Our last evening together
The trees rushed by the window in a blur of browns and greens topped with the myriad shades of grey that make up an overcast sky. We sat in the car, my arm around her, holding her tightly to me as we both watched the cascade of colors racing by. She barely had the strength to keep her head lifted, but she did. The ride passed in silence, each passing tree trunk a marker counting down the minutes and seconds of life. The past paraded by amidst the dancing colors outside the glass and that’s where we journeyed: back to the beginning, over twelve years ago.
Faith was a good dog. An Alaskan Husky, she weighed no more than thirty-five pounds with a soft, thick coat. She came to us out of nowhere, one of those random, stray mutts that just shows up one day and refuses to leave. In fact, her persistence is how she got her name, but that’s a story for a different day. For today, all that matters is that Faith was here, and she was about to get spayed. Unfortunately, she managed to slip her collar and get herself knocked up by our resident rogue, known only as “Brown Dog”, just days before her appointment. So instead of being spayed, she carried several wriggly puppies to term and gave birth in our home in January of 2004, and that’s where our story begins.
It was cold outside, I remember that much. A frigid winter afternoon and Faith, fat with a litter of pups, started yelping and bleeding and to be quite honest, it was terrifying until the first puppy popped out and we realized what was happening. We quickly moved her into the utility room on an old blanket and set up an electric space heater to keep her warm on a floor that was easily mopped. Out they came, one at a time, a hodgepodge of little, wiggly furballs. Two were brownish but the rest were almost pure black with the exception of some stark white markings. This particular one was solid black save for the very tip of her tail which was pure white. For the time she was with us, her name was “White-Tipped Girl” and she was my favorite of the litter.
As the weeks passed by, the puppies grew and began to explore and found their legs and strength until it was time to find them forever homes of their own. One-by-one, each puppy was taken in by a family we had found, including my little white tip girl, and our home was quiet again.
It was several months later when the family that took her called us and took us up on our standing offer. As each one was adopted out, I told the adoptive families, “If, for any reason, this doesn’t work out, call me any time and I’ll come take them back with us.” To this day, only one family asked us to take a pup back, we can only speculate and hope that the rest of the pups had long and fulfilling lives. I rode into town the next afternoon and remember feeling so bad that I was taking the puppy back. The kids weren’t supposed to be home, yet there was the son, greeting me as I got out of my vehicle, wondering why I was there. I left it to his mom to explain why I was taking his new puppy away, along with the dog house she had been living in. It was up to them to explain that they had failed to mention getting a dog to the landlord, who made them give her up. It was up to them to convince their kids that the dog was going to somewhere safe. I still felt like crap for doing it in front of him, but once loaded, I turned for home and never looked back. My White-Tip Girl was sitting in my lap, licking me and nuzzling. They had named her Jazz.
I will admit that this is where I really failed her. Since she’d been an outdoor dog thus far, I didn’t feel too bad for putting her back in the kennel where the puppies had stayed until they had been adopted out, but later on in life I would regret this time, because it was really more a matter of convenience for us than a practicality. We already had four dogs and three cats in the house and there was just not enough room in the inn. So for the next two years, Jazz lived in her kennel, in a warm dog house with fresh water and food. We’d play with her, walk her, socialize her with our other dogs, but at the end of the day, she’d go back to her kennel and the rest would go inside. I do hate myself for that time in her life, but she was never neglected, and to be honest, I think she enjoyed being out in the fresh air, with birds, rabbits, squirrel and deer for company.
Two years later, we lost Jack, our Border Collie / Lab mix and moved Jazzy into the house for good.
The rest of her life was fairly uneventful, and that’s good for a dog. I finished fencing in an area out back for the dogs to run without risk of running off, so they could spend their days playing in the sun and chasing critters, barking at every noise and movement. Then at night, we’d all huddle in our cave together, sheltering in the dark until the next morning. Dana and I would work our jobs and on vacation, they would all head to the Doggy Day Camp where they’d spend a week socializing with several other vacationing dogs and we’d spend our week doing whatever it was we did on vacations back then.
Jazzy grew into a beautiful dog. Solid black and lean, she never weighed more than about 50 pounds. Her father, the infamous “Brown Dog” looked like a German Shepherd mix of some sort, and she inherited that look from her dad. As she grew, her white tip faded and she became a solid black GSD looking dog with a face shaped like a Husky. She had the same soft, thick fur and twice a year like clockwork, her undercoat would fall out in giant clumps all over the house. Her bark was fierce and her low, ominous growl at strangers was enough to give anyone pause as they approached our door, but the few who were invited in quickly realized that she was the classic case of all bark and no bite. She was the sweetest, most gentle and tolerant dog I’d met. She loved everyone and really wanted nothing more than to have that space behind her ears scratched, or her belly rubbed if she really liked you.
