Jack is an old dog.
To you and me he’s 16, but according to the Pedigree Dog Calculator, he’s the equivalent of an 80-year-old man.
Jack has outlived his brother, Joe, by about 10 years.
He’s outlived his best friend, my father-in-law, by three months now and counting.
He’s an old dog, but he is showing me every day that life goes on.
Jack has come to live with us in Lilburn most of the time. From that first weekend after my father-in-law’s accident when Jack suddenly found himself in a semi-familiar place, full of unfamiliar sights and smells – not to mention a pesky, jittery, hyperactive younger Tobey – he has been adjusting.
As I have written in this space before, I am not predisposed to compassion for canine companions. It has been a struggle to tolerate Tobey’s eccentricities, which I’m sure are instinctual habits for dogs of his nature and nurture. Tobey hasn’t evoked sentimental affection, and when I catch him lifting his leg on the corner of the sofa, it is by sheer force of will that I do not drop kick that animal out of my house permanently.
But Jack is different. He is an old dog.
Yes, I have lost my patience a time or two when his veterinarian version of Lasix kicked in and he couldn’t hold it until he got outside. Or when he failed to communicate that it was time to do his business, and the middle of the playroom floor served as his toilet.
When Jack first come to stay with us, he wandered the neighborhood if we let him out unattended. If we took him out on a leash, he refused or didn’t understand that he was supposed to do his business. He was accustomed to roaming many more acres at his house and at the farm. I tried to remedy this by erecting a series of barricades across our driveway and parking pad to keep him in the back yard.
I either finally succeeded at building a better prison, or he lost the will to escape. The backyard was his domain. But when my father-in-law was moved from a hospital in Augusta to one here in Atlanta, Carla came back home and her mother came to stay. We had to be able to get access to the parking pad and back door. The barricades came down and the free-for-all started over.
Carla couldn’t understand why I went to such lengths just so Jack could wander freely around our spacious back yard.
“Just put him on a leash and leave him out there.”
“Jack is used to roaming,” I insisted. “He’s lost everything else that he enjoyed or that is familiar. I feel somehow like this is what I can do to make things easier for him.”
Carla shook her head. She knows I’m not the most affectionate with animals.
Now that Lanny is gone and Jack’s relocation to our house seems to be mostly permanent, my compassion – and respect – for Jack has only increased. He’s messing in the house much less frequently. Even without a fence, he doesn’t leave the backyard. He’s learned not to accost me at the dinner table. At night, he goes to his blanketed crate on his own without protest or barking. All things considered, he’s a really good dog.
In the morning when I open up the dogs’ crates and let them out before their breakfast, Tobey is out, done his business and run 14 laps across the back yard before Jack has even gotten to his feet. His arthritic stretching is painful to watch. His slow and slippery waddle across the wood floor to the back door is simultaneously pitiful and comic.
Jack is an old dog.
A Pekingese-poodle mix, he was bred to be a companion. As a younger dog, he accompanied Lanny everywhere. He was a great farm dog, frolicking with the goats and giving varmints the what-for, keeping danger, as he perceived it, at bay.
Now he’s essentially in assisted living. He has caretakers he’s only half known and usually tried to escape from when they came to visit his house. He’s adjusted to the noise and trampling and bothersome attempts at play.
During family movie night a few weeks ago, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I picked Jack up, held him in my lap and stroked his fur, careful not to irritate the skin lesions or sore joints. I could feel his overly-rapid heartbeat on my legs and watched his labored breathing expand and contract his abdomen.
Maybe Jack isn’t the only one adjusting. Maybe my care of Jack isn’t really about Jack at all but some small attempt to show kindness to Daddy in the only tangible way I can now that he’s gone.
For as long as we have Jack with us, I will hold him, pet him, clean up after him, feed him and give him his medicine, because maybe, just maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Jack appears to be succeeding with me.
Thank you for tolerating more of my journey of grief over the loss of my father-in-law, Lanny Barron. It’s my hope that these essays don’t bring you down but give you hope. Take a minute to leave a comment and offer your insight, and if you are so inclined, share this post with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I am grateful for your readership.