Friday dawned cold and gray, with snow flurries in the air. A little before 7, after a sleepless night, I pulled on some warm clothes and headed outside, stopping to grab a shovel and pick axe from the shed. At the edge of the yard, I collected myself in front of the St. Francis of Assisi statue, its head dusted with snow, hoping the ground was not frozen too hard. I was relieved to find, when I cleared away the leaves and brush, that it was soft and wet, making it easy to dig.
I was there to bury my best friend Jack, our flat-coated retriever, who had died the night before, just 10 weeks shy of his ninth birthday.
Only 12 hours earlier, he was full of life and had gone on a spirited walk with me, taking the opportunity, when I let him off the leash, to chase two deer 50 yards before bounding back, his tail wagging.
I choked back tears and remembered the tiny puppy our daughter, Genevieve, had brought home in the summer of 2009. I remembered how seemingly everyone we met just had to pet him when we brought him into town. And I remembered how Jack and I bonded a few months after we got him when the kids had gone back to school and there was nobody else who could sneak away mid-day to take him for a walk at the ocean or bring him to work.
Admittedly, Jack was not the smartest dog. He never figured out that he could push his way through a partially opened door, and he was always a sucker for the first fake when we played fetch. He was also a bit of a wuss, letting out a yelp if he so much as got tangled in his leash or I brushed his back with one of the sticks I collected for kindling on our daily walks.
But he was an easy dog to train. He didn’t pull on the leash, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that if you asked him to shake, it meant a treat was coming. Generally, with a few exceptions, he stayed on the property and kept the deer, squirrels and cats at bay. He had a loud bark, which he demonstrated when the UPS man showed up, but it was all for show.
Jack certainly lived by the motto, “Wag More, Bark Less,” and he brought a lot of joy into our lives. He loved to come over to my side of the bed every morning at 6:30, so I could scratch his head. Then once I was up, he’d roll over on his back, expecting me to scratch his belly. I think he truly loved to greet the many people who came to our house or who we met on our walks.
I used the pick axe to clear the few roots slowing my progress and to loosen up the small rocks the glacier left behind in such abundance on our property.
When I walked Jack the night before, I told myself my recent worries about his health were unfounded, that he would surely be around for another couple of years. There had been a couple of scares. Two years ago, the vet removed a malignant tumor from his neck, leaving a huge incision that left me as weak-kneed as Jack, who took a day to shake off the anesthetic. And in late fall I noticed he seemed to have slowed down a bit, but I saw no reason for alarm until two weeks ago when he refused to eat and lay on the floor listless for a couple of hours. We had identified a new lump on his belly a few days earlier and began to fret about cancer, but he bounced back immediately and was his old self the next day.
Just a few hours after returning home Thursday night, Jack lay down with his head on the floor as he had two weeks earlier. He tried in vain to get up twice. Finally, I collected his limp body in my arms and carried him up to his spot at the foot of our bed and lay on the rug with him, stroking his back and scratching his head until he licked my hand and seemed to relax. I crawled back into bed, but soon I heard him sigh and strained in the darkness, trying to hear his breathing. He was gone.
There were calls to our daughter, Genevieve, in the city, and our son Henry in the Air Force. My wife Elizabeth and daughter, Olivia, joined me as I laid him in his grave, tears burning my eyes and wondering how the death of a dog could break so many hearts.