The latest installment in our month-long series on pets and what they mean to us.
Read time: 5 minutes
As I’m writing this, my dog Jake is undergoing minor surgery to have a large growth removed from above his eye. I say “growth” because it’s a less scary word than “tumor”—though the vet thinks it’s certainly cancer, given how fast it’s growing.
“Hard to say how much longer he’s got anyway, being 14,” the vet said.
“It’s a quality of life thing,” she had explained when she recommended removing it. Jake is 14, and no one would suggest doing drastic interventions—chemo, say—on a dog that age. She didn’t, at least, and I never would have gone for it. “It’s got to be annoying, that thing on his face. If we don’t take it off soon, it’ll get to the point where we can’t. Hard to say how much longer he’s got anyway, being 14—but if it’s six months or a year, he’ll be happier with that thing gone.”
It might have been hard for her to say how long he’s got; one of her less-sensitive colleagues didn’t have trouble saying to me, at an earlier appointment, that a dog of his size usually only lives to 15 at most. I wanted to punch him, and then I wanted to kiss him. (I did neither.) It was actually calming to have a time frame. Jake is incredibly important to me.
My Favorite Guy
My favorite person is a dog, I often say: This dog. I like him better than my kids—okay, I don’t love him more than my kids, but he’s always happy to see me, doesn’t ask for cash, and never breaks expensive tech stuff, rolls his eyes, or snarls at me.
He’s 14 years old, and it takes him a minute or so to stand up now. He’s almost deaf and can no longer do his famous crawling trick. But open the back door, and he shoots out and circles the yard like he’s a puppy. He still, almost daily, plays his favorite joke: finding a sock somewhere, and walking casually back and forth until someone notices and chases him. He clearly thinks it’s hilarious. It’s even funnier if he can stuff two or three socks in his mouth.
My favorite person is a dog, I often say: This dog.
We brought him home from the shelter when he was a tiny puppy. My kids, then 6 and 10, were clamoring for a dog, and so was my husband. I’m definitely a dog person. I had grown up with a superb Collie, but all I could think was, I’ll have to walk him. I’ll be the only damn person who will walk him. And then one day a lightbulb went off in my head: I’ll get to walk him! I’ll get to leave the house and walk him!
When we went to the shelter, I told my family there were two rules: No male dogs, and no puppies. “Don’t even look at the puppies,” I said. Of course we looked at the puppies, and of course there was this super-cute mutt—a male, naturally—a mix of black Lab and Border Collie and who knows what else, with oversized polka-dotted feet. It was the feet that did it.
Through Thick and Thin
We all doted on him over the years, my husband most of all. He would spend hours in a field with Jake, zooming a stunt kite so that Jake could “herd” the shadow. Jake would also herd bird shadows—a flock going by would send him into conniptions, trying to keep all those shadows together—and bricks. There were large bricks buried deep at our fence line, and Jake would dig them up and then roll them around the yard with his paws and nose.
When Jake was seven, my husband passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, during an afternoon nap. After I called 911, the house filled up with people, so many people: police, EMTs, my brother-in-law, my brother and his girlfriend, a couple of neighbors. As soon as they started streaming in, Jake jumped up on the bed and lay down right next to his “Daddy,” pressed up against him. He stayed there for hours, until the coroner came.
As the EMTs and police streamed in, Jake jumped up on the bed and lay down right next to his “Daddy,” pressed up against him. He stayed there for hours.
In the crazy days that followed, the doorbell rang constantly—flowers, food, friends—and Jake was so rattled. In a moment when the door was propped open during a flower delivery, a neighbor I didn’t know well was passing by, her dog on a leash, and Jake ran out and bit him. (He’d never done anything like that, but I admit it: When it came to most dogs, he didn’t play well with others.)
My sister dealt with the neighbor’s shrieking phone calls over the next couple of days, apologizing calmly and repeating that of course, I felt terrible (I did) and of course I would pay the vet bill (I did). The neighbor crankily said she wouldn’t sue or try to get Jake destroyed, “considering the circumstances.” (It seemed clear that she thought her tragedy was much worse than mine.) That freaked me out: would the police come take my dog? My siblings and I were prepared to barricade the door if needed, but a big fat check from me seemed to calm her down.
The Transition Ahead
Jake is the best dog, a true therapy dog who climbs on top of my kids when they’re sick or upset, a sensitive soul who tries to claw through the back wall of a closet during thunderstorms and who hides at the flash of a camera, who’s patient with the Maine Coon who adores him and treats Jake’s tail like his own private cat toy. He’s seen me through three different jobs, widowhood and dating, my mother’s death, my kids’ health issues.
We’re well aware that their time clock is ticking down faster than our own, but still—the love we give and get is unlike any other.
Here’s the thing with pets: While we get older, they get old. We adopt them knowing they’re going to break our hearts someday. We bring them into our lives and hearts, well aware that their time clock is ticking down faster than our own, but still—the love we give and get is unlike any other.
When my brother’s old dog Gypsy was put to sleep, my brother cuddled her and whispered in her ear, “Go find Mary,” his wife who’d passed away a few years before. If the circumstances are the same with Jake, if his life doesn’t end naturally and he needs help moving on, I’ll do the same. Even though I’m not so sure about the whole afterlife thing, I’ll lie with him and tell him, “Go find Daddy.” If there is a heaven, there will be kites and socks and lots of peanut butter snacks waiting for him, I’m sure.
Other stories in the pets series: