It never happens according to schedule or when you think it should be convenient. And in Jackson's case this couldn't be truer. I mean, one tries to make arrangements for the inevitable but somehow, someway, the wheels come off. Death is never easy for some reason and it always confounds our plans even though we know it's coming.
I had run into Jackson in January of 1999 when my then girlfriend and I went to the Santa Cruz Animal Shelter to look over all the dogs and cats in need of a home. He was half Newfoundland and some other retriever, probably a Golden, and he looked like a big Golden Retriever that someone had spray painted jet black. He had a rather majestic looking mane around his neck that made him look quite regal. I mentioned to my girlfriend how noble and calm he seemed and I then found out that he'd been at the shelter for six weeks. Six weeks! How could he be there that long without someone wanting him? I was so taken with him that he was all we talked about later that evening. But I was reluctant to get another dog. I was still hurting over the loss of my previous dog, Boris, and I wasn't sure about taking on another one. The next day was my birthday and while out at dinner with my girlfriend's best friend and boyfriend I got a small push. Her girlfriend gave me a birthday card which said "Don't forget Jackson!" inside and so I went home that night with my mind made up to bring him home. So two days later I adopted him and took him home. They gave me a rainbow-colored collar that I put on him there at the shelter. Now to the simple matter of getting him into the car. I walked him up to the car and opened the door expecting him to jump right in the back seat. Nope. Once he knew that he was supposed to get in the car he fought me every step of the way. I pulled mightily on the leash and after five minutes I managed to finally get him stuffed in the back seat, albeit unwillingly. And on the thirty minute ride from Santa Cruz to San Benito County he threw up on the floor of the back seat but I never held it against him. OK, maybe I did just a little. But the important thing was he had a new home out in the country which was certainly better than where he was.
My father took to the dog right away. On his first night in his new home we tried to fit the proverbial square peg in the round hole. We tried to put Jackson in the shed overnight which had been our previous dog's bedroom at night. Pop would take Boris out to the shed with a couple of biscuits and close the door for the night only to let him out early in the morning. We had hoped that Jackson would warm up to this plan. Jackson, it turned out, had other ideas. We walked Jackson out to the shed, shut the door, then went back into the house. After a few minutes we both wondered if Jackson was doing alright out there. We decide to sneak out and peek into the shed to see how he was doing. We tiptoed to the front door, opened it slowly and sitting in front of us was Jackson complete with big bushy tail thumping loudly on the porch. How he got the shed door open was a mystery to us but seeing how big he was it didn't surprise us. He then looked up at us as if to say "Hey...ummm...I live here." Pop and I laughed loud and long as we had been afraid that he might run away until he was used to us. So much for running away. It looked like he was going to hang onto his home with both hands, er, paws.
One thing that stood out about Jackson was his big bushy tail. When in our presence it wagged incessantly and when pounding on the floor could be heard across the house. If I wanted to raid the fridge late at night after lights-out I would open my bedroom door and instantly Jackson's tail could be heard pounding the floor as I approached him. He'd make a lousy secret agent.
Since I had this fear of him running away I kept Jackson on a leash for his first three weeks at the house. I then took him for his first long walk...we were going solo! We made our way through the fields of the turf farm when about halfway through our sojourn something interesting happend. A rabbit darted out of the bush and sprinted across the field. Jackson's chase reflex kicked in and he took off after the rabbit. Now, you would think that this wouldn't be much of a contest. A rabbit versus a very large dog who looked more inclined to snoozing on the porch than winning Olympic gold. But Jackson closed the gap and I stood there astonished as Jackson gave the rabbit a run for it's money. My first thought was that I'd never seen such a large dog move so fast. My second thought was would he return to me or be lost forever? Oh he returned alright but I was so surprised at his athleticism. This dog was a real athlete! So we spent the next couple of years walking those fields and it became his favorite activity.
