It all started and ended with a dog. The wrong dog. A dog I didn’t want, but kept for over a decade out of stubborn loyalty. He was eighteen when we put him down. Eighteen! Standing in the small room at the vet’s office, waiting to put him to sleep, I couldn’t help but think, even as I sobbed over his wheezing, spent form, that it was so like him to not just die. To not let go gracefully and naturally, no, Jack needed to die like he lived: inconveniently. He had to put us through the heartbreak of hard decisions and committed goodbyes. That, I think, was his final gift to me, this purposeful death, this forced pause, a moment to reflect on what I was losing, and how free I would feel when it was done.
Jack was my honeymoon dog. I got him a month before I got married at the perfectly Idaho-reasonable age of 21, and I put him down the same week my divorce was finalized. Jack bookended my love story. I still think of it as a love story, even though it ended. Maybe it was. Maybe all the best love stories end not with “and they lived happily ever after”, but with a nod to entropic decay. Maybe they end with “it worked for awhile, but eventually, fell apart”. Much like the marriage itself, Jack wasn’t good dog or a bad dog, he was just a dog, and he worked for awhile, but eventually fell apart. It seemed appropriate that we put him down together, my ex and I, a final act of solidarity. The hole he left felt as large as and unfillable as the one where my love story used to live. More permanent and real than even the divorce.
We adopted Jack from a no-kill shelter in San Luis Obispo, California. He wasn’t my first pick. I walked past him twice and thought he seemed anti-social and obnoxious. I wanted to adopt a cheerful, little black lab mix named Ben. I had always wanted a lab, growing up, we had a border collie and she hated everything except shitting in the house and running away. Being from Idaho, the beach was still an exotic treat for me, and I wanted a dog that would share my enthusiasm for the ocean; a driftwood-fetching, tide pool exploring, wave-hopping companion. I was immediately drawn to Ben, and I can still picture his face, this pup that got away.
My ex didn’t like Ben, so the man who worked at the shelter talked me into taking another look at Jack. I remember standing in front of his kennel skeptically, trying to muster some feeling of attachment. He was not an attractive dog. He looked like someone took a bunch of leftover canine parts and smashed them together into a weird FrankenHound. He had the butt of a Rottweiler, the legs of a Heeler, the face of an Australian Shepard, and the ears of a bat. On the card with his name and breed, there was a section for why the previous owners had gotten rid of him. It read “Barks Too Much, Not a Good Dog”. The shelter volunteer informed us that Jack had been there on and off for three years, that people would adopt him and bring him back. So then, of course, I had to have him.
He was a neurotic, abused, unwanted mess with abandonment issues. I was a neurotic, abused, unwanted mess with abandonment issues. We understood one another perfectly. If one can be codependent with a dog, and honey, I’m here to assure you, one can, Jack and I would have given Melody Beatty an aneurism. When I was in the house, he wouldn’t leave my side, following me from room to room, trying to maintain constant physical contact, pressed against my leg so I was forever tripping over him. “God Damn it, Jack” was such a common phrase in our house, it was my son’s third sentence.
As it turned out, the card was right. Jack barked too much, and was not a good dog. He howled whenever I left, sometimes for hours. We were almost evicted from several apartments because of his barking. He shed incessantly, stank like fish food, and he was humper, pure embarrassment at the dog park. We called him “the scourge of BLT sandwiches”. I don’t know how many of my lunches he stole when I turned my back for just a second. He would steal food off of the counters and the stove, still hot. And it wasn’t just food, he ate everything. Bottle caps, garbage bags, string cheese still in the wrapper. Cleaning up his feces was always a scavenger hunt in disgust. He frequently ate and passed juice boxes.
He was such a prick.
