I took Bodhi for a walk every afternoon through our quiet Culver City neighborhood, and as much as I loved walking with Bodhi, I felt as if he loved walking with me just as much. Such joy there is in a dog. Bodhi and I went on basically the same walk hundreds and finally thousands of time, and yet whenever I snapped the leash on his collar and led him away from the house, he acted like the gray street was a yellow brick road and we were embarking upon an exciting adventure. Who knew Culver City was such a wondrous place, with such magical trees and birds and grass and dogs and cats and wind and squirrels and sky? On any given day, I would not necessarily be brimming with joy as we started our walk, but by the time we came home I was always calmer, simpler, happier. Less like a man and more like a dog.
Sometimes on our walks I would see someone else walking their dog and they would be ignoring the dog and looking at their cellphone and I would think: You’re taking your phone for a walk and not your dog. What a fool you are. For when you walk your dog the walks are similar and yet each is unique, and once gone, won’t come again.
As Bodhi got older and began to suffer some physical problems, I became acutely aware that there wouldn’t be an endless series of walks—that there had been a first walk and there would be a last walk—and I wondered how many walks we had left. Many, many hundreds, I hoped, but one never knew; my mother had been about the age I am now when she had dropped dead of a heart attack on her daily walk. So I would ponder Bodhi’s mortality, and ponder mine. And there was a thing that happened several times when I walked with Bodhi. Always on the same gently curving stretch of street. Always when the sun shined through the trees a certain way, and their shadows fell just so, and the air was not cool or warm but perfect, and no one was around except the two of us. I would feel that we were not on an earthly earth anymore, it was like I’d opened my eyes and found myself on the other side of life, in a timeless time and a spaceless space, and it was just Bodhi and me, walking, walking…
Frequently on our walks we’d meet people who would gaze at Bodhi and gasp out things like: Oh my god! He’ so gorgeous! What kind of dog is he? Look at his eyes, it’s like he’s wearing eyeliner! Oh those ears, they’re so adorable! I trust if Bodhi had been ugly I would have loved him just as much, but I confess to taking a great deal of pleasure in the fact I was walking around with the most beautiful dog in Culver City, and quite probably the world. He was medium-sized, with long silky white hair, and floppy, caramel-colored ears. His eyes were large, darkly luminous. Irises a brown that was nearly black. They possessed such beauty as to seem nearly unnatural.
I met him in the back room of a sweater shop on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica in early 2007, after having been more or less dragged there by my wife Stefani. He was about two months old, a tiny white fluffy ball of fur with two black eyes and a black nose. He had been brought there by Robin, a young woman who worked in the shop and rescued animals in her spare time. She had found the puppy in a small private shelter in San Gabriel during the Christmas holidays. He was very sick. Near death, Robin thought. She had taken him out of there and to her vet and he was on meds now and wasn’t going to die and needed a home.
I was practically positive our home wasn’t it. Stef loved dogs. She’d had a beloved yellow Lab named Dicey when she was a kid and had been wanting a dog for a long time. But I’d had a beloved yellow tabby cat named Butterball when I was a kid and was a confirmed cat person and we had three middle-aged cats at home who I felt quite sure would never accept a dog—even a tiny cute one that looked like a stuffed toy.
Robin had named the puppy Buddha—because, she said, there was an aura of calm and quietness about him. She had very little information about Buddha. He was of mixed, indeterminate ancestry. A mutt, in short. And someone at the shelter had suggested he might have come from a puppy mill in Mexico.
We sat on the floor of the back room by Buddha, where he rested on a little bed, still recuperating from his illness. Quiet. Calm. We petted him and murmured to him. He looked up at us speculatively with those dark eyes.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Let’s give it two weeks.”
It was the old story: Cat-Loving Guy Falls Hard For Dog. We changed his name. “Buddha” to me seemed an odd name for a dog, like calling him Jesus Christ or Muhammad, though we both liked the spiritual connotations. Stefani read up on Buddha, and discovered he became enlightened while sitting under the bodhi tree. So we brought the newly christened Bodhi home to Culver City to meet the cats.
We carried him into the house in his crate, which we deposited on the floor of the living room in front of our curious but wary cats. Bodhi looked at Trubble, Sunny, and Sheera. Trubble, Sunny, and Sheera looked back at Bodhi. Suddenly Bodhi began to bark, whereupon the cats fled the room in terror and panic, ran down a hallway and into the bedroom and dove under the bed. Sunny threw up. Stef said my face turned red as a tomato.
