I found Jack in Blue Ridge, GA, a small mountain town two hours north of Atlanta. I was not looking for a dog at the time. Only three months earlier, I had lost my Chow mix, Molly (a beautiful yellow/orange rescue from the Atlanta City shelter). She was 15. I definitely did not feel ready for another dog so soon.
When we walked down the main street of Blue Ridge, my girlfriend Kim said, "Hey, that dog looks like Molly." There was a small rescue group called Tri State Pet Rescue that had set up about a dozen crates by the side of the road, each with a dog inside. It was mid June and very hot and the dog that Kim pointed to was big, black and furry and looked hot. He was lying calmly in his crate. The description taped to the top of the crate said, "This is Black Jack. He is a 9 year old Newfoundland/Lab mix about 80 pounds. His owner gave him up. He is sweet, gentle and would really love a forever home of his own. He gets along very well with other dogs and people but would probably prefer a single older mom or dad that he could have to himself."
When I saw how old he was, I shook my head. Poor Jack had three strikes against him - he was big, black and old. For some reason most people avoid black dogs and big dogs and heck, who was going to want to adopt a 9 year old dog?!
But he was really a beautiful dog and seemed so hot just lying there that I said OK when the rescue person asked if I would like to take him for a short walk. I thought at least I could get him out of the heat for a bit. They put a leash on and out he lumbered. He didn’t pull at all on his leash and seemed happy just to be out of the crate. Jack closely resembled a small bear as much as he did a dog.
But he was a gentle bear. We walked about a block or so and found a store that allowed dogs inside. We went in and he plopped down on the cool floor. Several people and kids came up and asked to pat him. He just lay there as people stroked his fur and said how beautiful he was. I really like mellow, large dogs and Jack was both! After a while it was time to take Jack back. We plodded through the heat back to the rescue and Jack ambled back into his crate, but when he lay down, his deep brown eyes never left me.
The rescue volunteer was pretty eager to see what I thought. He admitted that a lot of people had been drawn to Jack, but when they saw his age, they always ended up leaving without him. He had lived with the rescue group for over 8 months, in a small house with 16 other dogs! The volunteer filled me in on Jack’s back-story. He had been rescued as a puppy and lived with a family for five years. Then, in a story I have heard too many times, the mother claimed that he “snapped” at one of their children who was pulling Jack’s ear very hard, so they gave Jack to her parents. The parents had Jack for the next four years but lived in a small cabin and traveled a lot, so Jack spent a lot of time by himself and in kennels. When he was 9, the parents decided he was too much trouble and just gave him up - somehow Tri State Pet Rescue had found him and saved him from being put down. Now here he was.
I told the volunteer that I really liked Jack and would think about it - it was just so soon after losing my last dog and I wasn’t sure if I was ready yet.
After the weekend, when I got back to Atlanta, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jack. I thought, “Heck, I am an expert at caring for old dogs! My last dog was a big old dog with all sorts of health problems. It was tough, but who better than me to care for and understand the needs of a large, older dog?”
I phoned Tri State and applied to adopt Jack. Three days, later, he arrived from North Georgia and we were reunited in the parking deck of my high-rise in Atlanta. There is a photo of this moment, which is kind of funny. I look surprised (I don’t think I knew they were taking a picture) and I have Jack’s folder of information in one hand and my arm around Jack with the other. Jack is looking straight up at my face. What was he thinking? “Who are you?” “You that guy from this weekend? I really hope this means you adopted me!”
So, my life with Jack began. Jack had a few more health problems than expected, but nothing we couldn’t deal with. He had quite severe arthritis/nerve pain in his back and joints and would yelp if you tried to pick him up. Also, his liver readings were showing signs of long-term disease. However, the good news was that I lived on the 28th floor of a high rise, so Jack never had to deal with stairs! In fact, he soon became the unofficial mascot of the building, riding up and down the elevator and meeting new people. Jack loved people and had a really funny habit of sitting in front of whoever was on the elevator and staring intently at them until they patted him. Most people loved it - a few who were afraid of dogs got a little nervous, but he usually won them over!
