Jesse’s Story

How one undersized, infantile, disobedient, willful, adorable, athletic, energetic and rapturously joyous poodle turned a 60-something man back into a 12 year old boy and broke my heart.

“I know from experience that there are few things in the world of letters that are more tedious than the maudlin dog tribute…Any damage, psychic or otherwise incurred beyond this point is entirely your responsibility.”

Jesse's Story

I’ve taken so long to write this that most of you already know that Jesse, our young, black standard Poodle died early this summer. Most of this entry was written in the immediate aftermath 

6:00PM Wednesday, June 24

A friend of ours stops by to visit. She sits in our kitchen, trying to have a conversation with Lucie but Jesse keeps dropping toys in her lap. He does this to everyone and his persistence is both remarkable and annoying. I tell him to leave her alone and he does — reluctantly. I know that as soon as I’m out of the room, he’ll grab a ball or frisbee and start over. 

I swear, someday I’m going to train that damn dog to actually listen to me…

of his death at around at 12:30 pm Thursday June 25. But as I got closer to the end of the story I found it difficult to continue. But it is finally done — I’ve written as much as I can stand. He was the healthiest, happiest, most athletic, joyful dog I’ve ever known. And somehow he went from playful to a slight cough to septic shock to death in less than 20 hours. How a creature more full of life than any I’ve ever known could slip away so quickly is still a baffling, infuriating, heart-wrenching, punch in the gut. Since I could not figure out how to make sense of the senseless, I decided to do something in very bad taste. Namely write this blog and basically  drop the emotional wreckage on all of you because I need the catharsis and I don’t know what else to do.

I know from experience that there are few things in the world of letters that are more tedious than the maudlin dog tribute. Consider this your first and only warning: Any damage, psychic or otherwise incurred beyond this point is entirely your responsibility.

Dr. Jesse at the lab. He came to Dearborn to help with my performance review.

If you received the link to this entry directly from me, it means that you knew Jesse in some way. Maybe you knew him well or perhaps you only met him once. Or maybe I just bored you with endless videos and snapshots of him. I did that to everyone I met, because I couldn’t help myself. The duration doesn’t matter. There was no safe dosage when it came to the Jester. He could have put his spell on you in a single glance or he might have worked it gradually so that it was like the gentle perturbation of a ship on a calm sea. You can’t tell it’s there until it’s gone and then it seems like the whole world has begun to wobble under your feet. I’ve felt that way for weeks now. 

I’ll get around to telling what happened that bleak day in June, but I’d rather spend most of this blog sharing why he touched me and so many others in a special way. And that’s going to take a lot of pictures and videos and memories. So if you’re not fond of canine cinema, this might be a good time to go buy that Instant Pot you’ve been eyeing on Ali Baba for the last few weeks.

Luke

Jesse’s story starts with another dog, and another loss. Those of us who love dogs know that their shorter lifespan’s mean sad partings that occur all too often. In the spring of 2006 our Malamute/Shepard rescue dog Sam passed away at the ancient age of 13 which, for a big 90 lb. dog, is nearing Methuselah territory. By fall we were ready to adopt another, but what kind? Rescue dog? Purebred pup? What breed? I’ve always been attracted to Siberian Huskies and lobbied hard for one. But Lucie had her heart set on another breed.

She’d grown up with an aunt who had a standard poodle named “George” and Lucie had always wanted to have one. I was, let’s say, not overjoyed at the prospect. A poodle? Really? But in the end I relented when Lucie found a local breeder of black standards and fell hard for a cute little pup she’d already named Luke. 

From the tiniest little pup who literally fit in her hands, Luke grew up to be a Prince of Dogs. At more than 85 pounds, tall and stately, he cut quite a figure. I had no idea how active and athletic standard poodles are. They are nothing like the pompadoured dog-caricatures that you see in dog shows. 

Definitely not Luke: A standard poodle at a Cobo Hall dog show.
Definitely Luke: crashing through the water to retrieve his prize

Luke was thunderously fast and he could tug, pull and play with the best of them. Pit bulls were his favorite tug-of-war opponents and it was amusing to see a small, fierce pit growling and yanking hard on a rope while Luke would simply stick his long legs out and plant them in the ground like iron stakes. With his strength, size and leverage he became an Immovable Object. He won more often than not. 

