Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.
~ Anatole France
Jackson has passed away, and there hangs a pall over my heart and our neighborhood. Jackson was a Golden Retriever who lived across the street from us with his guardians*, a married couple. He was elderly, with the telltale white face that Goldens develop in their golden years, and was showing the other signs of his advancing age, such as hip dysplasia. But his spirit remained ever puppy-like, and for this he had a special place in the heart of anyone who knew him.
Jackson was a good neighbor. The best. He was never quarrelsome, never inclined to petty bickering. He was never grumpy or too busy to say hello. He minded his business, yet was also an ambassador of goodwill. His guardian (“mom”) accompanied him on his rounds through the neighborhood, spreading cheer to all. He was friendly without being intrusive. Who could resist his easygoing nature, his genuine charm? He’d often run across the street, right up our driveway to greet me upon returning home. Regardless of how tough the day had been, Jackson’s wagging tail and bright smile was sure to lift sagging spirits. I instantly perked up at the spontaneous opportunity to pet Jackson and receive his warm welcome. He was so well loved and cared-for by his people, and had an honored place of prominence and priority in their lives. You could tell.
Jackson and his mom were inseparable. As Jackson aged, and it was harder for him to get around, his mom helped him by affixing a special harness with a handle on the back which she could use to help support him, easing the weight on his weakening legs. On many occasions, I saw her using a set of portable steps to help Jackson get into the back of her SUV. Even with the steps, she still partially lifted him, no small task, as Jackson was a pretty big boy. But she was never impatient with him, always handling him with the greatest tenderness, and calling him by terms of endearment. The bond they shared was deep and obvious. One of their favorite pastimes, especially during sunny weather, was to lounge on their front lawn, Jackson lying contentedly, his toys nearby, while his mom sat in a low chair, reading. It was a comforting sight. Yet it was this very sight which was also to be one of the last we’d have of Jackson.
As he declined in his final days, it was harder for him to walk or even get up. So his people sat with him on the lawn, petting him, brushing him, talking tenderly to him. Recognizing what was transpiring, neighbors stopped by to visit, sitting on the grass beside Jackson, assuring him of their love and admiration for him, and trying to savor what they knew would be their final moments with this dear friend. All we could do was wish for a peaceful passing, which I believe he had, knowing he was surrounded by those who loved him most.
I’ve been readying myself for some time for the inevitability of this day, and also dreading it. I knew I’d feel heartbroken, and I do. But why? Jackson wasn’t my dog. Nor was he even the dog of a close friend or relative. He was our neighbors’ dog – neighbors with whom we’re friendly, but not especially close. Jackson’s passing represents loss and grief to me in many forms, and therein lies my sorrow.
I understand the connection Jackson’s mom had with him, and deeply empathize with her loss. I know what it’s like to care so devotedly, and to bear great sorrow. So much of her life revolved around caring for Jackson, or simply being with him. He was a constant companion in the very best sense. Her daily routine, the reassuring familiarity of his presence, is no more. I know this grief intimately. Jackson’s death brings sadness to me not only for missing him, but for rekindling my emotions of previous losses of loved ones, as well as relating to the grief of those Jackson left behind. I think this is what often happens to many of us when we are faced with the death of another. It is the associative thoughts, emotions, and memories – sometimes not even fully conscious – which imbue our psyche with melancholy, as does the struggle to accept a future without those we love.
A few years ago, we were devastated by the loss of our two Shih Tzus, litter mates, who left this world as they came into it: together. The final months leading to their passing was an agonizing time, and I still miss dear Rocky and Dweezil terribly. But they lived a good long life, and it was just their time to go, so I am at peace with that. But I still feel the anguish (although not as constantly or as excruciatingly) of the too-soon loss two years ago of my beloved cat, Emmett, my first-born. It’s painful, like reopening a wound, to think about how he died, so I must forcibly push those thoughts from my mind. I couldn’t have loved him any more if I’d given birth to him from my own womb. There will never be another being, human or non-, with whom I’ll have that kind of relationship. Less than a year ago, we also lost our precious kitty, Clover, whose premature departure left our home and hearts dimmer without her bright presence. There are days when I still double over in grief, the bitter memories of the tragic circumstances of her death suddenly vivid and fresh. But these stories of life’s final stages, of love beyond measure, of loss and guilt and reckoning, are for another time. This is a tribute to Jackson.
As neighbors, our collective lives were somehow better for having Jackson around. Seeing Jackson strolling down the sidewalk, carrying a favorite stuffed toy, or peacefully lounging on his lawn, was a sign to me that all was right in our little world. These were the images of everyday life that mattered. Now, looking across the street, seeing the barren sidewalk, the empty lawn, my heart sinks. I can imagine what Jackson’s mom is going through, mourning inside her house, trying to cope and adjust to her new reality. I haven’t seen much of her since Jackson passed away. Nothing will ever be the same; our neighborhood is changed forever; Jackson has left a void. Sure, there are other dogs who** cheerfully cruise our street, and I have a fondness for them all. But Jackson had been elevated to the status of Neighborhood Mascot, and though he may someday be replaced, he will never be outdone.
I realize that eventually, time will soften, as it invariably does, the sharpness of our current pain. There’ll come a time when it will be easier to recall Jackson less with an accompanying sense of anguish, and more with a sense of fond – even cheerful – remembrance. I look forward to those future days of light-hearted reminiscing as we pay tribute to the beautiful spirit of Jackson, and the way he touched our lives. For anyone reading this, I’m sure you have paw prints on your heart, as well, left by the special animals you’ve loved.
* I refer to those who live with companion animals as “guardians” when it’s apparent that they consider their furry family members to be far more than “property”. I reserve the term “owner” for others who don’t hold their animals in as high regard. However, I realize that “owner” is commonly used by many across the board without making the same distinction.
** My word-processing program tries to correct my usage of the word “who” to “that” for reference to non-humans, but I do insist on referring to all sentient beings as “who”.
Some helpful resources:
Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, by Moira Anderson Allen