My little boy kept going over to the blind, opening it, and peering outside, to see if it had really happened. His mother would come behind him and close the blind again, trying to put a salve on the curious wound that had now been opened. He would not be deterred. Again and again, this happened, for several hours, until the night swallowed up the day and the empty pavement was no longer a distraction.
A few hours earlier, Jax, my Boston Terrier, had been hit by a car. This 11 month old puppy, with whom I had not even shared a birthday, his or mine, was dead, his lifeless body lying at the head of our driveway, motionless. There are three little boys to whom this dog belonged. One had been told to bring him inside only moments earlier. Moments earlier, Jax, was being himself. He was on the porch wrestling with his favorite play thing, the cat. All was normal. Jax was being himself and the cat was on the receiving end. They let him remain on the porch in his usual style with his usual best animal friend.
A minute later, another one of the kids was asked to bring Jax off the porch. He goes over to the door, looks out the window panes on either side, and Jax is missing. He was just there, now, he’s gone. The boy goes outside, looks around, and suddenly rushes back in the door and exclaims, “Something is Wrong!” All the children run outside with their mother only to find that death had snuffed life from the place where it once resided. What was offered as a few minutes more of playtime had turned into a tragic tale of a dogs love for life proving his demise.
We are not sure what happened. No one saw it. It happened too quickly. We surmise he was on the porch with the cat, whom was not faring so well, and the cat took off running across the road. Jax, for whom caution was no obstacle, most likely dashed toward him, while an unforeseen vehicle driving much too fast on the road in front of our house, was dashing toward him.
There was no sound, no screech of wheels. There was no remorseful driver that made their way to our front door, dog in hand, apologies falling from lips. There was just our small puppy who had brought himself up the driveway going to the only place that he knew could help him.
I hold many powers, but resurrection is not one of them.
About this time, I get a text, “Jax was hit by a car. He’s dead. I’m so sorry.”
My reply “No. No.”
How could this little guy who had just played hide and seek with me only hours earlier be gone? This little dog who kind of sorta smelled like Fritos and would wait for his turn to lick out the remaining contents of my morning yogurt container, gone?
This news hit me like a punch to the gut, instant pressure and breathlessness moved over my chest as the suddenness began to overtake my senses. This was a little guy that I took selfies with, and if you follow me anywhere on social media, you know I don’t take selfies…but now, I’m glad I did.
My favorite memory of him was the neurotic way he obsessed over my hands. My hands were his favorite play thing because they contained the magic of the man/dog wolf pack of two that we had created together. He liked to play rough and he liked being pushed and shoved and tapped on the nose with lightening speed. He’d growl and nibble at my hands, and he would sound ferocious, but he’d never bite me and if I stopped playing rough, and went full silly voice, his ears would go back and he’d lick me until I needed another bath. He was so obsessed with this way of playing I would often come home, sit on the couch, hands in my pocket, and he would come over to me, begin to nudge my pockets and attempt to dig my hands from their lair. He would not be deterred. I possessed the greatest toys around.
My wife moved him into the garage, wrapped him a towel and placed him in his bed. She turned out the lights.
A few moments later she noticed one of our kids going to the garage door, looking through it and turning on the lights, the same child who was earlier opening the blinds. She asked him what he was doing and he replied, “Jax doesn’t need to be in the dark.” He loved his dog and he wanted to make sure that he was ok, that he wasn’t left all alone; he was hoping Jax would get back up…he was hoping for a miracle.
When everything feels dark, it’s only natural to turn on the lights.
Two of my boys are huddled on the couch crying together, wrapped in a blanket, and the other sits with his mother and says, “I sure wish magic was real so I could bring Jax back.”
All three kids are crying, not able to concentrate on homework, not able to play or be kids because Jax is in the garage, dead.
I step into the house and the absence is palpable. I get home and find them all in their room, attempting to do the impossible: sleep. This just doesn’t feel right. I, for one, am speechless. Not that I don’t have words; I just want to keep them inside. I don’t have much time. Jax needs to find his final resting place tonight, but I want to the kids to have one more opportunity to say goodbye. We ask them if they would like to do that before I go and take care of Jax. They all say yes, climb out of the bed in their pajamas, make their way into the garage, and stand around Jax still not sure what is happening but knowing that whatever this hurt is, it is real.
I was at work all day. The last time I saw him I put him in his cage, told him he was a good boy and left the house, fully expecting him to be excited to see me hours later. Instead, what I found was a poor little puppy, wrapped in a blanket, rigor mortis set in, his eyes open peering into mine, as he lay in his dog bed. Animals this small begin the death process quickly after they breath their last. I really hoped I’d find a softer puppy I could pick up, look at and hold, but he was too stiff and his body was cold.
He had died around 3:50pm. I did not get home until 9:15pm.
I find a box that is suitable for him. Put on my hat, gloves and goose down coat, and carry him in his box into the yard, the cold biting my face but my face not even flinching. I have parked my car at a slant facing the part of the yard where I will bury him and I turn on the headlights so I can see. I choose a spot right next to Bailey, his predecessor, and our family dog of 11 years.