Wednesday June 24, 9:00pm

Jesse’s still coughing. I hope a walk will perk him up so we head out. He seems disinterested however and we turn back after only completing the first block on our usual circuit. When I get back to the house, I’m feeling very uneasy about his condition — it’s unlike him to be so down on a walk. Still, it’s happened once or twice before when he’s been sick. The idea of taking him to emergency crosses my mind, but I tell myself I’m worrying too much — this will probably be better by morning.

And so I let it go…

But Luke’s real star quality was that he adored Lucie above all creatures in the world. He was obedient, loyal and utterly devoted to her.  We became used to Luke charming everyone he would meet whether at a downtown street Cafe’ in Ann Arbor or as a therapy dog visiting the elderly. He was her pride and joy and the feeling was mutual.

In late spring of 2014 Luke developed a sarcoma in his thigh. He underwent surgery but the surgeon told us that she was not able to remove all of the cancer and still save his leg. The small amount that was left at the margin would inevitably grow back, but whether that would happen quickly or slowly no one could say. Based on what we knew and what the doctors were telling us we opted to have Luke undergo radiation treatment at a clinic in Canton. Everyone was very optimistic about the prognosis.

Always the perfect gentleman: Luke thanking his radiation tech at his last treatment.

Lucie drove him to Canton 6 days a week for treatments. She was as devoted to him as he was to her. But just as his treatments were ending, Luke took a turn for the worse and began to decline. Although he had been scanned before the radiation therapy began and we were assured that the sarcoma had not spread, it had in fact metastized.

We were both in shock because we believed that Luke had beaten it only to be defeated at the very end. Lucie had lost her best friend and we decided to do something we had never done before.

Another Poodle

We had never gotten the same breed of dog twice in a row. I was nervous about it when Lucie suggested it. We talked about it and about the danger of expecting a new puppy to be just like Luke.

We both agreed to put no expectations on a new dog and that we would get another black standard from the same breeder. In November of 2014 we brought home an 8 week old black fur ball and named him Jesse.

Things seemed to go sideways right from the start. One of the things I have learned over the years is that all Poodles are female and all German Shepards are male. Or so it seems to passers by. Even a dog named Luke was still called “she” by nearly everyone. So I was not excited about giving our new pup an androgynous name. But, I thought to myself, think of him as “Jesse James” that’s not too bad!

Then the snow hit. November of 2014 saw an enormous snowfall before Thanksgiving day and it seemed that it didn’t melt until April. Night after night, from Thanksgiving onward I found myself outside at 3am in my bathrobe, snow drifting into my boots, encouraging a puppy to stop playing and finish his business. This was not Jesse’s fault, of course. Just the luck of the draw. But it wasn’t long before we began to sense that while Jesse may have been related to Luke by bloodline, in fact he was a very different character.

"I Am Not Luke"

Ain’t it the truth. Jesse made this clear from early on. What a confounding animal!

I’d put a leash on Jesse to begin getting him used to the idea and he’d literally have a temper tantrum. Throw himself down on the ground and refuse to move. Bite the grass. Thrash around as if he were being beaten — a fate that, I admit,  crossed my mind. 

Thursday June 25, 4:00am

I wake up for no apparent reason. But even before fumbling for my glasses I know what it is. Although it’s dark and I can’t see the jet-black nose that’s an inch from my face, I can feel Jesse’s presence. He needs to go outside.

I get up and walk to the back door to let him out. He crosses our deck and disappears into darkness. It’s impossible to see Jesse at night when he’s more than 3 feet away and I have no idea where he is. But after just a minute or two I see his curly head emerge as he climbs the stairs to the deck. He comes to the door and I don’t hear a cough. Groggy, I think to myself, “…well I’m glad that’s clearing up.”

Jesse walks back to the bedroom and curls up in his bed with his toy duck. His pace is slow and his movements labored, but I hold on to the thought that his cough seems gone and I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

I would have to just stand there waiting on the sidewalk for my puppy to get over it and decide to move on. This would go on for 3, 4 even 5 minutes or more. He never got his way, but he never gave in either. 

