It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since our family’s longtime friend and canine companion Bartlet passed away. This is a post I wrote at drderienzo.com last year to celebrate his life and share the lessons we learned from a pound puppy with a white shock of fur, an inexplicable fear of water bowls, and an obsession for walking backwards into rooms. I think the content rings as true today as it did then, and it’s still good for both a good laugh and a good cry. -Chris
Today marked the end of an era. Our dog Bartlet – named after the fictional POTUS from The West Wing who (true story) I wrote-in for President last year when I couldn’t bring myself to vote for any of the real candidates – died this morning at 08:32.
He was a pound puppy, adopted from the Orange County shelter in 2005 by a 23 year-old medical student living in a cramped apartment. He had a blazing white chest and a congenital smile. We got to be kids together, grew up together, and grew older together (albeit at slightly different paces).
He died today an old man, having shared his home at various times with three kids and a wife (mine not his), three other dogs, a plethora of unfortunate fish, and a lifelong feline nemesis he barely managed to outlive.
He lived on farmland and in cities, roamed wooded acres and paved cul-de-sacs, drank equally as long from puddles as from the Atlantic Ocean, and rolled in the feces of nearly every mammalian species on Planet Earth.
I learned from Bartlet that there is no downside to approaching others with boundless happiness. He shared our home for over twelve years – for twelve years I tried to keep him from jumping on and prodigiously licking anyone who walked through our door, and for twelve years I failed. Even when his octogenarian hips were too weak to stand without groaning, most days he’d beat our much younger puppy to the door when I’d get home late from work with the same ridiculous smile plastered to his face. He simply had no other face to make.
He was also remarkably observant and a master of the stealth attack. After our cat retreated to a life of quiet solitude in the laundry room, he would periodically sneak silently up the stairs to steal plates worth of Gizmo’s $75-a-bag prescription diet food anytime we forgot to close the gate. I remember catching him tiptoeing upstairs for the first time after our cat died – I followed him to find out what he’d do upon finding out his delicacy had disappeared. The look on his face is best expressed in GIF-form:
The dog knew what he wanted, when he wanted it, and how it wanted it, and no amount of chiding or banishment to the deck was going to keep him from getting it:
Bartlet also taught me that we get to choose how we approach life’s unpredictability. When we first moved to Efland just after my wife and I got married, he had freedom to roam our full six acre spread. Creeks, beaver dams, pastures, and more deer s-it than any dog could possibly cover in a single lifetime – he was master of his domain.
A year later we built a fence so my wife’s two dogs who’d stayed with her parents (both of whom were runners) could move in too, and his domain rapidly shrunk to a shared 400 square-foot yard. He was just as happy, and gained twenty pounds eating from the auto-feeder we bought to keep them all fed. It was during that time his nickname transitioned from “sausage” to “meatball.”
One night we left all three dogs alone in the house for 20 minutes because we’d forgotten a bottle of wine to go with our dinner – when we got home, a torn paper bag was all that was left of the garlic-clove-filled Italian bread we’d left on the counter. Not knowing the culprit, our vet recommended giving all three dogs a concoction of milk and peroxide to prevent the garlic from poisoning them. While Bonnie and Clyde promptly regurgitated a slurry of garlic in the vomitorium that ensued, a poor dry-heaving Bartlet was left to wonder what he’d missed out on to deserve such an experience.
He both never complained and never gave up, a combination I suspect is rarer in humans than it is in dogs.
Not long after I adopted Bartlet, I printed a small picture of him to carry with me in my wallet. Despite the fact that Apple now lets me carry at least a million photos in my pocket, I still keep the same picture in my wallet today.
It was the spring of 2005, and a very young Bartlet is standing on my parents’ tile kitchen floor. I’d just brought him up to spend six weeks in Massachusetts because he couldn’t stay with me in AHEC housing during my Family Medicine medical school rotation in Oak Island, and I had absolutely no one to watch him in North Carolina.
It was a crazy time in our lives – I’d just met a girl, one who’d not only join me on the 24-hour round-trip drive to pick him up two months later (one that involved both the largest coffee a Burger King in rural Connecticut had ever served as well as a 2AM fried chicken dinner) but whose cat would ultimately become a lifelong adversary, character foil, and an old friend.
In his eyes you can see the wheels whirring, the corner of his mouth turned up in a disarming smile that belied the churning of gears inside his puppy brain. Within hours he was herding my parent’s older dog around the backyard and breaking through their invisible fence to spread his urine across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He did learn and follow the rules, but never let them get in the way of any opportunity he had to bend the world towards his ideal.
Twelve years ago I wrote a quote on the back of that photograph. I’ve tried to live by its words ever since.
More than anything else, for the rest of my life I will miss his daily reminder that it is possible to live this way all day, every day, under every circumstance life can throw at anyone privileged enough to have a beating heart.
So with respect to Stewie, I’ll say goodbye to a friend and teacher who in many ways was more human than many humans I’ve met in the best way I know how.
Rest well old boy – your lessons will continue reaching the hearts of many:
About the Author
Dr. Chris DeRienzo is a physician leader from North Carolina and author of the book Tiny Medicine – One Doctor’s Biggest Lessons from His Smallest Patients. All views expressed here are his alone and are not attributable to any entity with which he may be affiliated. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDeRienzoMD and on LinkedIn.