Instead, his epitaph fills an entire book, "Moments With Baxter: Comfort and Love from the World's Best Therapy Dog," written by his mom/owner/handler/soul mate and fellow hospice volunteer, Melissa Joseph who donates all proceeds to charity.
The 223-page hardcover book from Sage Press was published this summer and chronicles Baxter's eight years of service, highlighting many of the poignant comfort-giving moments the gentle chow-golden retriever shared with end-of-life patients and their families.
"It's a tear-jerker, yet at the same time readers have told me that it makes them feel good because it's inspirational and comforting," Melissa told me today on the phone from her home in San Diego, where she is dealing with her grief one day at a time.Promoting the book helps, although it's not the same without Baxter, who appeared at book signings where people would pose for photos with him and ask for his "paw-tograph".
The book is doing well on Amazon during the Christmas shopping season, but there have been retail challenges. Barnes & Noble rejected it for in-store stock *boo-hiss* ("It's considered a hospice niche book," says Melissa) although they will carry the book if customers order it.
"I've sold more copies myself, 3,000, out of my garage and station wagon and at signings," Melissa reported.
I found this surprising for several reason, the least of which because Baxter's basic overarching story coupled with life-and-death lessons in and out of the hospice are (IMHO) far more compelling than say "Marley & Me." Why Hollywood hasn't optioned it is beyond me. Paging Steven Spielberg! Read some excerpts here and judge for yourself. Better yet, buy it here.
Here's the video, narrated by Melissa, that prompted me and thousands of other viewers to immediately fall in love with Baxter:
Three days after I saw this video, Baxter was gone.Having experienced less than 4 minutes of Baxter's therapy dog magic via online technology only 72 hours earlier, I'm not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby when I read his obituary, which was carried by over 175 online newspapers across the country thanks to stories by the Associated Press, AOL Paw Nation and People Pets.
If his passing had that type of affect on me, I wondered how Melissa was dealing with her very personal loss, having lived with and loved Baxter for almost 18 years, adopting him after a friend rescued him from an abusive situation when he was a pup.
Through her Facebook page devoted to Baxter, which I had friended after seeing the video, I discovered a strong woman facing her grief head on, one day at a time, sharing photos and stories about Baxter, answering questions and interacting with his 3,454-and-counting fans.
I had asked Melissa for an interview this week to help get the word out about her book after she mentioned on Facebook how every major national daytime talk show had rejected it and her, even before Baxter passed. Should I name names, Martha, Ellen, Oprah, Regis, Kelly...?
Producers felt that Baxter was "too old" and that people would think his volunteering when he couldn't walk was "criminally abusive." Programs did not want to get "a bad name" by association.
They were not alone in their snap-judgement. The one bad review her book has received on Amazon is from someone who states up front that they did not even read the book, commenting instead on their zero-fact-based opinion of his quality of life.
That ticked me off.
Imagine if Baxter or other therapy dogs had such ignorant thoughts? How many moments of comfort, happiness and love would hundreds of near-death patients have missed out on during his thrice weekly visits? Does one require legs to give of your heart?
I think not. And neither does Melissa, who, for the record, provided Baxter with every medical and creature comfort.
"So many people told me I had to put him to sleep because he couldn't walk," Melissa told me. "I said 'you have to be kidding.' The last year of his life he was the perfect hospice dog because most people he visited couldn't walk either. It was perfect identification between them. He still had something to give," she said.
When he no longer had that something to give, he let Melissa know it was time and she made the decision to put him to sleep. "It was really, really tough to do but it's a gift you give your dog after they give you so many years of themselves," she said."Baxter told me he was ready," she continued. "People told me that would happen and I didn't believe them."
In a twist of fate, two days before Melissa and I spoke several friends, and friends of friends, lost pets to old age or cancer, all in the same day. Knowing the pain of such a loss first-hand, it became clear to me that someone somewhere (Baxter himself?) was giving me an important story assignment: addressing the pain and aftermath of a beloved pet's death.
"This time of year is especially difficult to lose a member of the family," Melissa said.
The first thing Melissa did after Baxter died was to write his obituary and post it to his website, and a poem to read at his memorial which was held at San Diego Hospice where they volunteered together. "I was so grateful they wanted to do that. They had received so many calls from people who wanted to gather together and have some sense of closure. It was a standing-room only event," she said.
"Writing put the whole thing into perspective for me," she said. "I don't know how it came out of me so rapidly, but it was a cathartic experience. I'm not saying the poem is great, but it said exactly what I was feeling. To get it down on paper and out of myself gave me a release I needed. I was like a pressure cooker that needed to let off steam," she added.
Recognizing that some people don't have the same proclivity for writing, Melissa suggested that an alternative might be to perform a ritual that brings you comfort, like lighting candles or framing favorite photographs. Pulling out and going through photos and putting the pet's things all together in one place is one idea she offered.