When I walk my dogs, I make a point of stopping at the each curb. And I expect that when I stop, a dog on lead will sit down. This is the simplest kind of training. It teaches the dog to pay attention, it teaches me to not rush out into the street with my dog and I have always hoped (with no evidence to back it up) that it might one day save a dog’s life if they thought crossing into the street was a special event that requires some preparation. Over the course of a year this happens thousands of times so it’s really ingrained into my dogs.

Well, most of my dogs. Jesse would do it — he learned it almost immediately. But even to the last he’d challenge me at least once on almost every walk. Just stand there at the curb insouciantly as if there were nothing at all expected. I’d do a double take — still nothing from him. Then I’d stamp my foot to make it clear that something was supposed to happen. That might work, but often i’d have to tell him: Jesse, Sit down! He’d reluctantly begin to sit but if I were at all impatient and began to move before he was fully seated, he’d just spring back up and prance out into the street, secure in a small victory.

Oh, and prance he did. Luke had an elegant gait but Jesse was effortlessly graceful. Standard poodles have long legs relative to their height and trot with a stiff-legged

canter that calls to mind a thoroughbred racehorse. More than once, on walks, people would actually stop me to ask if I had “trained him to walk that way.”  No, folks. I didn’t train my dog to prance. But there was no question that this boy had moves. in truth, I didn’t give it much thought at the time. I was used to poodles moving this way from having Luke. So it didn’t stand out as anything special. And we had other behaviors to contend with.

We had gotten used to Luke being the perfect dog. We didn’t have to say it — anyone who spent time with him would tell us. We’d drop him off at doggy daycare and when we would pick him up, the staff would be beaming. “Oh, Luke was just perfect today!” In Jesse’s world philosophy there is no room for such nonsense. Like some second children, Jesse seemed to be saying to us: there’s no percentage in the ‘good dog’ thing. It’s been done. Borrrring! And so he set out to do things his way. Which meant jumping on people to say hello. Barking incessantly. Never starting fights at daycare but always willing to run into a mob to see if he could keep the fun going a little longer. Bouts of submissive urination as a pup. Yes, he really did pee on one of our neighbors. When we would pick Jesse up from daycare I would, with some anxiety, ask “How was he today?” The answers were tactful, if not always what we wanted to hear:

  • Jesse was better today
  • Oh he was fine except…
  • Jesse spent the afternoon in one of the cabins

The last one doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that time in the ‘cabins’ is daycare code for solitary confinement. The boy is a delinquent.

Jesse was no alpha dog, that’s for sure. I’ve  had several alpha dogs and have learned to recognize the pattern. Sam, our Malamute/Shepard was an alpha and so was Luke. When I say Luke was ‘perfect’, I confess that it’s with selective amnesia about some of his dog park antics. He wasn’t aggressive, but he would take no guff. And at 80+ lbs he really didn’t have to. Luke got a lot of “time outs” at the dog park.

But it was becoming clear to me that Jesse’s behavior didn’t fit the alpha pattern. It wasn’t aggression. And even though he showed classic signs of timidity: submissive urination for example, he was rapidly becoming a very outgoing and friendly (overly friendly) dog. His behavioral quirks were not so easily categorized as “alpha” or “beta.” And as he started to grow (I will never use the word “mature” to describe Jesse) I realized something else. Jesse was going to be small. I mean really small for a male Standard. Runt of the litter small. Lucie was beginning to show her impatience with Jesse’s behavior and I couldn’t hide my disappointment at his lack of stature. Was this a mistake?

Jesse Finally Plays Ball

There was no epiphany, no moment when Jesse’s true nature became apparent. It was more like one of those images on a slowly loading web page that starts off blurry and gets progressively clearer over time. Different dog breeds really do have some built-in traits and Poodles have more, let’s call it character, than most. For one, they love their stuff. Most other dogs I’ve had might have a favorite toy or two. But Poodles take delight in accumulating things. Especially things to play with and soft, cushy things to flop down on. 

Duck, Duck Go!

