Gary heard Jack was making his last trip to the veterinarian, so he stopped last Friday to say goodbye and to comfort me. “The only thing I can say is what my vet told me when he put our dog to sleep,” Gary said. “He told me, ‘You’re sad, but I’m not. Because I know this dog was loved. People bring me dogs all the time to put down because they just don’t want them any more.’ ”
As he spoke we looked across the lawn. Jack had lain down facing us in the grass, under the shade of a massive ginkgo tree. Everything has flowered at once this glorious spring—even the dogwoods and the redbuds together—and the
breeze was perfumed with the mingled scent of lilac and crabapple blossoms. An acquaintance had just told me, “I’m from New England and we lived in Hawaii. There’s nothing like Ohio in Spring. You have to pay attention, because once it’s gone, that’s it.”
We buried Jack the next afternoon in the backyard between two aged crabapple trees, their limbs a bower of airy white blossoms. He was an old dog, at thirteen, but he was a little dog and we thought we’d get more years. Especially since we’d moved last June to the safety of upscale Westerville. Just before we’d left our farm in the Appalachian foothills, an embattled groundhog bit Jack in the cheek, and his head had swollen like a football. Then we’d had to have him stitched up after his fight with a big opossum; Jack moved to the city sporting a new black scar above his left eye. He defined “grizzled.” But then, he’d been marked for death his whole life.
Eighteen pounds of bone and muscle, he was white with brown ears and had two tan oval spots, one on top of his head and one on his rump. In digging after varmints or hunting rats in our barn, he’d used his teeth to remove anything in the way—rocks, roots, logs—and he’d broken teeth and ripped out some at their
roots. He’d injured the bridge of his nose so often, using it as a shovel, that it wouldn’t grow hair; the pink badge of proud flesh puzzled our new city vets. Jack will live, for as long as our family does, in stories about how he earned his scars.
I’m thankful that Jack and I had a total love-in for six months before he got sick. With both kids at college and Kathy working 24/7 helping run a college, Jack was my constant buddy. He bounced down the hall before me at each dawn, wagging his tail. Afternoons, he lay at my feet. Evenings we took walks, deploring the insolent suburban squirrels, which needed chasing. At dinner, Kathy teased me for baby talking to him. Occasionally in those days Jack looked at me with absolute, melting adoration—a queasy look on the keen face of a Jack Russell terrier, and one that made me uneasy. Did I deserve that? Certainly not.
Knowing Jack loved me, I still felt jealous when he’d abandon me at night to sit beside Kathy. Kids too always feel this way about the family dog: even if he’s theirs, he seems to love momma more. Kathy usually fed him, and she never messed with his mind. Since I supplied his dialogue, I voiced perhaps the greatest source of his admiration every time she returned from the grocery store: “That bitch is slow, but man she can hunt!” It must be said, however, that Kathy had a problem with Jack’s ardent nature, specifically his sexuality, which continued despite neutering—though only with stuffed animals, which the kids subversively supplied.
I bought Jack for our daughter, Claire, for her eleventh birthday. I’d recently met Stacy Hall, a dairy farmer near Athens, and admired her bounding pack of white and brown avatars. She must have had a dozen Jack Russells then. I met Jack’s mother, Josie, a
homely white dog with a long body. Before I drove home with Jack, Stacy and I sipped coffee in her log cabin, and she got out an album. Photos showed her dogs attacking groundhogs, which burrowed into her pastures. And also assaulting raccoons and possums. These cute dogs? Oh, and the pack had killed Jack’s sire, Gonzo, Stacy mentioned. “Sometimes that happens.”
Back then, I thought all little dogs were yappy but harmless. I’d never raised a terrier, just a goofy Labrador, and realized I hadn’t known what I was getting into. I looked at the tiny creature on the passenger seat of my truck. When I got home, Claire couldn’t stop grinning. But I went to the computer and finally researched the breed. Bred for 300 years to hate fur, these terriers are scrappy fighters. “You may think your Jack Russell and your cat are friends,” one web site intoned, “but you may come home one day to find your cat dead.”
Claire always had at least two cats.
Thus began our first adventure with Jack, socializing him. When he was about the size of a guinea pig, he growled at me for disciplining him. And I couldn’t tease him by grabbing his snout, as I had our Lab, because he’d look puzzled, and then he’d snap. This was funny, justified, and sobering. You had to respect the little pecker. I took him to Stacy’s to be dominated by her dogs, and she told me to get tougher. Our son Tom, then eight, would play rough, and Jack would bite. Afraid Jack would nip his face, I gave Tom his first and only spanking. Then I put Jack and his master Claire through two dog obedience classes.
All this worked. Jack mellowed; he recognized human authority. In fact, Jack loved people, and even dogs—though if a dog wanted to fight, that was just fine too. He was inherently comic, a canine id unleashed upon the world. When I
walked him on the bike path in town I learned something else: Jack was a chick magnet. “If anything happens to you,” I told Kathy, “I’m taking Jack for a walk.”
Just after Christmas this year, I noticed a swelling in his throat. Cancer it was, lymphoma. Dogs are like people this way: if they live long enough, cancer will take them. We kept Jack going with drugs for over three months, until we saw
his suffering was starting to exceed the pleasure he took in our petting and feeding him. For a dog’s owner, it’s a tough place, because you feel you will put him down too early or too late. But as my sister said, when the time comes, you know.
The poignancy of a dog’s death is that it’s different only in degree, not in kind, from losing a human. Afterward, there’s that same resonant pause in which you watch and in which you observe how curious it is how the world goes on. You come home and expect to see him. You wonder where the years went. In the end, our dogs’ greatest gift to us is the saddest: they sprint ahead, pointing the way to our common fate.
When the vet stopped Jack’s heart, with an injection into a vein at the top of his left foreleg, Kathy and I cried. “He’s still warm,” she said as we tucked him, swaddled in blankets, into his little grave beneath the crabapple trees. In quick flashes in my mind’s eye, I saw us and our children, younger and happier than we knew. He defined thirteen lucky years, our Jack, now gone.