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I’m glad the government shutdown is over. It wasn’t necessary and it hurt the economy. I’m also glad the National Zoo’s Panda Cam is back on, because it’s  been a strange and wonderful part of my life for many years.

I was one of those people who never had a warm, fuzzy feeling about pets in general.  There were a few cats over the years, but I never really formed a strong attachment. We had a dog for a brief time, but to me he was just another responsibility.

And then things changed. In July of 2005, I was self-employed, working out of an office in my home when Mei Xiang, the female panda at the National Zoo, gave birth to a tiny, hairless creature. I was mesmerized. Every morning I would turn on the Panda Cam and watch as this giant panda so very carefully nurtured her tiny baby. It became a part of my daily routine to observe her devotion, never venturing outside to eat for weeks. And as I watched, something was happening to me. I don’t know if it was some strange awakening of my maternal instincts, but a voice inside my head starting saying, on a very regular basis, “Get a dog.”

What? I don’t even like dogs. So I kept on watching the Panda Cam and ignoring that little voice. But it was relentless. So finally, I decided to speak to my husband about it. He was the animal lover, not me. When we were first together, he woke up one morning with tears in his eyes. He had dreamed about a dog he had loved and had to give up, and remembering made him cry.

He was pretty dismissive about my getting a dog, so I kind of let it go. But the voice was still there and I was still doing the Panda Cam thing every day. Now the baby panda, a boy, had a name, Tai Shan, and was getting bigger and bigger by the day. I began going to the local animal shelter, not all the time, but once in a while. I think I was trying to “shake it off,” because it just didn’t make sense for me to want a dog.

I raised the subject again with my husband, and he gradually started to respond more positively. Well, he said, it has to be a female and she has to have short hair. Okay, that was pretty reasonable, I thought. A few weeks later, on a Saturday when Mark was working, I made another trip to the animal shelter. And there, in a pen, were two small puppies. The sign said they were half chocolate lab and half white spitz. They clearly had short hair, but both were male. Suddenly, one of the puppies jumped up on his hind legs, put his paws and his cute little nose through the holes in the pen and just wagged and wagged his tail at me. And in that moment, I knew he was The One.

A short time later, I was on my way home with my new puppy, courtesy of the Panda Cam, when my husband called. Don’t ask me how, but he knew, saying, “You got a dog, didn’t you?”  I could tell he was a little uptight about it. He had never really been 100% on board, but now he had no choice. And he wasn’t happy that the puppy was a male. But I countered with the fact that he had short hair. I was pretty nervous about the whole thing at that point, not sure how this was going to go. But what the hell, the voice in my head had been pretty adamant and I just couldn’t shut that voice down no matter how hard I tried.

So I got some books and began my adventure into actually raising a dog. He became Baxter Reese (I don’t know why, but Mark wanted the Reese part, so we went with it). It was work, but I enjoyed it and never regretted it. Baxter became a part of our lives. I would walk him in the early morning, and then Mark and I would walk him when he came home from work. We sought out places where Baxter could run and play, and we always took him out on the boat, which he loved.

One evening, we were sitting on the couch and I went through another “voice in my head” experience. This one was telling me that when I was gone, Baxter would be a great companion and comfort to Mark. And it gave me a sense of relief, although it almost made me cry. I honestly can’t remember whether I told Mark or not, but I’m thinking now that because it sounded so morbid, I did not.

And then, in 2008, we found out Mark had cancer. But the doctors were very positive, it was treatable and we had nothing to worry about. Besides, I was the one who was going to die first, I was sure. But it was not to be. Mark’s cancer spread, and in August of 2011, after a horrible final year of suffering, he died. We had hospice at home, and yes, Baxter was up on the bed with Mark some of that last day. He couldn’t be kept out.

In the days and weeks after Mark’s death, there were lots of people around. But then everyone went back to their own lives and it was just me and Baxter. I remember thinking, wait a minute, this isn’t the way it was supposed to happen. How’s that for denial? I was constantly looking around for Mark, just part of the process, they say, learning to accept that your loved one is really gone. It takes a while. Baxter, though, seemed to know. A couple of times I said the word Daddy, I don’t know why, maybe just to see what kind of reaction I’d get. He would just look straight back at me, as if to say, “Mommy, you know darn well he’s not here anymore.” He got it even if I didn’t.

For a long time, I had no desire to go anywhere or do anything. I got up every day and took care of the details of life, but I didn’t really want to live without him. Through it all, Baxter was there for me in ways it’s hard to describe. Mostly, he taught me about being in the now. We lived our lives together, he and I, as the world went on all around us. Tai Shan had been sent to China. The Panda Cam was still operational, but no more baby panda.

And then, in the summer of 2012, a year after Mark’s death, there were signs that Mei Xiang was pregnant. And I was beginning to want to go places and do things. My granddaughter Willow was almost three, so I suggested we take her to the National Zoo. Mei Xiang had just given birth, and I had been avidly watching the Panda Cam. I knew we wouldn’t be able to visit the pandas, but that was okay. I remember that day so well, because it was the first time I had ventured out for a whole day and actually enjoyed myself, the first prolonged moments of happiness and pleasure in my life in a long, long time.

A week later, I awoke to the news that the tiny baby panda had died. Thankfully, I wasn’t watching the Panda Cam at the time, but once the watchers heard Mei Xiang crying, they immediately turned it off anyway. I was completely crushed and fell apart. I was feeling her pain at her loss and reliving my pain for the millionth time. I was miserable for weeks, and it was a long time before I wanted to go out again.

I’m better now, and Baxter is right here at my feet as I’m writing. And there is a new baby panda, a girl this time. And the Panda Cam is back on!

Panda Cam

Willow, Baxter and Me

And so it’s Baxter and me, with the present not being the future I supposed it would be. Many times I’ve wished it was that future instead of this one. But here I am, slowly but surely learning to accept the present and live in the now, just like Baxter. I know one day I will have to say goodbye to Baxter, and it’s a future I can’t imagine having to deal with. Maybe it will be the other way around. If anyone knows for sure, it’s probably Baxter, not me.

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