Cara Snider Williams, ContributorWriter, professor, follower of Jesus, news junkie, animal lover
Bookending an Era: Loving and Losing My Dogs
05/07/2017 03:23 pm ET | Updated 1 day ago
It was during a warm summer, in 2006, that I brought home two Jack Russell terriers from Baypath Humane Society in Massachusetts. I had never even owned one dog on my own before, but there were Mickey and Nugget, alone-together at the shelter, terrified and accustomed to a home with a couch and beds. They were “the bookends” as the shelter director called them, four-years-old and in need of a home together. To be honest, when I met them they didn’t seem to care a whit for me, and on our trial walk around the shelter grounds neither one seemed interested in smelling me or coming to me when I called their names. But I felt sorry for them. So I kept the bookends together, and I brought them home.
That day, I renamed the pair Jacques and Gus, on my mother’s suggestion, after the two mouse characters in Disney’s Cinderella. True to form, Jacques was thinner, taller, confident, and somewhat bossy of the two, and Gus-Gus was chubby, somewhat lazy and diminutive. In the next 11 years they would grow into their names and become colorful characters in the story of my life.
This week, for the first time in 11 years, I experienced life without them. Jacques, who lived to 15 ½ years, collapsed in front of me during a swimming (hydrotherapy) session at the vet. They rushed him in for oxygen and gave him medicine to stabilize his heart. He regained consciousness briefly and was transferred to an emergency care center where he again stopped breathing. It was as I huddled over him, my nose pressed against his velvet brown ears, that his heart stopped beating and the doctor said he was gone. My husband and I dissolved in grief. The previous night Jacques had run with me around the house, galloping like a much younger dog, then scarfed down his food, and fell asleep peacefully in his bed. He had underlying health conditions, of course, being 15 years old. He was arthritic—which was why he went for hydrotherapy, laser treatments and massage—but he also had exhibited signs of neurological issues in the last few years, and would spend evenings pacing and circling, a behavior that, to us, became normal, but likely foreshadowed his final collapse.
It was just a year and a half prior, that we had to put his brother Gus “to sleep,” as the euphemism goes, after a week of severe sickness and tests that revealed his liver and kidney were failing. Treating one issue may have worked for a few months, the vet said, but treating both would put him through a great deal of trauma and would likely not help for long. He was suffering, so in our final act of compassion, we permitted him to peacefully end his days. The loss was searing. And it came just one week before my husband and I made a 1,600 mile move cross-country for his new job. As we drove West that August, with Jacques alone on the back seat of our Volvo, we felt we had left part of our family, and our hearts, behind.
Jacques mourned his brother for three days, not eating or moving much at all. I feared he’d never make the trip to Colorado, or wouldn’t survive long after the transition. But coming West invigorated the always-curious terrier with new sights, scents, experiences; and our new home was in close proximity to a veterinary facility with therapy treatments to alleviate Jacques’s mobility issues. Most of all, he loved the swimming. For lap after lap, he’d glide in the water, all the pressure off of his joints, and his stiff limbs would gradually extend farther in their range of motion. When the therapist paused after each lap set, Jacques would get restless and sometimes utter a cry while kicking his feet—he was ready to get back to swimming; and as he was lowered back into the water, he kept his gaze on me while I walked ahead of him on the pool deck. “Keep your eye on the prize,” our therapist would say. “Follow your mama.” How could we know this would be the way he would pass, sliding under the water that final day of his life, after what the vet believed was either a neurologic event or a heart attack. He lost consciousness, he met with tragedy, in the same place that had given us both so much joy. And there was nothing to be done this time. I had to let him go.
Nothing prepares a person for such a loss. Nothing prepared me for the self-blame that followed and the horrific final images that replay on a loop in my mind. And try as I may, nothing felt like a suitable outlet for my grief. So I did what I always have done when overwhelmed by my thoughts: turn to the page, to wrestle with language and translate this experience—to somehow grasp onto language, even as it slips away.
Losing Jacques was the end of an era. And in the days since, I have tried to remember the good times, the days we spent in the sunshine and on walks, with our shadows following us and the feeling that these days would last forever. The truth is, these dogs became part of me and part of my life’s routine. Now when I see that it’s 6pm, I am prompted to feed the dog. And when I wake up in the morning I instinctively extend my hand down over the side of the bed, to pet Jacques in his sleep. At night, when it’s time for bed, I think “time for the last out,” and from moment to moment there will be sounds that seem like a dog is moving around in the living room or yawning during a stretch. The rooms in our house are each testaments to some part of Jacques’s routine day—the area of the kitchen where his bed was and where he would laze in the afternoon sun, the place where his water bowl stood, the old baby gate that kept him from attempting the stairs, the hook by the front door where his harness and leash hung. Grief is not something that comes to us all at once; it comes in a hundred different reminders through the day, when we’re forced to remember, all over again, what we’ve lost. Instinct prompts us to routine, convinces us for a moment that our dog is still with us, only for our mind to snap back to reality, and in another second process the fact that he is gone.