"That's what I did with Baxter's things," she said. "I went out and got a nice chest with leather straps and placed everything inside of it, pictures, his bowls, everything. I think it's an important first step toward letting go and starting over."
Photos are her solace. She shares them online with fans and she has them displayed in her home. This one is her favorite, the last one of them taken together, about 10 hours before he passed away:
"I think he looks more beautiful in that moment than any other moment in his life. I realized he became most perfect at the very end of his life and that's why he had to go. You can't be perfect and be here, you have to go. That's how I see it. He graced me with his perfection and he showed me how I can get there, so to speak, through the deeds I have to do," she explained.
"I'm lucky to live near the ocean," she added. "I went to the ocean and got in the water even though it was cold, and I let the waves hit me. I cried and screamed, that was also very cathartic. Just disconnect and get away from the world, stay focused on your grief and feel it. Cry, because it's okay to be sad. If you don't allow yourself to be sad you can't be happy later."
Connectivity has it's merits, too, says Melissa. The day Baxter was put to sleep, she had a presentation scheduled with 150 middle school children, a commitment she kept. "It was profound and incredibly helpful," she said.
"At the end of ceremony a little boy came up to me. stooped over wearing a backpack and holding a photo. He said 'Ms. Joseph, I just want to tell you that I just had to put my little doggie to sleep and I'm so sad. I understand your pain." Melissa and the youngster have stayed in touch.
"Empathy is so important," she explained. "Most people can't be completely empathetic with me because I was so over the top with Baxter, he was literally my shadow, but nonetheless it does help when people share what has happened to them and their pet. Go ahead and say you understand, and why you understand, because this is what you went through. It gives us all strength. I see how other people are doing, how they got through and I know that I will also get through and get to the other side of the pain."
"Another way I deal with grief is I recognize how lucky I was. Oh my god, I met the most incredible dog on the planet and had him for 17-1/2 years. How many dogs live to be 19-1/2? I have to look at the upside. It's incredible," she said.
Melissa also recommends taking care of yourself physically and emotionally. "I never gave up going to the gym or eating foods that were good for me. Maybe some days I didn't work out as hard or as long, but I stayed focused," she said.
Focusing on the positive and trying to avoid throwing herself pity parties also helped. "Keep your strength up and don't be a victim, thinking that the world should feel sorry for me because I lost my dog. That's b.s. The world should be excited for me because I had this experience. Oh my god, I'm the lucky one," she said.
In recent weeks she has been visiting shelters to find that right dog. "It's so hard," she said with obvious emotion in her voice. "But I know it's the right thing to do and Baxter is with me on this, but doing the right thing isn't always easy."
She came close this week, but the dog ended up not being a good match for her or therapy work, which was disappointing and frustrating. This setback has not deterred her and she's on the hunt once more. "I had a difficult, abusive upbringing so for me I identify with rescue dogs. We do prevail. We have to overcome, we have to be resilient. We have to," she said.
And resilient she is, thanks in large part to the life lessons she learned in her moments with Baxter.
"This situation with Baxter has brought me to a different place in my life. It enabled me to love myself after all these years and I've been working on that for a long time. It enabled me to take care of myself because now I am alone. My husband left and my dog left within the same period and I felt like I would die from loneliness," she shared.
"I was so heartbroken that I thought when I went to sleep I wouldn't wake up, and if something happened they could just cremate me with Baxter and we'll go together," she added. As with when her mother died, she said, she had Baxter cremated and didn't want anything returned. "I don't have a lot of faith in that system, that what I would get back would really be him. I couldn't deal with anything more beyond that, I was at the point of saturation emotionally," she said.
"Today I keep moving forward. I go to the gym at 5:15 every morning and then I take another step and another step after that and that's what got me to where I am today, visiting shelters. The first time I went it was terrible, I ran out. But I keep going back and I will keep going back until I find my little limelight," she said, adding with a laugh that she's ready to "start networking on all fours."
"Gifts come out of misery and pain, especially if your pain isn't filled with self-absorption," Melissa summarized. "It's okay to feel sad, but stay open and realize it's only temporary. Be grateful for what you had, what you have and know that something good will come from it. This I have learned from Baxter. That, and drink a lot of water," she added with a laugh.
"Moments With Baxter" is available at Amazon.com ~ gift yourself, the animal lovers and anyone who appreciates good human storytelling in your life with a copy today! All proceeds go to hospice and animal welfare charities. This week donations were made by Melissa to San Diego Hospice and the ASPCA thanks to everyone's purchases. Keep it coming!
Book Memorializes Beloved Therapy Dog (Fox 5 San Diego)
This Dog's Life Made A Difference (NBC San Diego)
All photos courtesy Melissa Joseph