I had always wanted a dog.
Growing up, there were mostly cats in the home with an occasional dog but none I could call my very own. Into adulthood, I bounced from one dinky apartment to the next usually in places that either only allowed small pets or none at all.
After long dreaming of getting a house so I could have a dog, it finally happened. Within 2 months of moving in, Jake entered my life. While the responsibility petrified me, he was a gift from the moment I first laid eyes on him.
Not quite having thought out all the household arrangements for a dog, our first night together was a tad difficult. The other pets were all in a tizzy over his arrival. My cat at the time, a big white ball of spunk, was having none of it. Pedro, my yellow-nape Amazon parrot launched a scream-fest to burst eardrums. I set Jake up on the sun porch where it was calm, while providing the resident pets a little space.
The sun porch…something that captivated me about this old house from the start, was off the kitchen with a door leading into a somewhat spacious backyard. Not a room you’d see in a fancy magazine, the sun porch is more like a garden shed with windows, haphazardly attached to the house.
Originally, I’d planned to turn it into a relaxing place to curl up with a book, full of plants and cozy furnishings. Instead it turned into a mish-mash of plant-less pots filled with dirt but devoid of plants, assorted tools, and dog beds, blankets and towels strewn everywhere. When the sunlight pours through the windows, it‘s still enchanting in a messy sort of way.
Jake’s first night, I laid soft, old comforters for my new little man, newspapers for accidents, a water bowl, and a squeaky cat toy. In the blink of an eye, he was fast asleep. I turned off the light and snuck off to bed.
Before long, I awoke to, “Aaaaaarrrrrroooooooo, aaaarrrrrooooooo” from the sun porch. I go out to let him know that everything was fine, snuggled and played with him for a bit before he fell asleep again, then quietly snuck back to bed.
It started again within minutes. “Aaaaaaaaaaaarrrroooooo!” After a couple hours of this routine with none of us getting any shut-eye, I grabbed a pillow, more blankets, and headed out to the sun porch. I curled next to this sweet little yellow bundle, inhaling the intoxicating scent of puppy breath. We both slept well.
The next night, I cordoned off a spot for Jake next to my bed. Shortly, the seal-like howling started and it wasn’t long before he was nestled next to me in the bed. From then on, the bed was his too.
All he wanted was a comforting presence by his side. In the ensuing years, that is what I needed too; a constant, loving someone who became my closest and dearest friend.
He was just Jake from the very beginning, never any question. A mixture of yellow Lab and some kind of Retriever, when asked his breed, I would say, “He’s a “Glab.” A beautiful shade of blonde with perfectly placed ringlets of curls and big, brown soulful eyes — he was so handsome.
His good looks were only surpassed by his personality. A big heart with a love for life and people, Jake charmed everyone who met him. Even non-dog folk couldn’t resist the joy of his ever present ear-to-ear smile and happy swaggering walk.
From the outset, he was always happy to do whatever I was doing. With him, I learned to embrace simple pleasures and live in the now. He forced me to get up and out every day and for years, no matter the weather conditions, off we went.
Not too eager for just walking along on a leash, we set off to rivers, lakes and places less traveled. Jake was the adventurous, exploring type reveling in discovering new areas and long-forgotten trails. With him, I became more curious and open, appreciating nature and delighting in the sights we would see or the things we would find. I could write a book on the adventures we had chancing off into the unknown, but the greatest blessing was sharing them with him, this unwavering beautiful friend who never asked for much and gave his everything.
He had his share of canine quirks but even those I found endearing. Like a lot of dogs, he was super obsessed with balls, balls, and more balls. His favorite one was attached to a bungy-like cord that could be shot long distances. He made it his goal to catch them all on that first bounce. You could even shoot that ball straight up into the heavens. He would position himself right underneath it, catching it every single time, a talent that wowed any by-standers, especially children who would want him to do it over and over. Jake had a special soft spot for children, seemingly able to seek them out, charming them and their parents.
Jake’s adventurous spirit also brought challenges. Combined with his smarts, his inquisitive nature got him into some trouble. He learned how to nudge up the gate latch and would saunter off free as a bee to check out the front yard and wander the neighborhood. Eventually I had to insert a clip through the latch to foil my escape artist.
He was the best part of my days and nights, never failing to make me laugh, even on the crappiest of days. Nosing his way into every part of my life, he took up residence in my heart and with each passing day, each passing year, I loved him more and more. He was my constant, my rock, the love of my life. Yes, I was addicted to him and he’d become my soul mate.
