Jackson was given to me for Christmas as a tiny little Boxer pup, the size and color of a loaf of bread, by my fiancé Larry, a New York City Firefighter. We had been living together for a few years and were ready to take the next step of commitment: raising a hyperactive, crazy-powerful young dog. Together we took Jackson running in Central Park, threw balls for him on the Rockaway beaches, and tried unsuccessfully to teach this growing powerhouse to heel and stay out of our bed at night. He grew into such an elegant, regal dog that on more than one occasion a stranger would stop their car, back it up, and offer a compliment.
Jackson was a constant presence at the Squad 18 firehouse. He accompanied the men on the rig on several runs when he was too young to be trusted not to fall down the pole hole if left alone at the squad. No one who knew Larry well can think of him now without thinking of Jackson. When 9-11 claimed Larry’s life, emptiness consumed me as one thing after another fell away—my partner, my house, my car, my job, my life. It was my responsibility to Jackson and his limitless devotion to me that kept me going and saw me through the pain, moment by moment. He was all I had, but he became my everything: My running buddy, my bed warmer, my travel partner, my reason to get up in the morning and leave the house, my enthusiastic ever-loving supporter at the end of a rotten day, of which there were many back then.
Over time I reluctantly found my footing again, a new place in the city, a better job, sanity. But my work hours in advertising were horrendous, and they took their toll on myself and Jackson, who spent many long lonely days on his own. For a while I took him to a doggy daycare facility. And one stormy night I turned the corner after work to retrieve my companion to find the building he was in engulfed in flames. In a city of thousands of firefighters, it was one of Larry’s close friends who went in and got Jackson out safely. The daycare facility gone, I switched to a dog walker who became so smitten with him that he began to take Jack and keep him for the day, bringing him on on his dog-walking rounds, to his house, to his son’s little league games. After a while I noticed Jackson was putting on weight. I was perplexed until my dog walker inadvertently revealed the reason why: “You wouldn’t believe how many hot dogs that dog can eat!” So much for Jackson’s carefully regulated diet.
In time the work hours wore me down, the solitude of Jackson’s days were weighing on me, and the realization came over me that I was now the same age as Larry was when he died. I shut down my life, bought an XXL dog crate, and moved with Jackson to Europe—that canine paradise where dogs gnaw on marrowbones presented by white-gloved waiters on little silver trays while their human companions enjoy canard confit on the table above.
Jackson and I roamed the back roads of Europe: He ran unleashed on the invasion beaches of Normandy, lapped water from the Fountain of Youth in Brittany, ate pommes frites on the streets of Belgium, went shoe-shopping in Saint-Tropez, splashed in the Mediterranean Sea in Nice, and kept my feet warm under bistro tables on busy Parisian sidewalks. He rode the U-Bahn in Munich and scrounged pretzels and bits of weisswurst off the floor of German beer halls. At Christmas, Jackson and I traveled in a sleeper car on the Orient Express to Austria where we spent the holidays in the wintery Tyrolean Alps. There we ate giant wiener schnitzels and apfelstrudel in alpine chalets after long snowy walks. The chamber maids would watch him if I wanted to do a bit of skiing, and in the evening, Jackson and I would make our way to the bar, where he would make a nest in a pile of discarded coats and I would enjoy a nightcap with my fellow travelers and newfound friends.
In the spring we headed to the south of France, where we were ogled in Avignon, befriended by a truffle-sniffing dog in a cave in Chateauneuf du Pape, sunbaked in the Roman arena in Arles, and cooled by a shared lavender ice cream in Nice.
After Paris we returned to New York and spent a few months in the small town of Kismet on Fire Island, a place where we had enjoyed many of our summers together. On Fire Island, Jackson was something of a minor celebrity and was doted on by many. His dramatic collapse on a Kismet beach and the successful CPR efforts of a resident (which included chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth) earned him a role as himself in a book published by a local writer. On Fire Island, Jackson roamed the beaches at sunrise, disappeared over many a dune in hot pursuit of a deer, and refreshed himself in the rolling surf on hot humid days. In the windswept fall evenings, he would crawl awkwardly but determined into the lap of me or my housemates (or anyone else who would have him).
In time I found love again, and Jackson welcomed my new partner with the same enthusiasm he showed for all things wondrous in his life. Jackson was the ring bearer at my wedding in Central Park. And he suffered a cardiac collapse in the middle of the ceremony (from which he thankfully recovered). On the first day of my honeymoon, he had a bout of explosive diarrhea all over the back seat of the car. Too much wedding cake, I guess. Bless my new husband Charlie for his tolerance.