Our walks became the focus of his life. The routine would go something like this...I would give him a look and begin humming the theme from the TV show J.A.G. This came about because my mother would watch that show religiously and towards the end I would walk through the living room humming the theme music which always coincided with the time of our walks. Jackson then began to associate the music with our impending departure. He would then get very excited, baying at me to hurry up. I'd bring out my sneakers to put them on and he would jump around in front of me excitedly, nudging my busy fingers with his nose to make me hurry. "I'm coming as fast as I can!" I'd yell and finally I'd be finished with the shoe business and we'd be out the front door with him bounding out ahead of me. Those years from 1999 to 2002 were the happiest years of his life. Pop took him for walks too and soon I began to realize that Jackson was just as much his dog as mine. God how Pop loved that dog. When he would read in the living room Jackson's nose was inches away from Pop's foot. When I wasn't home he became Pop's dog, never out of sight of either of us. Both Pop and myself had been caring for my ailing Mother and when she passed away in 2000 that left the three boys...Pop, myself and Jackson to fend for ourselves. And all through this one thing became very clear...Jackson didn't like to be alone. Perhaps he felt abandoned and unloved at the shelter and realizing he'd been given a second chance at a family he made the best of it. People I know swear that animals who have been rescued seem to know how lucky they are and are always grateful for the company. Jackson was that way. If I moved from one side of the house to the other he soon followed to lay down five feet away just so he could keep an eye on me. So not being alone was Jackson's prime directive and he made it the theme of his wonderful life.
He was also a food hound. Man, did he love to eat. While eating he would watch us in the hopes that we would donate a morsel or two to his cause. One day I was eating a roast beef sandwich when I was called away by the phone. After I had hung up I returned to find my sandwich missing off the plate and Jackson laying nonchalantly nearby. "YOU ATE MY GODDAM SAMMICH!" I roared. He then did what most humans do, he looked away as if to pretend total innocence. "Who, ME?" Then when caught he gave me the quintessential hangdog look. But one look into those amber eyes and I couldn't be mad for too long. I think he knew that too.
One time before Mom had passed away we had a family gathering at the house for Thanksgiving. My brother's family, my parents and myself had many such dinners that my parents really looked forward to. One time we were migrating from the living room to the den where everyone had gathered in a kind of semi-circle. At one particular time there was absolute silence and in that one quiet moment Jackson walked in and took his place in the semi-circle which was now a closed circle. He heaved his big body down with a big sigh and everyone laughed hysterically at the dog who just wanted to be part of the gang. I'll never forget that moment.
In July of 2002 Pop passed away suddenly and now it was just Jackson and me. I was glad to have him around because it cushioned the blow of Pop's death to have him with me. Besides, I always felt that he was Pop's dog too and so felt Jackson was my one link to him after his death. I'd take good care of Jackson just for Pop's sake. I always carried that with me. In the years since then the two of us have been nomads, moving to Southern California where we were miserable until I finally bought a house back east in Columbus, Ohio. It took my entire nest egg but it was worth it. I had grown weary of landlords and it seemed everywhere we went Jackson was not welcome. Landlords don't want pets especially big Newfoundlands in their precious rental so with one fell swoop I solved that problem and bought a lovely turn of the century brick home where me and Jackson could carve out a life. We drove across the country in August of 2004 and we couldn't have been happier. Of course the drive occured during the hottest time of the year and the heat was oppresive. But at days end we always had an air-conditioned room with a color TV broadcasting the Olympics from Athens, Greece. I looked forward to the nightly Olympic telecast just to see what was going on over there but try as I might I was unable to open Jackson's eyes to the intrinsic beauty and power of the pommel horse. Oh well. But finally after four solid days of driving we arrived in Columbus. At last! A place of our own where nobody could tell us what to do. This was his yard and he was lord and master from now on. His favorite spot was under the branch of a lilac tree outside my kitchen door. It provided shade so he could lay there and watch the world go by. He became my assistant as I worked on the exterior of the house. These were the times when I truly wish he'd had an opposable thumb and forefinger. He could at least have passed a few hand tools. After we'd spent twelve glorious days in our new house I got an acting job in the national tour of a play which would take me away from Columbus for six weeks. The big downside was that I would have to put Jackson in a kennel for six weeks while I was away. I hated being away from him but I needed the work badly and I couldn't turn down the paycheck. The time passed quickly but I always regretted putting him in that kennel although they took great care of him and walked him often. When I got back I promised Jackson that he would never see the inside of a kennel again.