The thing that made me take notice at first was Jesse’s stuffed Duck Dynasty toy. I’d bought it on a whim while in the checkout line at a local Ann Arbor pet store. It was on top of a pile of stuffed exotica in the bargain bin and the line was slow. After I got sufficiently bored I scooped it up. For

Thursday June 25, 10:00am

Another COVID morning glued to a screen in the upstairs bedroom that serves as my home office. Coffee’s been gone for over an hour by the time the first run of meetings winds down.

I head down the stairs for a refill, but halfway there I glance into the family room and freeze. All my anxiety over the last few hours hits my stomach and squeezes it into an impossibly small, dense ball of pure fear.

Jesse, it was love at first sight. 

And second sight and third and on and on. He chewed on it. but he didn’t wreck it (Lucie did have to perform emergency surgery late in 2019 to repair a ruptured seam).  He’d carry it around the house so it would always be ready to give to a guest as a token of appreciation. Or he’d beg me to throw it to him while we were watching TV. Usually, he’d get me to do it, which drove Lucie crazy if she was trying to watch a show. He did this from the time he was a bit over year old.

But the thing that was really telling was that he’d carry it with him to bed every night. And if he forgot – which he often did – he’d actually get  up and go looking for it all over the house because he couldn’t sleep until he had it with him. Lucie and I would be lying in bed and hear Jesse get up and leave the room.

Lucie (groggy): “What’s he doing?.

Jeff (incredulous): “I think he forgot his duck and he’s going to get it.”

And sure enough, he’d come padding back through the bedroom a few minutes later, carrying his duck and finally settle in for a night’s sleep.

This was the first important clue to the mystery of Jesse’s character. If you follow sports you’ve probably heard of the Jordan Rules. A prescription that NBA teams would try to follow in an attempt to gain mastery over the greatest player in the game. If there could be Jordan Rules, maybe there were Jesse Rules too.

The First Rule Of Jesse

Treat Jesse as an innocent. Precocious, adorable and infantile, without a trace of guilt or shame. Our very own canine Peter Pan.

The First Rule helps explain how Jesse came to survive puppyhood without my making good on frequent threats to sell him for medical experimentation. We have fine institutions for medical research in Ann Arbor and after one of Jesse’s “lost brain” episodes, it was more than an idle threat. Or perhaps not, because he was always too adorable and innocent to stay angry at.

Now lets not confuse innocent with good. He wasn’t innocent in any Doris Day, goody-goody sense. Jesse was definitely not good,  But he was untroubled by conscience or guilt of any kind. He only did things that made him happy and in Jesse’s universe nothing that made him happy could ever be wrong. That is the very definition of an innocent soul.

Bad Moon Rising

Purity of soul or not, that boy could be maddening.

Thursday June 25, 10:05am

Jesse is standing stock still, panting, head down, tail between his legs. I put my hand on his head and talk to him, try to rouse him but his eyes remain unfocused, his head still. It’s not always panic when you feel compelled to move with reckless speed. Sometimes it is. 

I would tell people quite often about my crazy dog. And they would smile at me and nod, all the while winking at what they assumed was a pathetic male defense mechanism. But I wasn’t using my sense of exasperation as a macho ploy to cover up my feelings about Jesse. Anyone could plainly see I was already smitten. But, at the same time, my dog really was crazy

Every night, regardless of the weather, Jesse and I would take our evening walk. Our house is near a public golf course and in the late fall and winter months, we’d often spend part of our time on the course. After dark or in the depths of winter there were no golfers on the course and no families enjoying a backyard barbecue so Jesse could safely enjoy the open spaces off-leash and free. But earlier in the year when it was cool but not frigid, or earlier in the day when it was gray but not dark I was always aware that it was my responsibility to make sure he was under control. The problem was my dog was crazy. When the video below was made, Jesse was already almost four years old! We were a team by then and he knew exactly what was expected of him.  And yet…

I’m not sure why I insisted on making a video record of my wayward dog along with my obvious exasperation and inability to control him. Maybe it was because I wanted others to know what I was dealing with and lean on their sympathy and understanding. Maybe. Or maybe it was because, as angry as I would get with him, I was in awe of that wild streak just below the surface in Jesse. In awe and a little bit jealous.