But once, when my abusive father came to visit, Jack jumped up on the couch and humped him profusely. The whole world changed in that moment. Watching my shitty, shelter dog’s enthusiastic thrusts as he air-fucked the man who had terrorized my childhood, it felt as though a spell of twenty years had been broken. As a little girl, I watched my father beat our family dogs near to death, listening to their yelps of fear and pain with a sick, dead weight in my belly, knowing I was most likely next. I had endured such beatings and more from him, and now here he was, in my adult home, unable to do anything about the canine ecstasy happening on his lap except make polite shoo-ing motions with his hands. It seemed to me a transfer of power, a changing of the guard. I was a grown up now, and in my house, we didn’t beat children or dogs. I had broken the cycle, and there was nothing he could do. The world was mine now, I had won.
Except, I realized one night, while cleaning up blood and broken glass after my husband furiously punched a picture off of the wall, that I hadn’t. I had just traded monsters. I remember feeling a little proud of myself as I swept up the shards, thinking that I was good in a crisis, calm, quick, efficient. As I hurried to get everything cleaned up, I was grateful that our kids were outside so they didn’t witness any of the violence. Looking up, I caught Jack staring at me, his cataracted, solemn eyes near blind, but seemingly reproachful. He gave a deep sigh and laid his head on his front paws, as if exhausted by my stupidity. And it occurred to me, maybe I shouldn’t be proud of that, maybe being really good at being abused isn’t a life skill. I kicked my husband out that night, and we separated forever a month later.
It still took me over a year to finally get divorced, I kept waiting for some miracle to occur that could change reality. During that time, Jack’s health deteriorated, he became fully incontinent, and I cleaned up urine, vomit, or diarrhea every morning. This became so part of my routine, that I didn’t even notice it anymore, but I would catch Jack giving me these long looks like he was thinking, seriously, just pull the trigger already, let this die. Let go. But I couldn’t and so the dog and the marriage continued to live in stasis. Sick, comatose, grotesque, but alive.
In the end, I was surprised by how quick it went. The procedure was thirty five dollars, the receptionist explained, seventy if you wanted to be there. Doesn’t everybody want to be there, I asked. Do people really just drop off their family pet and come back in couple days for the ashes? She shrugged, and said it was easier that way, people didn’t want to experience loss firsthand. As we sat in the lobby, I contemplated this thirty five dollar grief charge, and decided it seemed low. Our vet was (and is) a warm, sweet, no-nonsense father of four who once pulled me aside when our guinea pig was sick and said, “It’s crazy to spend four hundred bucks on a rodent, I’ll just give her a shot of saline so the kids think you tried everything”.
He called us in, and we laid Jack on the table. He was so light at the end, I could carry him. Once, when we had to take a job in Alaska, we left him with a family friend for a few months. When we came back, he had gained almost fifty pounds, and was so fat he looked like a sheep. Our friend had left the dog food down, not realizing that Jack was a complete food whore and would eat until he popped. He was just bones now, I hadn’t been able to get him to eat anything but pepperoni slices for a few weeks. I had been warning people of his imminent death for several years, but I didn’t really believe it. He was just so impossibly old, he seemed invincible.
And then suddenly, but really not suddenly at all in the way of long endings, he was gone, and I was alone. He was the last thread of who I was, who I was going to be, before kids and debt and hardship, the last little piece of my young, optimistic love. And now he was gone. We buried him up in the woods near my parent’s cabin. It felt like burying all my twenty year old hopes and dreams, like burying the last vestiges of my childhood. All my naivete and wide-eyed faith, wrapped in a tatty pink blanket, laid to rest in a hole in the ground, covered, shovelful by shovelful, with cold dirt.
A couple days later, my divorce was finalized, and I was free. No more cleaning up shit in the morning, no more blood or broken glass. I pulled the trigger, and now I get to be on the other side, grateful for what I’ve been given, for the lessons I’ve learned. I get to be grateful for Jack, my most stubborn and loyal friend. Thank you, Jack, for keeping my feet warm. Thank you for barking and protecting us from all the boogeymen. Thank you for never once biting or growling at my children, who crawled all over you and tugged your ears and poked your eyes and stuck their heads in your mouth. Thank you, Jack, for being the right dog, at the right time, even though I didn’t know it, and for sticking with me until the very end, until I was finally ready to go it alone.
(This is an excerpt from Emma’s someday-to-be-published book, “Notion Sickness”.)