But that is the reality of love, isn’t it? That it comforts us and provides companionship, but also demands that we follow it through, to the end. And when it comes to the love of a dog, we know that in most cases, they will leave us behind. But we adopt them anyway and open our homes, because even when the grief overwhelms us, we know that we have also spent years submerged in pure, uncomplicated, unconditional love. It transforms us and them, together, and we’re never the same.
When I brought Jacques and Gus home they were timid, sad, likely traumatized that they had spent their first four years with a family and then taken to the shelter just 10 days before I adopted them. They didn’t eat, they slept constantly, and their bodies were always touching when they laid in their new bed I had made them or on the couch: security in proximity. That first week Jacques developed kennel cough, which progressed into pneumonia. A dog-owning novice, I administered a pink, liquid antibiotic through a syringe and performed “coupage” to clear his lungs—a process of running hot, steaming water in the shower, holding him over it to breathe the steam, then whacking his sides to help him cough and loosen the congestion. We ended up in the emergency care center at 3 am one of those nights, with me terrified he wasn’t breathing well and him weak and in pain. It was a glimpse into the next decade of health issues, trips to the ER, medicines, and worry. But it also bonded the three of us and I quickly learned what it was like to be protective of an animal in my care, to lie next to them and even sing to them when they were feeling ill and scared. They, in turn, quickly learned to trust me, followed me around as my little “shadows,” as I called them, and saw me as their caregiver. I think they knew I’d never abandon them, and I never did.
Now as I think back to the Jacques and Gus Years, I conjure up memories of them chasing each other around my various apartments and homes, running reckless as “turbo terriers” after their baths, begging for (and receiving) bites of whatever food I was eating. They spent countless days at my parents’ house, which I called their vacation home, rambling through the yard and parks, lounging with us on the deck, and getting bites of freshly grilled hamburgers, the Thanksgiving turkey, the Easter ham. Jacques and Gus traveled to more states than most people have visited, exploring the coast of New England, the woods of West Virginia, the battlefields, parks, towns, and neighborhoods of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. They spent days lazing in the sunshine streaming through windows, and enjoyed breezy warm days on the deck. In my years of doctoral work, I spent hours on the couch reading, grading student papers, and writing, always with Jacques on one side of me and Gus on the other—bookending me as they slept. Their beds, blankets, toys, dog shampoo, food, medicines, and leashes became permanent fixtures in my home, just as their routine became my routine. Every camera and phone I owned had enough photos of Jacques and Gus to wallpaper a house, and a friend later told me that they were the first thing she knew about me; she said, “I knew this is Cara, and this is Jacques and Gus.”
In truth, they were the perfect dogs—Gus with his sweet, timid affection and favorite spot on the couch and Jacques with his confident personality and energetic trot. They did tear up carpet a few times and eat things they shouldn’t have, but through the years they guaranteed I was never alone in hard times, and they’d make me erupt in laughter with their antics—stealing lo mein off of a plate, kicking through the leaves at the park, and bounding through snow, even in their senior years, like they were rabbits at play.
Most importantly during those years they met and adopted the man who would later become my husband, Brandon. Gus curled up with him on the couch just as happily as with me, and while Jacques was always a one-owner dog, he, too, learned to seek out Brandon’s affection. In his final year, Jacques would lie with him on the couch, happily trot with him on walks, and enjoy the ice cream treats Brandon picked up for him on the weekends. In short, we became a family unit. First it was the four of us, then we rebuilt after losing Gus and were a unit of three. Now we’ll rebuild again.
This fall, Brandon and I are expecting our first child. And while this baby will never know Jacques or Gus firsthand, their impact will be felt. Living and loving them has expanded my capacity to love, something this child will expand exponentially further. I know love is not easy, does not come without cost or pain or worry. But it is the better path. We will become a family again, living still with the memory of our little shadows—the bookends who began and ended an era, but who will never be gone from our lives.
Cara Snider Williams is a professor of English, who holds a Doctorate of Philosophy from West Virginia University and teaches rhetoric, composition, and literature at Shepherd University. Her scholarship includes intersections of race, religion, and social justice in American literature, with a focus on Christians “on the margin” who advocated for a social gospel. When she is not grading papers or writing, Cara immerses herself in contemporary global and national politics, and escapes on daily walks with her Jack Russ