But here’s another thing to think about. A few minutes after the video ended we turned back towards home and I asked him again if he had his brain back. He said yes and I let him off lead to run the course, trusting that he’d listen to me now and behave. And the crazy boy you saw thrashing about just moments before? He was absolutely perfect.

The Second Rule Of Jesse

The boy is crazy. Jesse’s self-control is actually remarkable, considering his mental disorder. The key is to help him out by burning off as much steam as possible, every single day, because his looney Mr. Hyde persona is lurking!

Take Me Out To The Ball Game

Look at me
I could be
Centerfield

John Fogerty

Because we had Luke, I wasn’t clueless about the amount of exercise that a standard poodle requires. But Jesse took things to an entirely new level. The more I would take him to the park, the more he’d run and the more energy he had. There was no weather that would discourage him from an evening walk. Snow, wind, rain — these were just incidental challenges to Jesse. To me, not so much. But there I was,

Thursday June 25, 10:15am

As I pull into the emergency clinic it dawns on me for the first time that this is going to unfold under COVID-19 protocols. The sign says to wait in the car and call but do NOT get out of the vehicle. It takes them a moment to come out and when I show them Jesse on the back seat they carry him inside but tell me that I cannot enter. I have to pull around back and wait for them to make an assessment and call. This is not the way I imagined this.

trudging through a foot of newly fallen snow or trekking in boots and rain gear through a steady downpour with my dog. I drew the line at hail — I’m not crazy. But other than that, out we went.

And everywhere we went it began to dawn on me that Jesse was able to focus intensely on only one thing: retrieving. A frisbee, a stick and above all else God’s gift to dogs the world round: a ball. And he didn’t just obsess over it, he was beautiful. My crazy, undersized, infantile, jet black,  poodle-type dog had somehow become an athlete while I wasn’t looking.

If you watch a dog show like the big Westminster show that is nationally televised every year, you’ll find Poodles relegated to the “non-sporting group.” This is as preposterous as the poofed “continental cut” the poor dogs are forced to appear in. Poodles were retrievers, bred first in Germany,  before they were the darlings of the French aristocracy. The French made them a national symbol on account of their stylish and malleable coats. Not coats of fur mind you, but coats of hair, just like what’s on your head. Or in my case what used to be on my head. It can be styled, coiffed, twisted into dreads, dyed silly colors or shaped into that idiotic dog-show pompadour. Which does the poor dogs no favor at all. My advice is skip Westminster and watch the Christopher Guest comedy Best In Show next time you need a dog fix on TV.

The catchall non-working group sounds like a place for idlers, drifters and reprobates. It is not a place Jesse would recognize. I’m told that there is a movement in the US and perhaps elsewhere to revive the tradition of standard Poodles as bird dogs. I don’t know for sure, because I don’t hunt and I don’t own a shotgun. This was a disappointment to Jesse. He was the most natural retriever of any dog I’ve ever owned. Utterly fearless in the presence of loud noises, undeterred by cold or wet, focused to the point of obsession on retrieving the current object of his fascination and absolutely tireless in his task. You couldn’t ask for a more natural hunting dog.

Thursday June 25, 10:30m

When my phone rings it’s not the doctor, but one of the tech’s who carried Jesse into the clinic. Without any prep he asks me if I would want them to resuscitate Jesse if his heart should stop. WTF? I’m stunned. I have no idea what to say. Finally, I told him no, but don’t let my dog die. I meant this last bit to have a menacing edge of warning but even in my own ears I sound like a frightened little boy.

I wasn’t going to buy a shotgun just to appease him so we made due with inanimate objects of retrieval. As long as I was willing to throw a ball or frisbee for hours on end, across cold marshy fields, into ice-covered water, across pastures or through snow banks he was happy. Hunting dog, shortstop, centerfield. It didn’t make much difference to him as long as there was a ball and he could run and find it until he was ready to drop. That was his happy place. Happier than any animal I’ve ever known. Watching him run was to see the true nature of grace. His small, undersize frame had no body fat to speak of. Jesse weighed 50 lbs ± an ounce from the day he became an adult. That goofy boy was all muscle and he used it to run and jump with the grace of a Nureyev.

