Friday, April 15, 2016

Chasing Sunlight

Early March, and the unseasonable warmth has drawn me outside to walk the streets of my neighborhood, past sidewalks where my children used to ride their bikes and the corner where they’d wait for the school bus and where, in the good old days, there were block parties with frozen margaritas, and neighbors who slowed down in their cars to say hello. 

I walk up Cooper, around Charles Drive to Skyline in a loop, and stop a moment at what remains of the wildness there. Once comprised of blueberry bushes, overgrown grasses, and teetering tall trees, most of the area was decimated by builders. The scraggly path of dirt and rocks where my husband would take our son, Max, where he could safely let our Sammi run off-leash, exists only in memory. A couple of acres survived, the others replaced with pretty, cookie-cutter homes.

Sammi is long gone, but her ghost is still around to help me remember just how short a dog's life is, too short to waste time yelling about muddy paws on the just-washed linoleum,  She was my introduction to dog ownership, and as much as I wanted to love her, I could only muster up a tolerance for her in the beginning. Looking back, I realize I was already overwhelmed with taking care of three kids--two of them under five, and a son with special needs, so throwing a dog into the mix was more responsibility than I cared to have. It took me a good long time to come around to being fond of her; I never considered myself to be a ‘dog person’, but I believed my children needed Sammi to complete the idyllic picture of their childhood.

One December evening, Ken and I sat our children down on the couch to deliver the news that Sammi was dying. A blood disease had taken over her body, one common among the Springer Spaniel breed. There was nothing the vet could do to fix her.

“But she’s only six years old!” Olivia wailed. It was the saddest Christmas on record, with Sammi gone just two weeks before, buried in the woods behind the house with her blanket and the bone I had bought for her Christmas stocking.

I expected the kids to be upset after she died, but I had never imagined my own reaction would be so visceral. I must have cried twice a day for weeks. I missed hearing the sound of her nails on the bare floor; I kept expecting to see her curled up in her go-to spot by the piano, where she had worn down the carpet from the thousand circles she made settling into a round sleepy pile of black and white fur.What a bittersweet way to figure out I did love Sammi after all.

In the toy section of the January, 2002 L.L. Bean catalog there appeared, almost miraculously, a perfect replica of a Springer Spaniel puppy. I took the personalization option and the dog arrived just in time for stuffed animal day in Olivia’s second grade classroom. That toy was a constant companion from the day I put it in her outstretched little hands. Stuffed, personalized Sammi has gone from home to overnights at friends’ houses, from summer vacations to college apartment. I don't expect she will ever tire of her.

Ever the optimist, I began to search for another puppy five months post-Sammi, and found a breeder in Western Massachusetts with several Springer puppies for sale. It’s hard to believe it’s been fourteen years since the rainy spring day when I pointed to the least active puppy in the pen and said, “That one.” I figured the calmest one would be less work. The puppy wiggled (and peed) in my lap for much of the hour-long ride home. We passed the time thinking up names for him.

Max and Olivia came up with the name Jojo, and Cliff agreed. Thenceforth, his name would be Jojo the Puppy.

Jojo, like so many good old dogs, has been ours for what feels like forever, the kind of forever that makes it impossible to imagine he might ever cease to exist. We’ve loved him through the multitude of seasons--fourteen winters springing over powdery drifts of snow, fourteen springs lying about in the cool grass, fourteen summers chasing the sun’s reflection whenever someone opened the storm door, fourteen autumns greeting strangers walking by as though he knew them personally.  Even the UPS driver gets out of her truck if she sees Jojo outside, regardless of whether or not she has a delivery. Jojo eats up the attention, her tail in constant motion.

We all grew up together, my kids into young adults, and me into a the dog person my kids hoped I'd become.

In February, Ken and I delivered the news that Jojo has lymphoma, to Olivia over the phone, and to Max when he came home from work. I’ve been preparing Cliff for a couple of weeks, telling him only that Jojo is very sick and will go to Heaven soon, and that Grandpa will take care of him there.

For the last two months, the kids and I have been capturing Jojo in pictures and videos in all of the moments we will want to remember, all the “lasts”. Soon, my walks through the neighborhood will be absent of the dog barking and barking insistently from inside the invisible fence as if to say, “Hey, where are you going? Take me with you!”

Everyone who walks by our house will wonder what happened to the happy dog that lives there. The UPS driver and the children so accustomed to his wagging tail will ask where he is.

I’ll point to my broken heart; “Here.”

A package arrived the other day, inside it a liver and white English Springer Spaniel stuffed toy. I plan to give it to Olivia for her 22nd birthday in April, a replica of the dog she calls ‘my little gentleman’. I’ve anticipated she’ll need it.

I read a book recently, an instruction manual of sorts, about how to let go of a beloved pet. The author, Jon Katz, wrote about the way our pets come and go,  marking a specific season in our lives.Soon I will think back on the Jojo season as a time filled with changes big and small, but the most significant part of these fourteen years will be how much happier it all was with our little brown-eyed wanderer, Jojo the puppy.

No comments:

Post a Comment