Everyday we took Jack for walks near my building, which he always loved to do. I think that after years by himself locked in a small cabin or kennel, it was the first time that he could really enjoy true freedom and love. Over the next 17 months, Jack got to do so many things and go to so many places - I like to think that it was beyond anything he could have hoped for when he was in his earlier, sad life. I tried to take Jack everywhere possible when I traveled. He went to the beach, to the mountains and even all the way to the Hamptons up in New York (1000 miles in the car each way!) He was always the best companion, just quietly watching the scenery and enjoying new smells and new people to pat him.
Closer to home, Jack loved walking in the parks near my place. He wasn’t much of a dog lover. He would mostly ignore other dogs and amble slowly around the park, munching on grass or (his favorite) lapping water from a stream.
Jack’s difficult prior life had left a mark on him, at least physically. Over the months, I noticed his back and joint pain getting worse, despite the three different pain medications that I had him on. Several nights I had to rush him to the emergency vet to deal with flare-ups that were making him too uncomfortable to sleep. He reminded me of an old prison inmate who had spent years in solitary confinement. His body had been slowly eroded over time.
Despite all of this, Jack loved everything about his new life - especially the love and attention that we showered on him. I like to think that he was able to make up for what he so lacked in the past. I loved Jack from the moment he arrived in Atlanta and I’m pretty sure that he felt the same way.
There is a bumper sticker in the shape of a paw that says, “Who Rescued Who?” and I think this was so for Jack and me. Yes, I rescued him from a life that was difficult and gave him the love and care that he needed. But in many ways, Jack was even more important to me.
About two years ago, after suffering heat exhaustion playing many hours in a tennis tournament on a stiflingly hot day in Florida, my body sort of collapsed. Over the next several months, I got worse and worse, so that I could not longer do any physical activity beyond walking. I developed other symptoms that also made it increasingly difficult to work. Eventually, about a year after Jack and I met, I took a leave from my work to try to recover. Despite going to doctors all over the world, a definite diagnosis of what was causing my symptoms has never been found.
My secret weapon during all of the physical and physiological misery I was going through was Jack. Many days I would be basically bedridden and Jack would always be there, quietly guarding the entrance to the bedroom. He would get up and follow me to whichever room I would be in. When I was feeling discouraged and down, he was there to give me comfort and love. Anyone who has ever lived with a pet knows this kind of comfort they give.
There were times when I don’t know how I would have made it through my illness without Jack always by my side. I’m not sure how I will do it without him.
On a Sunday night, Jack began vomiting over and over. I took him to my vet the next day, who diagnosed him with Pancreatitis. We were to take him home but bring him in the next day for IV fluid treatments. That night, Jack was in so much obvious distress (Pancreatitis is a horrible illness and extremely painful) so we rushed Jack to the emergency vet early Tuesday morning. Over the next several days, he was in ICU, getting fluids, pain medication and other treatments. The vet thought that he had a fighting chance. However, early Friday morning the vet called and said that Jack had taken a turn for the worse and I needed to hurry. We made the 30-minute drive to the vet in 20 minutes. Jack was hanging on, with tubes running in and around his body. Our tears spilled down onto Jack's fur as the vet administered the drug that would take him from us. His breathing stopped. We stroked his fur and watched his body grow still and knew that he suffered no more.
Later, the vet had said that his age, bad liver and even his joint pain had all worked against him and made it impossible for him to fight the Pancreatitis. In the end, his other organs had just started to fail and there was nothing that could be done.
Yesterday we took Jack's ashes and went to his favorite park. We sprinkled some in the spot where he would always disappear to - it had nice fresh grass that he liked to eat. We spread some ashes near an old oak tree that he liked to lay near. Most of his ashes we poured into the little overgrown stream where he would wade and get cool and of course lap up the water from his favorite pools and tributaries. His ashes formed light clouds in the water and meandered slowly away from us, taking my best friend Jack on a final journey downstream.
I only knew his gentle soul for 17 short months. But knowing everything I do now, even with the pain we both had to endure, I would still make the same decision to adopt Jack. The joy, love and fulfillment that I received I would never give up. Having owned what is now my third dog that has lived into old age, older dogs have taken a special place in my heart. There is a wisdom, serenity and sense of acceptance that older dogs possess.
The volunteer who dropped Jack off to me that day 17 months ago told me, "Don't worry, Jack won't let you down!" and he never did.
I thank God or Fate or whatever brought Jack and me together. One day, when I am ready, I hope another older dog will find its way into my life.