I was sure at that moment that at the end of his two-week probation Bodhi would have to be returned to the shop on Montana Avenue like a sweater that didn’t fit, but fate, and Bodhi, had other ideas. Turned out he had the perfect personality to insinuate himself into a household of haughty cats. He was gentle and unaggressive and unfailingly deferential to any cat that happened to cross his path during the course of a day. Over time the cats learned, not to love Bodhi or even to like him, but to tolerate him, and Bodhi was fine with that.
As we all know, a dog’s biology, as compared to a human’s, is poignantly speeded up, and in the first year Bodhi moved swiftly from ball of fur to gawky, big-eared adolescent to magnificent white wolf-like creature. I think it was a good life for a dog. Stef and I both worked at home, so he was hardly ever by himself. Tall walls and gates surround our house and guesthouse and peaceful, plant-filled courtyard, and Bodhi could spend his time inside or outside, wherever he wanted. In the courtyard we found out his gentleness did not extend to bees. He was hell on bees. He would leap into the air and his jaws would snap shut on some poor bee minding its own business, on its way from one flower to the next. He got stung sometimes, but never seemed to mind.
And so Christmas came, Bodhi’s second on this earth, and in a malicious twist, it proved to be no kinder to Bodhi than the first. On Christmas Day, he became terribly ill, vomiting and defecating endlessly. Our vet didn’t know what caused it. Poisoning possibly. Maybe he’d eaten a rat that had been poisoned itself and crawled into our courtyard to die. Or maybe the culprit was a pretty shrub with yellow, bell-shaped flowers, suggestively called an angel’s trumpet; we found out later that every part of it, flowers, leaves, seeds, was deadly to people and dogs.
Bodhi was hospitalized for days, halfway between life and death. Our vet allowed us to spend as much time as we wanted with Bodhi. Stefani was small enough to crawl in his cage, and she would lie there with her arms around him as he slept or dozed, barely aware of us. And then one day he took a sudden turn for the better, and what a sight it was when he came trotting out of the hospital, his thick white coat shining in the sun, and he lifted his leg and took a voluminous ecstatic pee on a bush.
I hadn’t realized how much I cared for Bodhi until I feared he was about to die. Walk followed walk and week followed week and the years passed, and I came to think of Bodhi as my animal son. Bodhi was special. (I know everyone thinks that about their dog, and everyone of course is right.) A friend said he seemed like a magical beast out of a Russian fairy tale. He loved other dogs, but was very afraid of people. For the longest time, only Stef and I were allowed to touch him (eventually he extended the privilege to Andy, our good-natured next-door neighbor, and to our old friends Jim and Susan who live down the block). He liked for us to pet him, but not too much. If we overdid it, he would simply rise and walk away and plop down in some other spot. He was like some half-wild creature; I wondered if his father had been a frisky coyote that had snuck one night into that Mexican puppy mill.
Bodhi had a deep and ferocious bark that he’d unleash on anyone who came on or near our property, but he would never bark when we left the house and took a walk. But there was something very odd he would do. Sometimes we’d go by a house where some little yappy dog lived, and if the dog started barking at Bodhi, he’d lift his head and start howling like a wolf. I mean, it would sound like a dadgum wolf was loose on the streets of Culver City. People would peer out of their windows or look back over their shoulders or stare at Bodhi as they passed in their cars, and the howls wouldn’t stop till we had walked past the house and Bodhi couldn’t hear the dog anymore. He wouldn’t react that way to being barked at by a big dog, just by a little one. The only thing I could figure was he’d think the little dog was in some kind of distress or danger and the howls came out of some primeval part of him, the wolf in him commiserating with the wolf in the little dog trapped behind the fence.
We pampered Bodhi. We bought him stuffed toy animals that squeaked when he bit them (which he would do repeatedly, playing them like a musical instrument) and rubber balls for him to fetch (we’d read tennis balls were toxic to dogs) and thick short ropes so he could play tug-of-war with me (but he preferred playing tug-of-war with one of the squeaker toys, whose life spans tended to be rather short). He had not one but two outdoor beds in the courtyard and we hired a carpenter to build him a bed right by our own. We fed him a healthy diet and made sure he received the best veterinary care.
I was obsessively concerned with his safety. He never spent a second off-leash when we left the house because I knew it only took a second for something to go terribly wrong. You would hear about dogs on walks being attacked by other dogs that were running around loose and being mauled or killed. I was always worried we would encounter some big savage dog that would go after Bodhi, and then one day that very thing happened.
