The other day my wife, Linda, and I dug a hole on some land we own in Richland County and buried our dog Bailey. This was shortly after I decided to leave Isthmus, where I've worked for 25 years, to take a new job. The two events are not really related, but I'll likely always regard them as such, and not just because they happened around the same time.
Bailey is the dog on the cover of my book Watchdog, which came out last fall. Linda and I got her from a rescue group in April 2009, when she was nine years old. Part rat terrier, part corgi, she'd belonged to an elderly woman in Spring Green who got Alzheimer's and had to go into a care facility.
At first Bailey could hardly walk around the block, she was so out of shape. A few months later she was scaling hillsides on our vacation in Canada, full of vigor. In early 2010, a month before the photo for my book was taken, she went blind, suddenly and inexplicably, adding irony to the idea that she was the watchdog of the title.
The book felt like an ending. It put a bow on these last 25 years, drawing appreciation from some quarters and indifference from others. It made me wonder: What now?
Bailey was a terrible dog, headstrong and ill-behaved. She bullied our other dog, Sam, who is older and also blind. She was food-obsessed, and would eat anything that came within reach of her jaws. She couldn't do any tricks, or learn them. We fell in love with her, but she was never a loving dog.
Isthmus was my first full-time job; I started when I was 26. I was hired the day after my son Jesse was born. I was at the hospital when I spoke by phone to Vince, offering me the job. Now Jesse, a UW-Madison grad, just finished his first year of law school, at UCLA.
Over the years I've loved Isthmus and clashed with it. I've given it my all, and didn't always appreciate what it was giving back. The pressure was constant, but so were the rewards.
Isthmus is a magnet for talented people, drawn to the freedom this job affords. And the writers. Hundreds of writers. I've shared their suffering (every story involves a bit of suffering) and their triumphs. I'm proud of all of them.
Linda and I sometimes took Bailey to work at Isthmus. She'd snooze on the floor of my office, a few feet from where I'm typing these words. When we took her out for a walk, she'd almost always attract notice. People would see her silly face and improbable physique - thick neck, spindly white legs with dark fur freckles, zero tail - and melt.
Over time, three members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court individually met Bailey and ruled her adorable. Linda and I joked about trying to arrange a run-in with another justice so it would be a majority. I'm pretty sure Scott Walker and Marty Beil would agree on the issue of Bailey's cuteness.
Over the last several months, Bailey's health faded rapidly. The vet ran some tests and found some problems; we tried some medications, but nothing seemed to help. She began having dizzy spells, where she'd stagger unsteadily on her feet. Then she began to cry out in pain, for a minute or two; we'd hold her till she stopped. She was frightened. Who wouldn't be?
The vet assured us that we were making the right choice. Even before the syringe was empty, her legs crumpled and she was gone. I tried to close her soft, unseeing eyes but they stayed open. They were open even as we lowered her into the ground, in the blue blanket that had come from her prior owner. (Back when Bailey could see, her head would always turn at the sight of an older woman with white hair.)
I've lost animals and people I've loved before. I've seen death happen. It's a solemn event, and it forces thoughts of larger things, about the whys of our existence.
What is it that makes us alive one instant and dead the next? And in the brief time we're here, with life within us, what is it that we should do?
I don't claim that trading in my job at Isthmus for one at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism will imbue my life with new meaning. But, like Bailey's death, it involves profound loss, and fond remembrance.
Isthmus will survive and thrive without me. A newspaper is greater than the sum of its parts and much more than any single part. It is integral to the life of the community, and the community sustains it.
And I'll survive too, in my new role at the center, covering the connection between money and politics. I'll find new stories to pursue and new people to know, adding to the bounty my years in this profession have already bestowed.
But I'll miss Isthmus. I feel that this is my home, and it hurts to say goodbye.
We filled Bailey's grave with the dirt we'd removed, and placed a large rock on top. We transplanted some ferns and a columbine. Then we read a few poems, about life and death, by Walt Whitman and a Milwaukee poet named Antler, who was part of another life I left behind, when I came to Isthmus in 1986. Among them was Antler's great poem "The Dark Inside a Life," which includes this line:
"Wherever your feet touch earth / you know you are touching / where something has died or been born."
So here's to the end of what was, and to new beginnings.
Bill Lueders, Isthmus' news editor, will become the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's money and politics project director.