As usual Jackson's habit was to follow me everywhere around the house. At bedtime he would follow me upstairs where he would take up his place in the hallway outside my bedroom door. Of course, he'd stick his head out so he could look around the corner just so he could keep tabs on me. One day I noticed some dog hair in my bed and figured a breeze had blown some of Jackson's hair into the bed. But then I found some more and suspected that he was sleeping in my bed when I was out of the house. I came into the house quietly one day, raced up the stairs and found him snuggled in the covers. I pretended to be angry and yelled at him for this transgression. From that point on he never did that again. I guess that time in the kennel had made him even more clingy than usual and this was just a way for him to be as close to me as he could. In truth, I was honored that someone felt that way about me. The poor fellow just wanted a security blanket. I promised him he'd never need one again.
About two years ago I noticed how difficult it was for him to climb the stairs. He started out alright but by the tenth or twelfth step he slowed down and one wondered if he would make it all the way up to the landing. One day he didn't. He was almost to the top when his strength gave out resulting in him tumbling all the way down the stairs. I winced as I heard him yelp at the bottom but I was thankful that he hadn't broken his neck. I then took the step of blocking off the stairs to him. He would now be forever banished to the first floor and I often wondered if he thought that he was being punished for something. So for the next fifteen months my dining room chairs served as roadblocks to his attempts to climb the stairs. Since his hind quarters were giving out it fell to me to become his new rear legs. We had a routine which consisted of me opening the kitchen door while he made his way to the landing and the four steps down to the back yard. I would simply grab a hunk of that thick and course black hair at his tailbone and give him a boost as he made his way down the stairs. This is what we did three times a day for the next 1 1/2 years. Over that time I also noticed that he needed more support as the months raced by. Near the end I was supporting him until he could take a few shaky steps on level ground or during his attempts to do his business. In the back of my mind I wondered what would happen when his front legs got weaker, what would we do then? I didn't have long to wait for an answer. One day about six weeks ago he couldn't even climb the four steps with my assistance resulting in me grabbing his fur at both front and back and dragging him up the steps. Somewhere around this time his tail stopped wagging and I never saw it wag again. That tail of his had once been a force of nature, now it lay motionless no matter what I did.
We were now in dire straits. What would we do now? If he weighed thirty or forty pounds it would be no problem, just carry him over to the tub and bathe him there. But this wasn't little Fluffy, he weighed a good hundred pounds and I certainly couldn't carry all that down the steps. How would he get outside to go to the bathroom? The short answer was that he simply couldn't anymore. He would have to stay in the dining room and I would have to clean up after him as best I could. During this time he got finicky with his food so I switched brands in a desperate attempt to get him to eat. Once he settled on another dog food he was fine for about a month then he turned his nose up at that too. It was now becoming increasingly difficult to get him to eat. In addition, the downstairs area smelled like a barn in spite of my best efforts at cleaning. I mean, it was tough as the carpeting needed to be steam cleaned nearly every couple of days. Five days ago he stopped eating altogether and now it was just a matter of time. There were a couple of things he would ingest...milk and water. I kept him comfortable and hydrated as his body started to shut down. Two nights earlier he surprised me by trying to bark. But the sound he made was feeble, like air being expelled from a balloon and barely a whisper. What was he barking at? Was he hallucinating or was he completely blind? Was he calling for me? I jumped out of my seat and got down on the floor with him to stroke his head. This settled him down. His amber eyes grew cloudy as the end grew near.