Stefani was walking with us. Bodhi was never happier than when it was the three of us on a walk. Across the street and a little ahead of us an SUV pulled into a driveway. The automatic door on the garage began to open, and then instantly, as if he’d been waiting for just this moment all day, a large black dog shot out of the garage and ran across the street straight toward Bodhi.
Bodhi weighed about fifty-five pounds. The black dog was a lot bigger, maybe seventy-five or eighty. You could tell he didn’t want to play with Bodhi, he had mayhem on his mind. I tried to get in between Bodhi and him, but he was past me in a flash and on top of Bodhi. The black dog was snarling but Bodhi was silent and didn’t seem to be fighting back, as if he didn’t realize what was happening. I saw the black jaws of the dog close on the white fur of Bodhi’s throat, and then I dived on top of the dog. I locked my left forearm around his throat and pulled him off Bodhi. I held on to Bodhi’s leash. The last thing I wanted was for Bodhi to go running off down the street with the other dog chasing him.
Now I saw the young woman that was the driver of the SUV running across the street. She was looking on in wide-eyed horror; she probably couldn’t believe her precious Blackie was wrestling on the ground with some old dude with a buzz cut.
The dog was struggling to get free, but with my arm around his throat and my other hand grasping the back of his neck I seemed to have him under control, at least for the moment. I screamed at the woman to get her effing dog away.
She grabbed him and pulled him away and said over and over: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She probably had visions of me calling the police and her dog being taken away and put into some ghastly pound, but all I wanted was to get away from there. Stef and Bodhi and I walked off quickly. Stef had been freaked out by the whole thing, of course. She wanted to know if I was okay. I told her I was. So was Bodhi; his fur was at its thickest around his neck. It must have been like chomping into a pillow for the black dog. And I was glad the black dog was okay too.
Bodhi was his usual cheerful self as he walked along between Stef and me. I honestly think he had no idea about what had just happened, it was just some kind of game to him and a pretty fun game at that. Once again we’d seen his aversion to violence, it was like Robin had nailed it when she named him Buddha.
As for me, I was shaking a little from all the excitement, but I also felt exhilarated. I had saved Bodhi! I’d have done anything for Bodhi, if he’d fallen into a roaring river I would have jumped in right after him. The earth is such a brutal place, and Bodhi was such an innocent creature, and I always wanted to do all I could to protect him. But I couldn’t protect him from growing old, from getting sick—couldn’t protect him from the age-old cycle of life and death.
Last summer Bodhi’s front right leg swelled up and he began to limp. We took him in on a Sunday afternoon to the specialty hospital where he’d been treated for some other problems. They discovered a growth tucked away in his right armpit. They first suspected a malignant tumor, and then, to our limitless joy, they told us it was just an internal abscess, but eventually it turned out they had been right the first time. Bodhi had cancer and was going to die.
It had already spread into his liver and spleen. He was put on chemotherapy, but at best it would buy him just a few more months. All Stef and I could do was provide Bodhi with as much love as we could in the time he had left, and then to end it for him when love wasn’t enough to justify any more days.
Summer turned into fall. Bodhi’s unofficial birthday was November 15. He would be eleven then, and I very much wanted him to make it that far because eleven seemed a lot older than ten, and I wanted to think of Bodhi as living into old age. We celebrated his birthday, and then we were hoping to have just one more Thanksgiving with him, and that happened too. And then I started looking ahead to Christmas, and New Year’s, and after that…Martin Luther King Day? Valentine’s Day? Maybe even Easter?
Our walks continued, though we weren’t going as far or as fast. They were bittersweet, at least for me. Yeats said: “Man is in love, and loves what vanishes.” But Bodhi hadn’t vanished yet, nor had I. I focused on the fact that Bodhi and I were still alive on this earth, and we were still taking our walks together.
On November 29, 2017, at about three in the afternoon, we took our last walk. It was very short. We went down the street in the mellow autumnal sunlight, and as we were about to make our usual turn to the right, Bodhi instead dragged me straight ahead. I knew he wanted to go to Jim and Susan’s house. He stayed with them when we went on trips or even just went out for a few hours, and he loved their house. So we showed up at their door and they were there and glad to see us and we went in and hung out for a bit and their two cats ignored Bodhi but Bodhi seemed to enjoy himself and then we went home.
About nine that night, I went outside. Bodhi was lying in his favorite spot in the courtyard, near the door to the kitchen. He liked it there because it was a glass door and he could keep an eye on what was going on in the house. I stooped and gave him a quick pat on the head and went to the guesthouse, where I brushed my teeth and fiddled around on my computer awhile and then turned out the lights and locked up.
