As a pup he was normal, jumping, chewing, licking, and eager, and took long naps. A few months later my younger sister Julie said, “He understands what I say. It’s uncanny.”
I watched the Heinz 57-variety mutt Jack grow into a black handsome 100-lb dog who almost speaks English. Julie tells him to “go get your ball in the kitchen and bring it here,” and he does just that. “Go do this, go get that, don’t go there.” He understands all of it. And personality plus. I am a cat-lover, and even I think Jack has special merits. We were glad when he jumped the wrong way and glanced off a car in the driveway, not hurt, only bruised and scared. He knew now about cars, about not to go out on the highway.
Ten years ago, Julie’s husband of 15 years died of cancer. For months she put her job on hold and drove daily to Indianapolis to visit him in the hospital. After the funeral his two sisters decided that all his things should be theirs, not Julie’s. The backbiting and fighting were vicious. Precious items that Julie had bought or brought into the marriage she had to put under lock and key, and even then, she feared they would cut the lock and steal her things. Both sisters said, “Everything of our brothers is ours. It’s ALL ours.” Was it spite, or is it just human nature?
Life goes on and Julie became a wife again, or rather, a precious partner, since lack of medical insurance got in the way of a marriage license. Another decade gone by. Last Thanksgiving her partner died suddenly of a heart attack (see Third Chances). It was a flurried week of planning, funeral, carried-in meals, state of shock. Animal friend Jack, uncommon company of the best kind, comforted my sister. Death is always hard, but it helps to have a best friend soothe the loss, the emptiness, the “what am I going to do?” Jack answered in short barks which I could almost make out, “I am here. I love you. Let’s play ball.”
Julie has spent six months emptying the four-bedroom house and getting ready to sell, every room full to the brim of furniture, wall hangings, and memories. We painted everywhere, including the mother-in-law’s apartment. Julie packed and we moved boxes week in and week out, month after month.
The animosity from her partner’s sons about the division of things not specifically mentioned in the will became ugly and unending, like before; the last thing one needs after losing a loved one. For instance, in the winter the wind chill dipped below zero, and on one of the bitterest days one of the boys went to the gas company and said that their dad had died and they wanted to turn off the heat in the house. Was it spite again? It took Julie three days to explain and get heat back on. It’s been a long six months of underhanded tricks. When the tiny, red light blinks on my dumb-phone at 5 a.m., I know it’s Julie texting me. What now, I think.
Next week, court-ordered, the ugly is over. The boys will have their things out of the big barns, and Julie can sell the house. Next week the ton of weight will be off her shoulders. Speaking of shoulders, she had her right one replaced last week in the midst of all this, and is, for now, one-armed. I’m helping her more than ever.
Yesterday morning at 5:24 she called. Between each word she choked on a sob, “Jack’s…been…hit. Come help…me get him…off the road.”
As he lay dying, the gray dawn began to add streaks of pink. I covered my face with my hands and turned away. This beloved dog, more than a pet, was her friend when she needed him most. In tears, she looked at me and asked again, “What am I going to do?”
On that perfect summer morning, I felt hope under that panoramic country sky, now with orange clouds drifting, and said, “I don’t know. Keep breathing. That’s all you have to do today.”
The good neighbor helped Sam dig the dreaded hole, their shovels easily turning the soft earth. I made coffee and brought the cups out to the grave. We stayed with Julie for a while and then went to breakfast, trying not to think for one hour.
Jack’s time here was too short, but his love stays as long as we breathe.