Every catch Jesse made wasn’t perfect and so many spectacular catches were never seen by anyone other than Jesse and me. We didn’t mind. Jesse wasn’t in it for the publicity. But we did manage to catch one of his Mickey Mantle, over-the-shoulder, World Series, All-Star moments on video. This one came fairly early on, while I was still trying to get my head around Jesse’s transformation from Runt to Olympian. Maybe that’s why it’s still one of my favorites.

Play Video

Of all the strange things that can happen in the world the one I least expected was that this crazy little boy would turn out to be the most athletic and graceful animal I’ve ever known. Jesse’s physical prowess was beautiful to behold but it was never somber, or predatory or mean. He was still crazy and still a baby and the truth is that he made me laugh every single day.

Lethargy
Caption

Jesse was a notoriously deep sleeper. The morning this video was taken he was so hard to get up that Lucie called him "lethargic." DIdn't seem to quite fit, so to continue my project aimed at improving his vocabulary, Jesse and I had a little talk.

Lethargic? Jesse?
I can't remember why someone called Jesse "lethargic" that day, but I thought I'd put him to the test...
BigSplash
The Big Slpash
Jesse was a reluctant swimmer but an enthusiastic splasher!
Cold Swamp
Brrr...swamp dog @ 36℉
The colder the puddles, the more Jesse loved heading right through them at full speed.
Catch13
What's the catch?
We never get tired of this game...
Dumbo
Ready For Takeoff?
I always thought Jesse was just a beat away from taking flight when his ears began to flop in that Dumbo The Flying Elephant rhythm.
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The Third Rule Of Jesse

With a dog like Jesse the notion of “ownership” is an illusion that exists for the convenience of other humans. The reality is that we’re co-dependent conspirators engaged in a plot to create our own happy universe together.

A Boy and His Dog

Harlan Ellison, the enfant terrible of 1960’s science fiction, wrote a gritty, post-apocalyptic short story that broke all the existing rules about what the genre could contain. An amoral protagonist, a sexually predatory femme-fatale, and a plot filled out with Incest, rape and murder. The only traditional science fiction element in the whole thing was the talking dog. To cap it off, Ellison gave the story the Norman Rockwell-esque title of A Boy and His Dog. I was always amused by the adolescent taboo-breaking of the story but even more so by the ironic title (if you’re interested at all in SF, read it but do not bother with the mediocre Don Johnson movie).

The thing is, Ellison was a famous misanthrope who loved his dogs more than any living person. I get this. I don’t think I’m as maladjusted and out of control as Ellison.

Thursday June 25, 11:30am

My frustration is building, but there’s nothing I can do. The doctor finally calls me and she is not reassuring. She fears that sepsis is setting in, but tells me she’s doing all she can and that there won’t be any news for at least a few hours. She promises to call me if anything develops and I try to gather myself and head home. I have a Noon web conference for work and perhaps that will take my mind off Jesse for a bit. 

 I also don’t have either his artistic temperament or a fraction of the talent for the written word he displayed throughout his life. I’m not an artist, I’m a scientist and I’ve always found other people, social settings and relationships to be puzzling at the best of times and unfathomable the rest. For as long as I can remember, books, numbers, logic and dogs have been my friends.

All dogs are fine companions provided they’ve been given a fair chance in life. I’ve always had them around and I may have spoken more with my canine friends than with most people who are not family. But all dogs are not created equal. Sam our Malamute/Shepard mix was stoic and serious — a hunter whose only weakness was to be terrified by the God of Thunder. We talked wild game and the finer points of nature trails. Fang, a small mixed-breed terrier was a bundle of excitement and big dreams (in their own minds, there are no small terriers). We talked sports and adventures.

Of course Poodles have a reputation for being smart, but I can assure you there are no Einsteins in the dog world. To me, Poodles seem alert, aware and curious. Once, after Lucie had a stay in the hospital, I brought Jesse — who was just a pup — along to pick her up and take her home with us. Before we could leave, a nurse technician was showing me how to breakdown and stow a wheelchair that we might need to use while Lucie was recovering. After a few minutes of explanation he stopped in mid-sentence and looked towards my car. Jesse’s head was out the window, gazing raptly at the two of us. The tech turned to me and said “He’s going to know exactly how to do this. He’s watched every single step!” And it was true. There was no mistaking the intensity with which he was following the proceedings.