What made burying Jax so difficult tonight was the fact that we had just buried Bailey last April. Bailey was our Westie we had gotten the week of college graduation, Spring 2003. He had been the dog that was home through our first milestones: babies being born, 3 different apartments, 2 different houses, moving out of state, and sat by my feet as I wrote many papers for seminary. Jax was brought into our home 3 months later. He was supposed to be the dog for the next 10-15 years, the dog the kids would leave with mom and dad when they went to college, that their High School girlfriends would pet, the dog they would really remember as their own. And now, in an untimely fashion, I was burying him feet away from Bailey. Losing him seemed like losing Bailey all over again, only now with a year of memories to boot.
I understand that having a pet will mean dealing with loss and I am totally “ok” with that loss happening once every decade. I can deal with a gaping hole that is more loyal than most humans happening to me once every 10 years…but twice in less than a year just sucks. I promised myself that all the things I didn’t do with Bailey, or the ways I would sometimes think of my dog as an inconvenience, I would not do with Jax. Jax was my redemption, my next attempt at being the owner that Bailey deserved when I felt like there were times when I had not loved him as much as he had loved me…and that’s why losing Jax hurts…because I was a good owner and I loved him the best I could and he loved me…and now he’s gone, so I have lost the dog that knew my voice for the past 11 years and now I lost his successor much too quickly.
I picked up the shovel and began carving out a 1 ½ x 3 size square into the ground. After 35 minutes of digging in the dark, taking brief pauses for emotional moments, I opened the box and looked at him one last time. I cried. Actually, I wept. I touched his face. I apologized to him. I told him I loved him. And I thanked him for being a great dog. I closed the lid. Placed him in the ground and covered up my newest best friend. With what remaining strength I had left at the end of the day, I padded down the dirt, leaving a mound for the ground to settle…walking away, I looked back, still not sure of what I had just done.
Funny thing is I used to not be a dog person, until I was. Bailey and Jax did that to me. They made me love them because they loved me. Even when I didn’t realize it, they were working their magic on me and I only realized how successful they were when they were gone.
It seems ridiculous to be hurt and tore up over losing an animal. I used to think so myself, until I felt the hole that is left when something you love so deeply is gone. No, they are not human…but when they live in the house with you they become one of your creatures, part of you, and something you consider when making decisions.
The reason it hurts when we lose humans close to us is because they were close to us, not because they were human. Humans die every day and none of us care. Humans in our families die, humans that we didn’t see or talk to much, like our “moms dads cousin” and many of us have been to their funerals, offered condolences, but it hasn’t kept us up at night. But humans that live with us, humans we share life with, humans that are human with us, those humans matter and when we lose them we are inconsolable. And truth be told, we never really get over that loss. The loss remains and we know it. We just learn to incorporate the loss into our lives and learn to live a life of loss under the charade of healing. But we all learn that part of living is living with losing.
Jax’s absence is already salient because he lived with me. He slept in my bed. He followed me around the house. He rode in my car. He would greet me every day when I got home from work. He would bring me his toys and he would lick me to death if I’d let him. He was the creature that would get my copyrighted stupid voice every day because only he would be entertained by it.
What makes us value those creatures, human and animal alike, is our interaction with them, and for many of us who are pet owners, we can literally have thousands of interactions over the course of a lifetime with our animals. The interaction we share with God’s creatures will often times dwarf what we share with most other humans, even the ones in our family, so it makes sense that we value these relationships and it makes sense that it hurts when they are stolen from us.
Our connection with our animals also indicates that we are created to be in harmony with both the human, and non-human, creation. We want relationship with people and creatures…it taps into something that tells us we are not so different even though we tell ourselves we are. This is why we are able to become attached so quickly. Within a matter of days of bringing a dog home, he is already part of the family. Once this belonging has been established, removing him from the family can in no way be undone without causing trauma, even if it is only a slight wandering of our mind toward “what if?”
The loss of our animals hurts because they are a gift to us; very literally, they become a grace to us, giving us forgiveness, acceptance and affection when we do not deserve it. Grace is an unmerited favor bestowed upon someone without cause or purpose; grace is typically preceded by an unconditional love. Jax, and all our animals, teach us many things, but perhaps the most important is that love can be given without condition. Our animals love us regardless of how we treat them, what we buy them or how often we even give them attention. Dogs, and I’ll go on a limb her, are perhaps one of the best examples of incarnational love in the animal kingdom because they truly, in essence, embody the love of the Christ toward us…a love offered by God, without stipulation, toward us, in order to save us from ourselves and our own damnation. And they do it without thought for personal gain. They just want to love the world one lick at a time. I don’t know about you, but on more than one occasion Jax saved me from my own pity and loved me even when him licking my face was the last thing I wanted at the moment.
So I write these words and these thoughts in memoriam to my good buddy Jax. I am thankful that he reminded me my heart is not rocky soil and I am thankful for the grace that he was in my life. I sure am gonna miss him. If God is ever going to be in the business of renewing creation like scripture says, Jax better be there or me and Jesus are going to have words.
Jax Napier. In Memoriam: March 2014 – February 2015