Bootsy was a good boy. He was a pure-bred border collie. If we had known how neurotic border collies are, we might have chosen a different breed, but I once had a friend whose border collie was a terrific frisbee dog, and I wanted a frisbee dog too — I kind of insisted on it — so Jen bought him from a breeder in Kentucky, not far from where we were living in the fall of 2001.
We had only been married for a year, and we had left our adopted hometown of San Francisco when we both lost our jobs in the dot-com crash. We were broke and had no idea what to do next, so we decided to try Cincinnati, where my parents and my brother live, because we knew it was cheap. We got a crazy cheap apartment across the river in Newport, Kentucky — we moved in on 9/11 — and tried our best to settle into an unfamiliar town. We got Bootsy a couple of months after we got there. He was the cutest little puppy. Jet black and snow white. He loved to play. I remember coming home to that second-floor apartment and seeing him peeking over the top step, waiting to greet me. Jen and I had been a couple for a few years, but Bootsy made us feel like we were starting a family.
Cincinnati didn’t really work out. It was nice being close to my family, but we didn’t really connect with anyone we met there. Bootsy made it a lot easier. Every day I walked him to the elementary school down the street from our apartment and taught him how to catch the frisbee in the baseball field. He could go for hours. I would say “Bootsy! Go deep!” and he would run full speed away from me for 40 feet or so and then curve to the right, and I would throw the frisbee as far as I could. If I could get it within ten feet of him in any direction, he caught it, and I would cheer for him as he brought it back. If it was raining, I threw him tennis balls from the couch. He always caught those too.
In June of 2002, we decided to leave Cincinnati and move in with some friends in Brooklyn, and we moved our frisbee routine to Prospect Park. After almost a year we bought an apartment right on the edge of the park, and I found a spot next to the lake, a clearing in the trees, that we went to every day. I would throw that frisbee over and over and over for an hour or more. When we quit, it was because I had something else I had to do, or my arm got tired, I was cold, or it started raining — never, ever because Bootsy was tired. He never got tired. It seemed like he could have gone forever. The harder he panted, the bigger he hung his tongue out, the happier he seemed.
From the time I lost my editorial job in San Francisco, I fell back on the most useful thing I learned in college — bartending — so I was out all night four or five nights a week. Bootsy gave Jen some much-needed companionship during those late nights and early mornings. He made her feel safe walking around in Brooklyn, which for the first couple of years we were here was no small comfort. And his habit of barking every time the doorbell rang, while annoying, made her feel safe alone at night, knowing any intruder would think twice about coming in.
Border collies are herding dogs, which makes them great for fetching and catching, but there are a few quirks that come with it. For one thing, anytime we went anywhere with Bootsy and there were more than three people, if anyone left the pack he would run after them barking his head off. This scared people sometimes, until they got to know him and saw that he was a creampuff, wouldn’t hurt a fly, just didn’t want any of the flock wandering off. Once when Jen and I rented a cabin on a lake in Maine, I went swimming in the lake and Bootsy followed me out into the water and swam a circle around me, trying to get me back to shore. He even herded me when I was in the water.
Once our friends, and later we, started having kids, Bootsy’s herding instincts got to be a little irritating at times, because kids are always breaking into sudden wind sprints, and having a 50-lb dog chasing toddlers around and barking at them could make things a little tense sometimes. Bootsy also was not a fan of kids on swings: he’d chase the swing back and forth, barking, and try to grab it and make it stop. We started calling him the Fun Police, stopping the kids from doing anything that involved sudden movement (which is everything kids do). But everyone knew it was just the way he was wired, nobody held it against him.
When our son Henry was born, we didn’t get out to the park so much anymore. Jen worked days, I worked nights, so one of us was always alone with the boy. Walking a dog while pushing a stroller is not so easy, so our frisbee sessions went from daily to weekly to monthly. When Henry was big enough to get out of the stroller and walk, we started going more often again, and Bootsy was still a great frisbee dog, but he started to need to take breaks. He didn’t catch it quite as often as he used to. Where he used to outrun the frisbee, now he couldn’t always catch up to it. Gradually he seemed to become more interested in chewing the frisbees up than catching them, and at some point I just never got around to replacing the latest ruined frisbee.
He was a pretty nervous dog around the house. He liked to hide, even from us. For a long time his favorite place to hang out was in the bathtub; in the last couple of years he switched to our bedroom closet.
This dog really loved people. Whenever friends or family came to our house, he would come up to them on the couch and start licking. Most dogs would lick for a few seconds and move along, but Bootsy gave long, lingering licks and didn’t stop until someone dragged him away.
Bootsy loved me and Henry, and he loved Jen even more, but the person he loved most was our friend Moppy. Moppy was kind of like Bootsy’s weekend dad; he lives upstate, near Woodstock, about half the time, and he would often come and pick Bootsy up before he went up there, so Bootsy could run around all day, lie in the sun, swim in the pond — do all the things a border collie should do, that he couldn’t really do in the city. Nothing got Bootsy up on his feet and his tail wagging like Moppy coming over to our house, because he knew it meant he was on his way upstate. Just the word “upstate” would get him bouncing off the walls.
Last summer Bootsy developed a swelling on his butt, and when we took him to the vet it turned out to be a tumor. We had the tumor removed, and he limped around the house for a couple of weeks, but pretty soon he was back to normal. But the biopsy on the tumor revealed that he had a rare form of cancer, a cancer of the blood vessels, very likely to return and to spread all over his body. We agonized over what to do, whether to try and play whack-a-mole and remove the tumors as they popped up, a game we were very unlikely to win that would have had him in a constant state of recovering from surgeries, or just let it take its course and try to keep him comfortable.
We chose the latter. It’s been hard the last few months, watching as it got harder and harder for him to climb the steps, as he gradually lost his voice and couldn’t bark at the doorbell any more. I never thought I would miss that. He stopped eating his dinner, and he had tumors all over his body, some of them big as golf balls. The last couple of weeks he could barely get up on his feet. Even the little three-step stoop to our back porch became a major challenge. Every so often he would perk up and suddenly be up for a game of tug, or to wrestle with our other dog Catfish, and we’d think maybe things weren’t so bad, but the last few days it became clear that it was time.
Henry said his goodbyes this morning, before he went to school. Jen and I put Bootsy in the car and the route to the vet took us through our old neighborhood. We were already late, but we quickly decided to park by our old apartment right next to the park. We took Bootsy back to our old frisbee spot and I tossed a stick around a few times for him. He lit up for a moment but wore out in about 30 seconds. He lay there panting in the sunshine, the first day that really feels like spring is coming. He never seemed happier than when he was panting like that.
See you upstate, buddy.