On Saturday night I realized that he needed to be euthanized. I had planned on this and had two people lined up to do the job. The vet would come out and put him to sleep and the people from the funeral home would come right after to collect him for cremation. Seemed simple. I couldn't sleep that night and got up at 5AM on Sunday morning to check on him. I made my way downstairs to see him still struggling to breathe. There was no turning back now, the call would have to be made. I picked up the phone and dialed only to find out that the vet took Sundays off. Great. Jackson was suffering and his only sin was his need to die on a Sunday. I was now a wreck. Poor Jackson needed to have his pain alleviated but there was nothing, NOTHING I could do. What was worse, I had to go to work that morning and I couldn't get out of it. All day at work I struggled to hold back tears knowing Jackson was at home needlessly suffering. Images of Jackson as a young dog and our years together filled my mind as I continued to fret about him. At about four in the afternoon my boss told me to go home and take care of him. I'll always be grateful to him for that because I made it home in the nick of time. I threw open the kitchen door and ran into the dining room where he still lay breathing. "Jackson, I'm here boy, can you see me?" His eyes moved up to see me and I stroked his head, marveling at that wonderful spot between his eyes that somehow naturally conforms to the human hand. He blinked and I continued to caress him. It was unbelievable that he was still alive but I was so thankful that he hadn't passed away while I was gone. I didn't want him to die alone and I settled in to keep him company in what would no doubt be his final hours.
It had been a long day. I had been up since five in the morning and I was exhausted. I picked up the big multi-colored pillow that I keep in the living room and I laid down next to Jackson to catch some shut-eye. My head hit the pillow and I slept for about forty five minutes. I woke with a start remembering the situation. I looked over at my friend and he was still. "Jackson? JACKSON?" I then realized that he was gone. He had passed away while I was sleeping. I like to think that he had held out, waited, for me to get home so he could pass away. I like to think that he knew that I didn't want him to die alone. It was my fervent wish to not let him die as a lonely wretch. All his life his desire was to never be alone and this was one time that I wouldn't let him down. I kissed his muzzle and put my hand on his now motionless chest. I had given him a bath and a brushing the day before so he smelled sweet. I'm sure he would have liked going out looking good.
I got up off the floor and reached for the phone to call the funeral home so they could come pick Jackson up for cremation. I dialed the number and could barely choke out my words. "Could you come right away to pick up my boy?" They said they'd be over within the hour which gave me a few minutes to say goodbye to him one more time. Then something happened...I was relieved. He wasn't suffering anymore. I took the first relaxed breath I'd taken in some time. I stooped down and removed his collar. It was the same one they gave me at the shelter in Santa Cruz all those years ago. I hung it on a tack in the kitchen where I would be sure to run into it on occasion. When the funeral home people arrived the finality of it all hit me. I would never see him again after they took him away. Jackson was lying upon a vinyl shower curtain and the man and woman asked if they could use it to shift him to the litter they'd brought in to carry his body. I told them to keep it as I'd never use it again. His body was effortlessly carried onto the litter and I was given one more moment to say goodbye to him. I reached down and choked out "Goodbye my boy, I love you." I stood up and backed away giving them the room they needed to pick him up. They hoisted him up and exited my front door and I followed. I wanted to see him all the way into the vehicle for some reason. The vinyl shower curtain was pulled around his big shoulders and it looked as if he was tucked in for a nap in his bed. As they slid him into the rear of the vehicle I noticed how small, helpless and vulnerable he looked. A stark contrast to the huge, gregarious, athletic and mischievious beast he was. I watched the vehicle take off down East Columbus until I could see it no more.
I walked back inside and could immediately feel the emptiness in the house. Jackson was part of the reason I'd bought this house. A place of his own, a place to call home. I now marveled at how big the dining room looked without his presence. Empty. I then took note of how much smaller my world has become during the last six years. Mom, Pop and now Jackson are gone. He is no longer my dog, he belongs to the world now. It's fitting really.
I always put Jackson's food into a two foot long food trough that I'd been using for various dogs over the last twenty four years. I took it out and emptied it this morning, eventually storing it in the basement. However, I'll keep his water dish in the dining room. If he does have a spirit he'll always have a place to slake his thirst. In the intervening couple of days I've cleaned the carpets which now smell lovely once again. But I would give anything, clean carpets or what have you, to have him back again as he was many years ago.
In the end, Jackson taught me so many things about patience, loyalty and love during his last six months of life. Especially love. When it comes to love I'm not even in his league and I still have so much to learn. As everyone knows, there is nothing like the unconditional love that a dog gives you. Maybe one day I'll be as good at it as he was. Thank you Jackson, I'll always love you.