She was the only dog we’ve ever had that probably could have made a good guard dog, and she kept us safe from all threats, real or imagined.
I remember one night we took her for a walk out on Sunset beach. We walked about half a mile or so along the shore and sat down in between dunes with Jazz and Patches. We sat there in the dark enjoying the stars above and the sounds of waves crashing in the darkness ahead. We drank daiquiris and joked while watching families walk up and down the waterline with flashlights and buckets trying to catch the crabs that would run around onshore feeding in the ebb and flow of the ocean. At one point someone approached us a little too close, and Jazz let out a low, barely audible rumble. At that point she was almost invisible from more than a few feet away as we were sequestered in the darkness on a moonless night. The person approaching us let out a yelp and quickly went around us, despite our laughing and promising the strange shadow that Jazz was actually gentle and just startled by the movement.
When we’d take her to the big Flea Market out at the Raleigh Fairgrounds she was the delight of everyone who met her. She was horrible on a leash, mind you, but eventually she’d settle in as best she could and was always ready for a scratch or a treat from some passing stranger and everyone wanted to feel her fur it seemed. We didn’t do that too often though. She was a solid black and thickly furred dog, so keeping her cool was not an easy job.
She was such a gentle soul, especially around our foster kittens
I like to think that she loved living with us. We certainly loved her, soft and cuddly and easily the most huggable dog we’ve ever had. She had a way of just laying her head on your knee and staring at you with her big brown eyes that just forced you to scratch her behind her ears, easily melting away any frustrations or anger or stress you had. When she was excited, she’d wiggle and dance and hop around, even until just shortly before the end. At the ripe old age of 12, she was still a bouncy, pouncy, roly-poly puppy. She never really got into toys, and wasn’t even very food motivated. She was stubborn but loyal, loving and kind. She knew her pack and protected them the best way she knew how.
Just after her 12th birthday, in January of 2016, is when things started to fall apart. She started vomiting after meals. At first it was just every now and again, but soon became almost every meal. Sometimes she could hold in the morning meal but would lose the evening meal, sometimes neither would stay down. Thinking she was just making herself sick, she had a penchant for eating dirt in the garden, we altered her food amounts and she quickly started shedding weight. When we took her to the vet, the inevitable happened.
After a consult and an ultrasound, we were told Jazzy had growths on her liver, her spleen and elsewhere in her abdomen and fluid was starting to collect there for some reason. We came home with some nausea medicine and advice to consider taking her to N. C. State for a lengthy and expensive surgery that would simply biopsy whatever was in there. We waited a week until the nausea pills ran out and then headed back for a follow-up and second opinion from the more seasoned vet at the practice, the one we’ve taken all our animals to for nearly 15 years. After a second ultrasound, the second opinion was worse. Things were bigger, there was more fluid. She could have days, weeks or months. We could still go to N. C. State, but even if we had the week before, there was really nothing that could be done beyond confirming what we were already 90% sure of. She had cancer and was dying.
That week simply painful. I knew what was coming, and I knew what I had to do no matter how much I didn’t want to do it. We had more medicine for her and that helped to keep her food down until she finally decided she’d had enough. The day she stopped eating was the day I made the call.
I admit, I’m selfish. I wanted nothing more than another month. Another week. Another weekend. I just wanted to recreate that scene from Star Trek: Insurrection where Picard is shown how to take a moment in time and slow it down so it lasts forever. I wanted nothing more than to wrap my arms around her and make that day last forever. But wishes and wants are seldom really fulfilled. I made the appointment for Monday, giving us one last weekend together. But by Friday, it was evident that Jazzy was ready to go. It broke my heart to make that call, asking them if the vet could come to the house Friday evening or Saturday morning to send her on her way. But no, even that couldn’t happen. The only thing we could do was take her to the vet’s office. No house calls on that Saturday.
And this is where I felt the worst. For Patches and Jack, we were able to have the vet come out to us so they could die at home, surrounded by familiar smells and faces, basking in the warm sunlight, lying in the soft green grass. For Jazz, we’d have to drive her into town so they could do the job in a cold, clinical setting.