Jackson, Charlie, and I moved back to Manhattan, this time to an apartment right off Central Park so every walk was filled with grass and trees and birds and squirrels and other doggy friends. He welcomed our first son Ben into the world with an inquisitive and thorough sniffing. He was as intoxicated by that new baby smell as we were. Two years later, he welcomed interloper number two, my second son Graham. Through the years he patiently put up with the pokes, pushes and pinches of toddlers, and never balked at the little fingers that were always in his ear or up his nose or grabbing at his tail or paw.
People who didn’t know better were often afraid of Jackson because they mistook him for a pit-bull, of which there are many in Manhattan. But the truth, while he was intimidating in his muscularity, he was as gentle a dog as ever there was. Our apartment was burglarized one night when we were out. The thief came in off the fire escape and tore the apartment apart, taking jewelry, my computer and my camera. Jackson was there the whole time and clearly did nothing to deter the burglar—he probably just gave him a happy snort and showed him where the good stuff was.
When our growing family outgrew our apartment we traveled west. Jackson rode between the two boys’ car seats as we took a leisurely 3-week drive across the continent. Together we explored the Great Lakes in Canada, the wind farms of Iowa, the Badlands of South Dakota, and the cowboy hats of Montana.
For the last couple of years we’ve called Seattle home. Time and disease have worn Jackson down: Cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, seizures, Cushings disease, hypothyroidism, ruptured spleen, liver cancer, two torn ACLs, arthritis. He was slowing down but still had a spring in his step and enjoyed his daily walks around Volunteer Park and the antics of our two young boys, especially their sloppy eating: every toddler meal was a banquet of spilled yogurt, runaway peas, and splats of oatmeal for dear old Jack.
In the last year his walks became shorter and his time sleeping become longer. But he was in reasonably good shape when his 14th birthday arrived at the end of September. Still perky-eared, bright-eyed, and eager to greet anyone and everyone with a wriggling body and happy tail. In November he declined rapidly over a period of weeks, in the final days losing muscle control, the ability to stand, walk and eat. In the end he was trembling and restless despite a daily cocktail of three different pain medications. The last sleepless night was the worst, and the time had come. On November 15, at the age of 14, our sweet old dog passed on.
With Dr. Rickman’s kind support, we let him go at home, in the grass, in the sunshine, with my body wrapped around him and my face pressed close to his while I rubbed his supple neck. Those who knew him well will be warmed to hear he was snoring like a bear when he passed, adrift in the deepest, most contented sleep he has known in months.
When he was gone, I stroked is puppy-soft fur for the last time; it was so warm and glossy in the late afternoon sun. And I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of gratitude. Thank you for giving him to me. Thank you for giving me this beautiful, strong dog who kept the candle burning in my soul through the bitter, dark days and months after 9-11. This friend who touched the lives of so, so many people during his 14 years. How many Fire Island laps did he warm over the course of all those summers? Probably as many as the trains he boarded on our months of travels through Europe. He had an insatiable appetite for affection, always the 80-pound lapdog, always at the center of everything.
After Dr. Rickman had taken him away, I sat quietly on the sofa with a stiff single malt in my hand. So still. Just breathing. And I swear in that silent moment I felt his paws thunder across my chest with the vigor of a joyous young pup on a spring-loaded energy tear.
Here are some photos of his time with us. Please hold him in your heart for a moment. And thank you for permitting me this measure of release.
With Larry, the night we brought him home from his Brooklyn breeder. 1998.
A shoe-chewing baby-gate escape artist.
A young dog snorting around in new-fallen snow.
Fetch with Larry in the Rockaways.
My triathlon training partner in his early years. 2001.
With Shake, a couple of Vermont mountain lions…beware little bunny rabbits.
Tearing up the beach with me on Fire Island. Sabrina calls this picture "Free".
Etretat, Normandy, France: Jackson 2006…
… and Monet 1885.
Stepping out in St Tropez with the yachts and the glitterati.
A rendezvous with Sabrina in the City of Light.
At the Christmas dinner table in Wildschonau, the Tyrolean Alps, Austria.
Ogled in Avignon.
Back home in Paris, blogging FroggyDoggy.
Daybreak on Fire Island…the grey is setting in after our EU sojourn.
With newborn baby Ben, happy for a warm body to snuggle with.