When Jack came into our lives on a bitterly cold day in January 2011, he was neither his former nor future self.
A magnificent and very large chocolate Labrador retriever, Jack and his sister, Nicky, had been confined to cages and got virtually no exercise. He had rubbed his nose raw on the bars of his cage and had some weakness in his hind quarters because of the confined space in which he subsisted. There was about three feet of snow on the ground at the mountain retreat when Deborah lifted the tailgate on her SUV and Jack and Nicky saw the spacious yard below the Kittatinny Mountains for the first time.
They looked at her as if to say, "For us?"
Yes, for them.
Jack and Nicky jumped from the SUV and tore off into the
yard. They burrowed into the snow drifts, chased each other back and forth and did pirouettes in the air in sheer joy for their new home and a freedom to be themselves they probably did not have since they were puppies.
Other than their confinement and the fact their owner, who never walked them, was in the Army and preparing to ship out to Afghanistan, we know very little about the first four years of Jack and Nicky's lives. We managed to figure out their age from their shot records, but that's about it.
Nicky also had some issues. Her coat was a mess and she was obese because of her confinement. From that very first day in the snow, we were concerned that her heart would explode from unaccustomed exertion.
But given a chance, the resilience of canis lupus familiaris is extraordinary. After barely three months of regular exercise, a top-flight if pricey diet and that great intangible -- the reciprocated love of their masters -- Jack and Nicky were the selves they always were supposed to be. Jack's nose healed, muscle and tone returned to his hind quarters, and his coat positively glistened. Nicky lost weight, her endurance improved and her coat also came back.
While Nicky was no slouch, Jack proved to be extraordinarily athletic.
He would chase his blue rubber ball beyond exhaustion, his massive figure soaring high off the ground. He would execute full turns in the air to snatch a bouncing ball before hurtling back down. He fearlessly dove off embankments into creeks and retrieved his sister's red rubber ball when it floated off and became lost, which it often did. (Dogs are supposed to be color blind, right? But they knew which ball was theirs.)
Jack adored the ocean.
The sight of him riding his first Atlantic wave, and a pretty big one at that, was unforgettable. His head was well out of the water, front legs extended, massive ears flapping in the wind, his big eyes bugged out, and with a look on his face that shouted Ay caramba!
The wave deposited him on the beach and receded. Was he okay? He got to his feet, shook himself off and raced back into the surf for another ride, and then another.
Jack was a guardian, a gentleman and a trouper.
If he didn't know someone, he positioned himself between Deborah and the stranger. He always let Nicky go in or out of a door first. He put up with abuse from the cats, including a rescue kitten who used his nose as a punching bag. No cat could transit a room in which Jack was sitting without taking a detour to rub up against him in what unquestionably were gestures of affection.
In mid-November of 2014, it became obvious that Jack was not feeling well. Had we not realized that, Nicky certainly would have let us know. Bloodwork and a urinalysis revealed that he had a urinary tract infection and was diabetic, which he may always have been. We began giving him twice-a-day insulin shots. The infection cleared up, but he began showing hind quarter weakness, almost certainly a form of neuropathy, which grew steadily worse.
A result of the diabetes? Probably not. Genetic? Possibly so, but Jack was not ready to move on, and after several harrowing weeks when it seemed like he couldn't make it another day, he began showing signs of getting better, in part because of hand feeding and supplements, including a Tibetan kidney cleanser which he gobbled up in spoons of canned catfood.
Jack continued to rally through the late winter and spring, but it became obvious that he was going blind, a frequent and unavoidable result of canine diabetes.
No matter, Nicky was there to lead the way, and we helped him address stairs and other obstacles. The house, yard, walking paths, fields and creeks were familiar even though he could no longer see them. When he went for a swim, he would grip his beloved blue rubber ball in his teeth and paddle about, our voices letting him know where he and we were.
Dogs have been the connective tissue in my life since I was a child.
My earliest memory is of being given a bath while my mother's Irish setter looked on. This is not to say that I have cared more about dogs than people, but I do deeply value their unconditional love and of course mourn their passing. As an old friend liked to remark, dogs never cheat, lie or get drunk and drive. And they don't start wars.
Jack's disability brought out his nobility, and as strange as it may seem to people who have never felt the joy of bonding with a dog, he enabled me to understand who I was through my understanding who he was. I was a creature with a stew of emotions percolating inside me. Jack had a Zen-like serenity.
He always had been a powerful if deeply emotional dog, but a quiet dignity emerged as he slowed down. At first, the changes were barely perceptible day to day, although noticeable from month to month, and then in the past week heartbreakingly obvious. It is possible that he was in pain some of the time and merely uncomfortable the rest, but as long as he was able to maintain that dignity, we were not going to allow anything happen to him. Besides which, Jack wanted to be there for us.
We decided last night that it was unfair to ask Jack to keep carrying on because he now had to struggle so hard to do so. And so this morning we said goodbye.