Her last full day was fairly uneventful. She wanted to be outside more than in so I let her stay outside most of the day. She’d lay in the sun snoring, or sit at attention, ears alert for sounds only a dog can hear. She neither barked nor growled. She just sat there mostly, taking it all in as though she knew the end was near and she wanted to see, smell, hear and feel as much of her world as possible in these last few hours of life. At dinner time she ate a few bites of boiled chicken but the rest went to the other three dogs, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around them. I wanted that day to last for a month, but it had to come to a close. Jazz laid down at the foot of our bed one last time, where she had guarded us for so long, protecting us from the bogeyman and shadows and cats. I lay with her, across the foot of the bed, curled up so I could reach down to intertwine my fingers in her thick fur, to feel her warmth on my skin and her chest rise and fall in slumber. And we slept like that the night through.
At 6am I awoke and she shot up, eyes bright, ears perked, alert and ready for whatever was to come. Seeing it was just me stirring, she huffed a bit and laid back down until I got up and padded out into the kitchen. She followed me out, passing me by and heading straight for the door. I opened the door to the morning rays and crisp, moist air and she took up her place on the ramp leading off the deck, sitting at attention, listening to the birds sing their morning songs while the wind gently bent branches and rustled leaves. I fixed a cup of coffee for myself and came out to sit with her on the deck and we sat there together in silence as the air warmed around us, listening to the cacophony of nature in all her beauty and glory.
I sipped my coffee and Jazz just observed the world around her. I got up and took some pictures and she watched the clouds move overhead. I got dressed and the time passed by more quickly than before and she sat, alert to every buzz and bump and screech and chitter. At 8:00 am I began feeding her valium hidden in lumps of peanut butter. She greedily licked the gobs of peanut butter from my finger, never realizing that each one contained another dose of sedative. With each pill I felt as though I was betraying her anew, drugging her against her will. With each pill it became harder and harder as my eyes filled with tears and the sobs started to come over me. With the final pill delivered, I sat back down with my White Tipped Girl and whispered in her ear what a good dog she was. I put my arm around her and hugged her tightly, crying into her soft warm fur, listening to her breathe.
The drugs started to kick in. She became dizzy. Her head drooped now and again and she became weak. It became harder and harder for her to stay upright. Her strength waned and her feet slipped. I leaned into her, propping her up with my weight, resting her head on my shoulder. I held her tight and told her I’d hold her up. I’d be her legs and I’d be her strength. I told her I’d carry her the last mile, I’d be with her until the end. I cried and I cried as she trusted me to keep her from falling and then it was time.
I picked my Jazzy girl up in my arms and carried her back into the house. She was weak, but still alert, still observant. The other dog still didn’t know what was happening as I carried her through the door and out to the car. Dana had arranged a bed in the back of the car for her, but at the last minute I knew she needed to be next to me so I had Dana reset the rear seats and I gently sat into the back of the car with my girl and I held her close the whole way.
The trees rushed by the window in a blur of browns and greens topped with the myriad shades of grey that make up an overcast sky. We sat in the car, my arm around her, holding her tightly to me as we both watched the cascade of colors racing by. She barely had the strength to keep her head lifted, but she did. The ride passed in silence, each passing tree trunk a marker counting down the minutes and seconds of life. The trees gave way to light posts and buildings as country became town. The smooth Rrrrrrrrr of tires on pavement became the crunch of gravel as we pulled into the parking lot. The three of us sat there in the car watching the clock tick closer and closer to 9:00. The appointed hour was on us and Dana went in to announce our arrival.
The vet techs had cleared a room for us and laid out a ratty old blanket for Jazz to lay on. At least the floor would not be so hard and cold. She stretched out weakly, the valium having put her into a stupor at this point, and we laid down with her on this blanket, tears in our eyes while just on the other side of the wall were the sounds of a busy vet practice, barks, growls, meows and howls. People conducting business. Laughter. Life. It made me angry, to be honest. She deserved peace when she died. She deserved a warm breeze and soft grass and close friends and family. Instead she got a room in a clinic, cold, medicinal and methodical.
The staff was great, don’t mistake my anger at the situation for anger at them. As always, they treated us with care and compassion. It was just the part of me that rebelled against bringing her here that was lashing out. The part that wanted her to have the perfect ending to a not always perfect life. Jazz rallied her strength and fought through the druggy fog to turn her head to look first at Dana and then at me. Her strength gone, she laid there using her reserves to be what she always was. Alert. Aware. My Jazzy died staring into my eyes and I cried again.
It wasn’t until today, a perfect pre-spring afternoon, as I rode my motorcycle into town to collect her ashes from the vet’s office that it finally occurred to me. I HAD given her the perfect ending. She was with the two people who loved her most in this world, and the very last thing she saw was the love and pain in my eyes.
Jazzy is home…