I noticed Bodhi had moved; now he was lying near the door to our bedroom. I told him it was time to go in. He struggled to stand up but couldn’t. It was like his back legs weren’t working. I tried pulling him up but his back legs just dangled uselessly. I hurried into the house to get Stefani and then I picked up Bodhi and carried him into the bedroom and laid him down on his bed. I’m sure he must have been frightened but he had always been a stoic dog and he didn’t whimper, never made a sound.
Before Bodhi became sick, something like this would have caused us to rush him to the emergency room, but things were different now. We were hoping he’d be better by morning, but when the sun came up, his back legs were still paralyzed. I carried him into the courtyard to pee and poop, and then we called the oncologist. She told us what we had already figured out, that it was likely the cancer had spread into his spine, but we would have to bring him in for tests to be sure. There was no chance of us doing that. Bodhi was going to spend his last hours at home, and they were going to be as peaceful as possible.
We called a home vet, Dr. Graham. She’s a kind and lovely woman who had come to our house three years before to euthanize Sheera (Sunny and Trubble had passed on too, after lengthy happy lives). While we were waiting for her to arrive, we brought in our new cats Yama and Hana to say good-bye to Bodhi. They were just two years old, yellow tabbies, a brother and a sister. They had come to us as tiny kittens and had grown up with Bodhi and unlike our other cats adored him. He was their big brother and their protector; when intruders approached the door he would warn them by woofing mightily so they could run into the bedroom and hide. They seemed to know something was up. They sniffed at him, nuzzled their faces against his muzzle. Then Jim and Susan came by to say good-bye, and then it was just Bodhi and Stefani and me. Waiting for Dr. Graham.
Do animals know? Our usual answer is no. They don’t understand death. But maybe they understand it far better than we do. Maybe they understand that death and life are two sides of the same coin, that to affirm one is to affirm the other and how can you not affirm life? Maybe that’s why Bodhi was so calm. He knew he had come to the end of his life, and it had been a beautiful and joyous thing and he had loved and he had been loved and now Stefani and I were with him and that was all that mattered.
Dr. Graham arrived. She injected him with the sedative. It would be a few minutes before it completely took effect. Bodhi looked up at us with his soulful, haunting, ageless eyes. Stefani and I leaned over him, caressing him and whispering to him and weeping, weeping. Bodhi raised his head and licked my beard, then lowered his head and closed his eyes.
We had a wedding to go to the next day. Itzia, the daughter of our long-time housekeeper Amelia, was getting married. We had known her since she was a little girl. We definitely didn’t feel like leaving the house, but we knew Itzia and Amelia would be disappointed if we didn’t come, so I put on my dark suit and Stefani donned a pretty dress and we Ubered down to Pacific Palisades.
Itzia and Carlos were getting married in a little gazebo overlooking the beach. It was a splendid spot for a wedding; to the west, the sun was setting over the sparkling ocean, and to the east, a big full moon was rising over the hills, and arching over everything was the endless, eternal sky. About twenty of us crowded onto the gazebo. The bride and groom said their vows in Spanish. Itzia’s dress was lovely and white and rippled in a breeze.
Afterwards, everyone drove to a restaurant in Redondo Beach for dinner. Amelia loved Bodhi, but we didn’t tell her or anyone else what had happened; it was a happy day, and we didn’t want to sadden it. But Bodhi naturally filled our minds. I sipped my second gin and tonic, and remembered how sometimes out of sheer joyous exuberance Bodhi would run at breakneck speed in a circle around the courtyard. I would stand in the middle of the circle, turning slowly as I watched Bodhi, his long white hair blowing in a wind of his own making, his beautiful tail streaming behind him. I’d urge him on. Run, Bodhi! Run, Bodhi! Run faster, Bodhi! Run!
Stef and I said good-bye to the newlyweds and Ubered home. We knew what awaited us, or rather didn’t await us. For eleven years, whenever we came home and opened the driveway gate, Bodhi would be there, looking eagerly up at us and wagging his tail, but tonight there was nobody there, nothing, absence, empty space. Stefani went inside the house. I keep my clothes in the guesthouse, and headed back there to take off my suit.
I couldn’t believe Bodhi was gone. The big round moon was now hanging over the courtyard. I looked up at it and began to cry.
“Where are you, Bodhi?” I said. “Where are you?”
Maybe one day I’ll open my eyes, and find myself walking again with Bodhi.