(Just going to warn you, there will be tears in this blog. Most of them will be mine. )
Tomorrow, my finest book releases out into the world, and it's been a long, rough road to get here. I give my all to each book I write, but BASEMENT DOGS took something extra from me, and gave me something extra in return.
You see, it's a fictional story...but not a completely fictional one.
Several years ago I was just coming out of a bad breakup with a woman I intended to marry. To keep my mind off things, I decided to get a dog. I'd grown up with dogs, all of them English Springer Spaniels, but as an adult, I'd never really had the chance to own one. So, I decided to look into the process, and settled on the idea that I wanted a rescue.
I only intended it to be an exploratory thing, where I put out a few feelers to see what was involved in getting a rescue dog. At the time, my kids were still young. My daughter, in particular, was only 8. The last thing I needed was some dangerous animal coming to live with us.
But of course, the moment I put the word out that I was considering getting a rescue dog, people began to flood me with suggestions. One in particular got my attention.
His name was Cody, and he was a basement dog.
I didn't know what that meant, but the photos of him were highly disturbing. He was chained to a wall in someone's basement, and he had open wounds all along the undersides of his legs from lying on nothing but concrete for his entire life.
As it turns out, a basement dog is exactly what it sounds like. Their owners keep them in a basement and don't let them upstairs or outside. Usually, they serve as breeding animals, where the owners force them to mate so that they can sell the puppies.
The photos got to me. His story got to me. I contacted Brookline Lab Rescue, the service that had rescued Cody, and I asked what his status was. It wasn't good. He'd been neutered, but no one had connected with him, and if he wasn't fostered soon, they were going to have to put him down.
"Let me come see him," I said.
I went to see him the next night and it was the oddest experience I've ever had with a dog. He had absolutely no interest in me. He had absolutely no interest in the treats or the toy I brought him either. It was like he had no idea what they were. Which he likely didn't.
Needless to say, we didn't connect. But I didn't give up.
I went back to see him two more times, and barely made any headway. He was standoffish and weird. The only time he seemed to pay attention was when other dogs came around, and then he went absolutely nuts.
The people at Brookline were paying close attention to how he and I interacted, and they clearly weren't impressed. "I still want him," I told him. "Nobody is killing that dog."
I can't quite explain why I was so taken with Cody. There certainly wasn't very much there to work with when we met. I think it had everything to do with his story. I could relate. There were plenty of times in my life I'd felt locked in a basement and kept away from the things going on, and the people upstairs, that I wanted to be a part of.
There had been kids at the house where Cody was kept, and I knew he'd have been able to hear them upstairs, playing and laughing. Maybe he'd whined and wanted to play with them. Maybe he could smell them, and knew who was who, and had built something up in his mind about what kind of family they were. Dogs are, by nature, pack animals. It killed me to think that he'd been lying on that basement floor for several years wondering what he had done that was so wrong that his pack forced him to stay away.
No, god damn it. Nobody was killing that dog. I didn't care if I had to bust him out by force.
I convinced Brookline to let me foster him, at least for a little while. If that went well, they would consider letting me adopt him.
Fine, I set my entire house up to help make him comfortable. I bought all the stuff a dog could want. I even rolled around in his new dog bed every day to try and get my scent on it so that he'd be familiar with me.
I admit, the night before I got him, I was nervous as hell. What had I done? This dog clearly didn't like me and I'd seen nothing to suggest he liked people at all. What if he hurt one of the kids? What if this was all a huge mistake?
But, I was determined to see it through and the kids were determined to help me try. On the day we went to get him, they came along, and together, we walked Cody over to our car, and I should mention that Cody was huge. He was skinny, but very muscular, and with his yellow coat he reminded me of a lion.
I lifted him up and heaved him into the car and he went into the passenger seat and acted like he was standing on quicksand. He'd probably never been in the seat of a car before. The kids got into the back, and I patted Cody on the head and said, "Ok, buddy. Let's get you home."
And then something strange happened.
As we started to drive, he turned and poked his head between the seats and looked at my kids. Then, before I could stop him, he leapt right at them.
Oh my God, he's attacking them, I thought.
The squealed and cried out and just as I stopped the car and spun around, I realized that he had spread out across both of their laps and was wiggling his enormous backside to cuddle up to both of them. My daughter was squealing because he was licking her.
From that moment he was ours, and more importantly, we were his.
I loved that damn dog.
I gave him everything that I could, trying to make up for all the time he'd lost. He gave us everything in return, and I knew how grateful he was to finally be part of a pack.
Two years later, the first tumor showed up.
I had it removed and the vet assured me they'd gotten it all. Everything was going to be all right.
Six months later, a second one showed up, and it was much bigger and much nastier than the first. By the time we found it, two different vets told me it was too late.
On Cody's last day, he lived like a king.
He ate steak and ice cream. Everyone was wonderful to him. Inside, I was dying, but I did everything I could to give him the best that I had.
When we got to the vets, they took us into a goddamn basement.
I couldn't believe it. I was so furious. Cody had come all that way, gone through so effing much, only to wind up in yet another basement where he was going to die.
But as the vet injected him, I wrapped my arms around him and he lied down next to me, and I held him and stroked him and kissed him, and boy oh boy I cried hard enough that I'm surprised my face doesn't have wear marks down the sides of my cheeks.
I'm crying now just thinking about it.
Cody died in my arms and I felt like I'd failed him in every sense of the word. I'd promised him a better life and that I'd take of him. Instead, all I'd accomplished was watching helplessly as he got sick and died.
I could barely see straight when I covered his body with the blanket and staggered out of the basement. I paid the vet bill and they told me to come back in two weeks to get a casting of his paw. I said I would, but then I could never bring myself to go back.
That pain stayed with me for a long time.
Eventually, I poured it all into BASEMENT DOGS. There is a lot of Cody in that book, and a lot of me in that book, and if you've read this, and you read that, you'll see what I mean.
I came to realize that I'd misunderstood things during his last days. Yes, he'd wound up in another basement, but that didn't matter. He wasn't there alone. He had me, his best friend, his pack leader, someone he trusted and loved. He and I hadn't had much time together, but the time we had, I'm telling you, we made the most of it.
Having Cody was one of the best experiences of my life. It was one of the most painful experiences as well, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. As bad as it hurt, I'd do it again, because in the end, the good outweighed the bad. By a million miles.
Writing BASEMENT DOGS helped me come to grips with those feelings, and even though it still hurts, it doesn't haunt, if that makes sense.
There's an epilogue to my story, though.
Eventually, I met a new woman, and one day she told me it was time to get a new dog.
It was hard at first, opening myself up to the idea of letting a new one into my heart, but as soon as I saw Walter, I knew he was mine, and he knew that I was his.
There are times he'll be lying on the floor and I'll get off the couch to just lie next to him. To hold him, and stroke his ears, and listen to him breathe.
He's a spoiled mutt, too, as anyone will tell you, but as sure as I'm standing here, that dog will want for nothing. He will miss nothing. He will have the fullest dog experience that was ever had by any dog, anywhere.
Because I know that someday it will end, as all things must, but we will not look back on any of it with an ounce of regret.
As a matter of fact, I'm going to go snuggle on the floor with him right now. He won't understand why, or what it means to me, but he doesn't need to. He is used to it by now.
I wrote BASEMENT DOGS for Cody. To honor his life and what he gave me, but also to process the pain I experienced losing him.
I wrote BASEMENT DOGS for me, in order to focus on everyone, human or dogs, who's ever been trapped in a basement and wanted to break out.
Thanks for reading this, and I hope you enjoy the book.