On the day my grandmother died, in 1989, my mother said to me, “I knew she was going to die, I just didn’t think it would be today.” That simple, profound statement has stayed with me, and on occasion, manifested in my life.
Friday, February 23, 2021 goes down as one of those days. Jackson, who was diagnosed with a tumor in his chest back in November, crashed that morning. In concert with the vet, I made the decision to end his suffering. He passed peacefully and quickly. I knew this was gonna happen, but I didn’t expect it that day. He seemed fine the day before.
Jackson and his sister, Maggie, were delivered into my arms on a hot summer night in 2008, about 1 AM, in a Waffle House parking lot an hour and a half from my house. They came off a busload of barking dogs headed up I-81 from a kill shelter in Georgia to a no-kill shelter in Delaware. The unnamed brown bundle of fur slept in my lap the whole way home, while his sister slept in a friend’s arms. My friend had agreed to help me on that crazy midnight run to intercept the bus. I know it sounds trite, but it seems like just yesterday–I see it all so clearly.
Those puppies were a delight to raise and they have been my partners in crime for almost thirteen years. Maggie mothers all dogs entering the house. Jackson had a supporting role in household activities. He was just always “there” for me, gentle and supportive, strong and protective. Now I can’t reach out to massage his ears, or fuss at him for not coming in out of the rain. I have this hole in me now, and no amount of crying or wishing will fill it.
And so I think of my mom’s statement. Yes, I knew it was coming. I made the decision to not pursue invasive medical procedures. I made the decision to manage his progress with prednisone. In the early days, I tried to act like every day was his last – hugging him, spending extra time with him, but he wasn’t a gushy kind of guy, and emotionally that intensity was difficult to sustain. We settled back into our regular patterns, but I tried to memorize special moments for the dreaded day he would leave me. I got comfortable with our success and I fooled myself into believing we were doing fine.
Well, we weren’t fine. In just a few early morning hours, Jackson went into labored breathing and was not responsive to the other dogs or breakfast. Just like that, something had changed in his body and my sweet boy was done. No manic circling through the kitchen to get to his breakfast bowl, no soft roo-roo’s to tell me to hurry up with the kibble.
I always ask my canine friends to send me a sign that they are on their way to new adventures. I need the reassurance that I made the best decisions for them and that they are OK. Friday afternoon, driving a backroad I rarely use, hours after saying goodbye to Jackson, I saw a group of buzzards on the side of the road. At the sound of my car, they lifted away from the carnage du jour. As they rose, I saw a flash of white tail feathers and a white head – one of those birds was a bald eagle – a symbol of courage.
Then this morning, three days from our parting, I raised my bedroom window shade on another raining day, only to find brilliant red cardinals on the oak leaf hydrangea just outside. Cardinals are considered a sign of passed loved ones checking in. I have a lot of cardinals in my yard, but I have never seen them cluster in this particular location.
Heartbreak is the downside of loving. We only have the very moment we live in at any second. I think the best we can do is savor each moment. Even as I try to hold on to our time together, the reality of it all slips away. I have to believe there will be a time when we all come back together with the souls we belong with. Until our time begins again, Jackson, Godspeed to you.