he thought I was coming out of next, positioning himself near it, often just out of sight, and lunging in my direction the moment he had a clear view.
All of which required me to develop my own defensive strategies. On the blitz, I would simply turn and run, but I quickly realized that a man being pursued by a frantic rooster around the front and side yards of his house caused quite a stir among passing drivers. That’s not to say that fleeing isn’t still a fallback. Sometimes it’s just reflex, and the good news is that Buddy generally tires out after a minute or two of running. The bad news is that so do I.
“You have to pick him up and hold him,” Pam told me one morning for about the 30th time. “If you hold him, it shows your dominance,” Pam said. “Here, just take him.” She held him in my direction. Buddy let out a loud squawk. I backed away. Pam pulled him back in.
“I’m not touching that thing,” I said.
The good news is, he’s never really touched me, either — not hard anyway, not like he once did with his chicken sitter, an uncommonly nice guy by the name of Dennis who regrettably fell for the old “Let’s be friends” routine one Saturday morning, which left his blood spurting at a 90-degree angle from his right calf. Our neighbor Tim rushed over with a compress to stem the bleeding. “I’m fine,” Dennis assured us when we got home from a weekend away. He said it as he was limping to his car as fast as he could to get the hell away from our house.
Buddy and I had engaged in many battles, but they had always ended in a draw, typically with a frustrated chicken undoubtedly vowing to himself that the next outcome would be significantly different.
One day, Pam called out the window in her chicken voice, “You’re so handsome out there, you good boy.” I didn’t have a view of the outside, but I heard him cackle his appreciation in return. She turned to me and said, “You two are getting along better these days. Right?” It was more a statement than a question.
I suppose we were, to a limited degree, though that didn’t always seem to be the point, so I said to her, “I don’t think you can ever possibly understand what it’s like to walk around your own yard, to walk out your own front or back door, to walk through your own gate, to be on the property that you own, that you pay a mortgage on, that you take great pride in, I don’t think you can understand what it’s like to feel constantly endangered and always on edge because something that lives there would rather have you dead.”
She started to giggle a little, as she often did when I got a little melodramatic, then caught herself when she realized I wasn’t joking. In fact, I was in a pretty bad mood, not only because of Buddy but also because of everything. Buddy, I was starting to realize, had come to symbolize, gradually, then suddenly, how unwelcome I sometimes felt in my own reconstituted life.
Pam said, “You know, right, that he can’t help what he’s doing?”
Buddy, Pam explained to me, had never met another rooster, never been part of a flock, never even had a brother or sister from the day he’d been hatched as part of the Nixon Elementary School science fair. All he knew was that this space, this yard, this new house was his home, and it was his job, his unwavering instinct, to protect it. It was who he was. It was what he did. He wasn’t trying to be obnoxious. He didn’t even mean to be loud. He just didn’t know anything else.
“Yes,” Pam said, “you’re a challenge to him. He tries to dominate you because he can’t or won’t trust you, not yet anyway.” She paused and added, “It’s your responsibility to improve that relationship, because he’s a chicken and you’re the guy.”
Rather than complain, I needed to take things into my own hands if I wanted to make them better.