In the midst of the season of our joy, as the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is often called, I find a small measure of sorrow in my heart. The pain of loss has been smoothed around the edges, softened by memory. Old photographs of Jenna with young children, now nearly grown, elicit laughter.
Nevertheless, Sukkot always stirs up memories of her last days in our home. Here are the words I wrote about Jenna’s life when she died; they are still true.
There is no “one truth” about Jenna, but the story of her life contains three true statements:
1. More than ten years ago, my spouse and I decided to rescue a dog. He had grown up with numerous pets and had brought a cat into the marriage. I had grown up with fewer, furless pets—many goldfish, a solitary turtle and parakeets that probably should not have been kept in captivity—because my mom suffered from severe allergies.
We did not take this step lightly. We did cave under the pressure of our eldest daughter’s relentless begging, despite her younger sister’s anxiety around dogs. When our younger daughter was a toddler and we encountered dogs in our neighborhood, she would shriek with fear until I crossed the street. She insisted that we avoid even the least fierce and tiniest pups whose noses could not reach above the stroller wheels.
Her truth about Jenna: “When I was little I was so afraid of dogs; my parents thought that getting a big, slobbery dog would cure me.”
2. My scientist-spouse undertook an extensive research project and discovered that Labrador Retrievers were the most popular breed for family pets in the U.S., because they are gentle with children, intelligent and good-natured. After an intake interview with Kim at Georgia Lab Rescue, I began dragging my youngest with me to meet potential adoptees in their foster homes. We met only adult dogs, already housebroken. He was still in diapers, and I had no intention of training a puppy.
We rescued Jenna a few months later, when my son was just weeks shy of his second birthday. She was easily 25 pounds overweight and totally docile, except when she needed to be a protective mama to my son. He would grab her bulky flanks and attempt to climb on her back; she would respond by covering him with slobber.
His truth about Jenna: “I can’t remember anything before we got her. She was always in our family.”
3. Jenna had never been trained, had no leash manners and she did not retrieve. Not once in her life did she chase a ball. My project was to get her into shape and teach her some basic vocabulary. She lost 20 pounds within the first nine months, but never mastered more than a few commands. I lost ten pounds and—more than a few times—nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to restrain her on our daily walks. She was always energetic, returning to her fast pace after surgery six years ago to repair a torn ACL. Eleven years old when she tore her other ACL and already suffering from ailments common to elderly, large-breed dogs, Jenna was too old for another surgery. Our walks decreased in both speed and distance. Lately they decreased in frequency, as well.
We adopted Jenna so that our children would grow up having a pet. Unfortunately, she was too big and undisciplined for the kids to walk her. But she was my walking buddy for nearly a decade. My eldest child would often say this truth about Jenna to me: “You may have gotten the dog for us, but she’s your dog. Jenna is your favorite child.”
I never denied this truth. I embraced it, replying: “She’s always happy to see me when I walk through the door and she never talks back. Of course she’s my favorite!”
My relationship with Jenna was one of pure, mutual affection. It was uncomplicated.
Until this week.
As it became clear that the end of her life approached—would be hastened by our compassion for her suffering—I was deeply troubled by the realization that I would not be present during her final moments.
For a decade, I sat with her at the Vet’s office and sang to her. For the first half of our life together, it was Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” After the second diagnosis of torn ACL, I switched to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” These last few months, our soundtrack changed again to Phillip Phillip’s “Gone Gone Gone.”
“I’ll lie, cheat, I’ll beg and bribe, to make you well.”
“I’m not moving on, I love you long after you’re gone.”
“Like a drum, baby, don’t stop beating.”
How will I know?
I asked the Vet this question every six weeks, back in the office for new meds or a recheck. I’d never had a dog as a child. I’d never dealt with this before.
You’ll know, everyone said.
I kept singing to Jenna, if only to reassure her of my blatant favoritism. Still, I feared her time was coming.
I cried a lot this week, mostly when I was alone. I held it together so that I could comfort my kids. I came to terms with my choice not to sit in the Vet’s office singing Phillip Phillips one last time. I prefer to remember the Springsteen years.
For a decade, I was attuned to Jenna’s panting breath, wagging tail, constant presence in my home and heart. For a decade, I was forced to contend with the accusations of favoritism. At this moment, putting a decisive end to that friendly sibling argument seems pointless. Yet, I miss the pronouncement of truths about Jenna, joyful noise that is now replaced by quiet tears.
It’s true: she was always happy to see me when I walked through the door and she never talked back.
Perhaps this is the “one truth” about Jenna: I love you long after you’re gone, gone, gone.