Not lucky in love, romantic entanglements came and went for me but my Jake-man was always right there. By my side and on my side, he was the most consistent relationship of my life teaching me the true meaning of love and companionship.
A second novel could also be written on everything I learned from sharing my life with Jake. He taught me what is most important and what wasn’t, making me a better person. I totally place the blame on him for planting in me a huge love of everything dog.
So much so, I got another dog, Jessie, when he was 8 years old. At first, Jake seemed slightly offended by this intrusion. However, his big heart could not harbor any ill-will and over time, he ended up teaching her things I could not. He became her constant rock also.
Jake was always in excellent health, so active and handsome. When people would comment on his good looks for his age, I would puff up with pride. This, and because I loved him so much, caused me to be in denial that he would ever “leave” me.
Age began making demands after the first of the year…small changes to his sight and hearing, then his mobility — making stairs more work, and bringing stiffness in the mornings. Every little thing was like a knife to my heart. At some point he started losing fur on his tail and his skin became scaly and flaky. I spent hundreds of dollars trying to get to the bottom of this problem.
Still, he remained as happy as ever, always greeting me with enthusiasm and that joyful-tail wagging dance. On walks, Jake didn’t know the meaning of pacing himself. Bounding out like a rocket for the first few blocks, suddenly his energy would be used up and we’d have to go slow-mo the rest of the way.
Seeing the signs, I attended a couple workshops on aging pets. I was slowly starting to come to terms with some of my denial, realizing that my special guy would not always be the same perky pup.
We adjusted our routine, taking shorter, more frequent walks. A friend built a ramp for easier access to his backyard kingdom, and I started researching lift ‘em up harnesses and carts for down the road.
I felt ready to fully appreciate and enjoy his mellow golden years, accompanying him every step of the way while preparing myself for that day in a few years when I would have to say goodbye. I even looked forward to him tooling around the neighborhood in his cart.
I had no idea his time would come sooner than the need for any of these senior pet aids. When the weather turned last fall, the first day it rained in almost 3 months, Jake became really sick.
He stopped eating…something he’d done only once or twice his whole life. He sat out in the pouring rain getting drenched…something he’d never done before.
That weekend was the worst of my life as I tried to save him, pleading with the powers that be to let me have him through the holidays (his favorite time of year). But, he became so weak, something internal, most likely cancer, had gotten him. Without running more extensive and invasive tests, the vet told me there was no way to know and the outcome would be the same.
The nightmare I always feared and denied had come. As I faced the hardest decision I would ever have to make, my denial hit me smack in the face. It was like asking me to rip out my heart.
Jake & I spent our last night together once again on the sun porch, curled up next to each other in a mass of blankets. I spent the sleepless night stroking his fur and listening to his labored breathing. I prayed for Jake to give me a sign to let me know what he needed, what he wanted.
The next, dreary, wet morning I picked up the phone a dozen times …immediately hanging up. How could I do this? I still wanted a sign. Lying next to him, I looked into his bottomless brown eyes and knew…the sparkle was gone…had been for days, I finally realized.
I made the call. As I returned to the sun porch, he wearily lifted his head and looked at me, giving one last tail thump as if to say “Thanks, Mom.” That tail had not wagged in 2 days — this was the sign that I was doing the right thing by letting him go.
Our first and last nights together were difficult, but I will forever treasure them, and every moment in-between. So blessed was I that this pure, beautiful soul gave his heart to me.
Jake’s transition to his next journey in life was peaceful and, as excruciating as it was for me, I feel richer for being there for him as he had always been for me. Hugging him tightly as he took his last breath, I said, “The gate’s wide open now, baby dog…Mama will see you soon.”
I had always foreseen the day Jake died as being the worst day of my life. I had never anticipated the utter grimness of the next day or days after. A month passed and I was finally able to sweep up the dog hair. Two months and I was able to give away his unused medications to a local charity. Eventually, I might be able to put away his dog bowls. Still in denial, no. But still not able to completely let go; he will be in me wherever I go…
I left the clip off the gate latch just in case.
Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of Pet Stop Pit Stop pet sitting services in SW Washington. She resides in Vancouver with Jessie (a yellow Lab), Pedro & Lorali (parrots), three chickens, and memories of Jake, her heart dog who recently passed on. Vonnie is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events, and the voice of Spot in social media outlets. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.