When I began this project of writing about my morning walks in the woods with Jamie, it never once occurred to me that Jamie would not live through the year. He was fit and strong, always ready to walk and run and, though he had slowed a bit during the last year he showed no signs of his advancing age. And yet that is exactly what has happened.
Yesterday morning, when I opened the door to let Jamie in and put on his collar and leash, he just stood outside and looked at me. None of his usual manic excitement that the highlight of his day was about to begin. He just stood there. I called him, and he came in, but he just hung his head as I put on the collar and leash. I was puzzled, but didn’t think too much yet, but as I walked him down the driveway and over to his friend Hank’s house, he just trailed along behind me. No sniffing trees, no prancing ahead of me bursting with energy.
By the time I got to Hank’s house, I knew something was seriously wrong. I turned around and took him home. I thought maybe something was wrong with his heart, but I didn’t know what it might be. He lay quietly in the back yard, as he usually does. I called my wife at work and told her something was wrong with him, what should I do? Should we take him to the vet?
She made an appointment, and I mowed the yard and did other chores, checking on him periodically, stroking his beautiful soft muzzle and head. He was quiet, but did not seem in distress. But a couple of hours later, when I went to check on him, his breathing looked labored and he was very sluggish. He didn’t look good at all, so I called my wife again. She came home from work and we took him to the emergency vet.
I won’t belabor the process from there. No one really needs to hear all the details, but by the time we got to the vet he would barely stand or walk. They rushed him back behind closed doors and eventually came to tell us that he had a tumor that was causing him to bleed internally. His abdomen was filled with blood. There was little we could do but let him go. He was so far gone by then, that he barely responded to us.
That was it. He was gone, and now we are left with this aching hole in our lives where he once was. My wife and I are in shock, walking around like zombies, not knowing what to do with the hurt.
I don’t want to dwell on that here. If you’ve recently lost a longtime companion, you know the feeling. If you haven’t, then you don’t.
What I do want to do is honor him by remembering him here one last time. I know that every person who has ever loved a dog feels much the way I did about Jamie. To me, he was an extraordinary dog. He was the most communicative dog I’ve ever known. He would look me in the eyes so directly, that it was clear he was trying to tell me something. Sometimes, he seemed to be trying to read my mind as well. He would just stop in the trail and turn and look at me in that penetrating way. He was asking a question of me, I know. If I just said okay, and gestured to go on, he seemed satisfied that I was coming with him and we were continuing. He would turn and trot on ahead.
My relationship with Jamie was one that developed slowly. He was not my dog, originally. I met him when I met my wife, seven years ago. At that time, he was a very energetic and somewhat wild young thing. He jumped on me excitedly when I came. His manners were not good, but he was happy, and enthusiastic. Once he got to know me a bit, he stopped jumping on me. Of course, I had let him know by then, that he shouldn’t do that. Not in any mean way, just quietly; that was all it took. He began to accept me as a presence in his life, though he was very much his mama’s dog.
I have a very early picture of Jamie and I on our front porch, perhaps a month or two into my relationship with Lisa. He is sitting next to me, stretching his nose up to my face, while I am turned to look at him. It was a typical gesture of his. He greeted his mother every day with that nose up to her face as she got out of her car after work. It’s such a cute gesture, and so typical of him. He was a sweetheart, even when he was young and rambunctious.
I began walking Jamie occasionally, to help Lisa. She worked long hours and walking him before and after work was difficult for her. It was not something I loved at first. I did it as a kindness to Lisa. When I eventually moved in with Lisa, it quickly became my job to walk Jamie. I worked at home and had more flexibility than Lisa, so it made sense. I really didn’t enjoy it much at that time, but little by little he and I became more and more connected.
At the beginning, he was so energetic and wild, that he pulled at the leash all the time. I took him where I could let him off leash so he could burn off his considerable energy. I began to introduce a little discipline into his life. I asked that when he was on the leash that he walk next to me, or at least that he not pull on the leash continually. It took almost a year before he got this message and finally began to listen to what I was asking of him.
From there, we got closer and closer. He began to really listen to me, to attend to what I was doing and what I wanted from him. He knew when he should stop because I was going to let him off of the leash, and he came and waited for me when it was time to get back on the leash. He listened to me more when other dogs were around. I could trust him not to go running off after another dog, as long as the dog wasn’t too close.
He was paying such close attention to me now that he knew my every habit. He knew when I was going to get up from breakfast and take him for his walk. He even learned to stop and wait for me when I said “Whoa,” a holdover from my days working with horses. I didn’t really train him. He just figured out what I meant and would stop in mid stride when I said it.
Now the walks we took were no longer a struggle or a chore. We walked together. It was a shared activity. And walk we did. I was now walking him seven days a week, 365 days a year, in heat and cold, rain and snow, no matter what. The walks got longer and longer until we were covering a couple of miles or more each day.
We had begun by now to make the trip to the woods that I’ve written about this year. It was a great place for him and for me as well. He could run off leash, and I could relax and look around me, knowing that Jamie would not roam far. He sniffed and explored, and occasionally scared up some deer or turkeys to chase, but he never went far and came back to me quickly.
We were inseparable now. I walked him every day for seven years. We walked literally thousands of miles together. It’s funny how those daily walks add up. We probably walked together more than the distance across the continent. And it was truly walking together. There was always a little dialogue going on between us. Where are you? Are you coming? What do you want me to do? Are we going home now, or will we go further up the trail? I’m getting cold, we better head home.
As we walked, we got to know neighbors and other dogs. He loved to stop and sniff the little kids waiting for the school bus. He was remarkably gentle with little kids. We met my neighbor’s dog Hank and they became the best of friends. We walked with Hank and his owner Pat almost every day once they met. It was a remarkable friendship between them. Hank waited with his nose poking between the railings of their deck, waiting for Jamie and I to turn the corner on our way to their house. He would yelp and bark madly to be let inside so he could go to the front door and greet us. There would be a minute of frenzied greeting when the two met up each day, with much running and playing and excitement.
He was a tremendous source of pride for me. People would pass me on the street and comment on what a good-looking dog he was. And I was proud of his good behavior as well. He was no longer one of those dogs who tows their owner around the block. He walked with me.
And now, within the space of a day, he is gone. Neither Lisa nor I know what to do with the void left in our lives. There’s no one to greet us when we come and go. He isn’t there waiting for me every morning to go for our walk. He isn’t there to greet Lisa when she comes home for work. He was a tremendous and constant presence in our lives and now he is simply not there.
It seems weirdly quiet in our house. It’s not that he made a lot of noise or commotion. He spent his summer days out in the back yard and he was pretty quiet now when he came in for the evening. But he was always a presence. You knew he was there. If you walked outside, he would perk up to see if you might be going somewhere that he could come along. He was there on the couch next to you or sleeping on his bed nearby. He slept at the foot of the bed all night, then jumped up to cuddle with Lisa each morning.
Lisa and I have struggled to feel okay for the last several days now. I think she is having an even harder time than I am. There’s a constant pressure of hurt left by his absence and there’s nothing to do about it except live with it. My hope is that eventually we will just remember what a wonderful dog he was, remember all of the pleasure he had in life, and the pleasure he gave to us. I am thankful that he did not suffer and that he did not endure a painful decline or endure painful medical procedures.
I wish I might have had a little more time to let him know how much I loved him. He died so quickly that there was little time for that. Of course I let him know I loved him a million times in a million ways, not least by faithfully walking with him every day, but I wish I could have impressed my love and appreciation on him one final time.
I miss my boy more than I could have imagined.