I got Jack as a gift for my 30th birthday. The runt of the litter of 12 or so English Mastiffs, he was small, sweet and very, very needy.
It’s hard for me to explain all that he’s meant to me since so much has certainly changed in my life since our first years together, when it was just me and him and a roommate living together.
If you’ve had a pet, you get it: Jack saw me at my best and my worst, and he loved me, unconditionally, before anyone else did.
He was playful yet apathetic and very, very emotional. He knew when to give a paw and when to hide behind his sad eyes. He knew when to stick out his teeth and when to pretend he didn’t hear me calling him.
He grew to about 180 pounds at his peak and often walked me more than I walked him, but his size didn’t prevent me from bringing him everywhere.
When he met my then-boyfriend, now husband, he “playfully” placed his forearm into his mouth and did not bite down, but the message was clear: mess with my woman, mess with me.
We prepared him for our first-born daughter by playing YouTube videos of babies crying and leaving baby blankets washed in her detergent in his bed, so he could get used to her scent.
He loved her instantly, and after the birth of daughter number two, we felt our family complete.
But a lot changed since those early years, as happens with pets and babies: he went from the king of the house to the king of his corner of the house.
Sometimes, when the girls were very little, we didn’t walk him very much because my yard is big and it was hard to push a carriage with two small children and a 180-pound dog attached.
He slowed down a bit, and that was fine for us, and while he was generally in good health, he struggled with the things they warned us Mastiffs are afflicted with: skin irritations and leg issues because of his size.
We had always been told that Mastiffs don’t live very long, and so when Jack celebrated his 11th birthday this past Valentine’s Day, we thought, wow, this dog will live forever!
About a month after his birthday, the pandemic forced us all inside. Bored of the four walls of our house, we started walking him religiously again. Up and down the block, around the block, just a quick trip to the end of the driveway.
On one such walk, his hind legs collapsed underneath him, and at 160 pounds, I had a hard time getting him up. Crying because I felt so bad, I called my husband to come outside and help him up.
The second time it happened, we went to the vet, who was very honest about what was happening.
“His Jack-ness is all there,” we were told, “but he’s old and arthritic and atrophied.”
“You will have to make a very difficult decision soon,” she said. "You will know when it’s time.”
I cried the whole way home, imagining what it would be like to say goodbye to such a beautiful part of my life, and feeling bad about the fact that he wasn’t the king of the house anymore, and hadn’t been for some time.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” I told him. “I’m sorry all of this is happening.” He licked my face.
When we got home, we told my daughters that he’d be going to heaven soon — that his legs were bad and we couldn’t let our best buddy be in pain for too long.
And in the months that followed, we tried everything we could to stall out the inevitable: a series of cortisone-like shots similar to what are used on horses; CBD oil and painkillers. We stopped the shots after about six because they stopped being effective; he was still falling and still seemed to be struggling with his legs.
And when that happened, I thought for sure he’d be gone quickly.
But then came the gift of time.
The weather started to warm up, and we began letting him out early in the morning, helping him down the stairs, and he happily stayed out all day long, often until 8 or 9 o’clock at night.
I would find him hiding under the deck, randomly barking at the neighbor’s cat, or sometimes at the back of our yard, where I would see his head leaning over our low fence, enjoying the petting hand of the little boy who lives behind us. I found my girls on his belly, lying next to him in the sun, and discovered his face in videos recorded on my phone, the accidental playmate of my homebound children, who loved to wrap him in princess crowns and blankets because they knew he would let them.
These months have been hard. We’ve all been forced to slow down and stay inside, and maybe we’ve asked ourselves what we'll keep when this is over, and what we'll give away.
I’ve thought often of this subject — and for me, it always comes back to Jack.
So what I’ll keep is an appreciation for slowing down.
Had we not had this pause, I’d not have been able to love on him so hard again.
Had we not had this pause, I’d not have experienced so many quiet, wonderful moments — the excited squeal of my daughters learning to play tee ball in our yard, and Jack barking at the ball as it flew through the air.
He spent many nights under my feet as my husband and I tried to have a date sitting outside by the fire pit, his coat reeking the next morning of smoke.
Jack lay on the grass in the front yard and greeted the people who came to socially distance visit with us. And he lay on a blanket next to us as we stared up at the sky at the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
The days passed. And quickly but also slowly it became Jack’s time, and last Thursday, when he couldn’t stand up at all, we had to put him down.
While I am heartbroken in a way that I know will forever change me, I can’t help but feel gratitude.
Gratitude for the days spent inside, for the mornings my husband and I both were on a break for work and we all sat near Jack and told him what a good boy he was.
Gratitude for the conversations I could hear my girls having with him, the brother they don’t have, telling him he’s so handsome.
Gratitude for the gift of knowing his time was coming — and having the time to appreciate him while he was still living.
And so even as we’ve all lost so much - our family members, our friends, our jobs, our routines, and our dogs - I find it hard to ignore that in all this loss, I have gained.
Jack became the king of the house again - the king he deserved to be.