That trait helped make Jesse an especially fine conversationalist. We spoke constantly (to Lucie’s annoyance, I might add) and our subject matter ranged from the philosophic and epistemological merits of the Positivist movement in the early 20th century to the odds that this would be the year when the Cleveland Indians would break the curse of Rocky Colavito and finally win a World Series championship (Jesse was not high on this possibility).

Jesse, patiently waiting for me to realize that there were more important things in life than home maintenance.

He had also become my helpmate on dozens of projects in and around  the house. No job was too difficult or too tedious to keep Jesse from pitching in. In April, I installed some paving stones at the base of our deck stairs. This was primarily because Jesse loved to take the entire flight in one leap and his landing area had become a patch of dead grass and gooey mud. I’d never put pavers in, so I proceeded slowly and carefully — especially when it came to leveling the area where they were to be placed. I staked out string just as I’d seen the pro’s do on YouTube so that I could get it just right. What I didn’t realize was that Jesse was on the job right behind me, faithful as always. After I’d pound a stake into the ground and turn my back to start another, Jesse helpfully checked their tensile strength. Apparently I had used substandard material because all that was left were piles of sawdust where the stakes had been and wood flecks stuck to his chin. Thank goodness for quality control!

When a job required power tools that were not certified as dog-friendly, Jesse had to wait at a distance. I won’t tell you he liked it, but he waited for me to finish. As impulsive as we all know him to be, he would sometimes wait for hours as in the picture here. I’d been working on our sprinkler system and told him the job would take only a few more minutes. I was mistaken. Three hours later I was still at it and Jesse was still patiently watching and waiting for me to ask for his help or, better yet, forget it and take him to the park.

Endgame: June 25, 12:05pm

I’ve been a coward about this and procrastinated for months so that I didn’t have to write this part of the story. But it’s time to give him his due and finish the telling. 

No sooner had I logged on to my web meeting, than my phone rang and it was the vet. It was perhaps 5 minutes past Noon. She asked how quickly I could come back. I think I apologized to the leader of the meeting about leaving before we even got started, but frankly I don’t remember. I bounded down the stairs and told Lucie we had to go. She had been getting reports from me but, was no more able to process what was happening than I was. She asked me what was going on and I simply said “He’s dying.” 

She let out an anguished scream and I wanted to join her but I tried to stay clear-headed and told her we had no time and had to get moving right now. We ran to the car and I drove as fast as I could but it was still almost 15 minutes before we pulled into the parking lot. I called on my phone only to find we were too late — he was gone.

To this day, I don’t understand why they insisted I couldn’t see him when he was alive but invited us in to see him once he was dead. It makes no sense. A hour earlier, I was ready to get into a fistfight with the damn attendant over that, but now I just felt exhausted. We slowly made our way in and were seated in one of the exam rooms. It was the same room where Luke had died years earlier. All Lucie said was “I hate this place.”

They brought his body into the room and offered the usual platitudes. I think the depth of our grief may have surprised them, even though they must see it all the time. Certainly they had dropped all pretense of aloofness. Lucie was sobbing uncontrollably and I was just in a state of shock except for the tears streaming down my cheeks. They were at pains to assure us they had done all they could. Lucie asked if it could have been coronavirus or some other pathogen that could drive a vital, healthy, beautiful animal into a death spiral in less than 20 hours time. No, the answer was that it was probably just terrible, terrible luck. He’d aspirated a bit of food and it had begun an infection that moved rapidly into his lungs. How could it be so aggressive? No one knows.

You can look up canine “aspiration pneumonia” on the internet and find horror stories about healthy dogs quickly failing with this condition. None as fast as Jesse though. He did everything quickly, I wish he had learned to slow down. I wish I had been better prepared to recognize the signs.

Or perhaps not. The survival rate for dogs with aspiration pneumonia is not great and many dogs that do live suffer life-long health issues. In Jesse’s case, once the infection reached his bloodstream and sepsis set in, his fate was sealed.

Meaning to comfort us, the vet tried the usual palliatives: we could take his body home for burial. Or we could have paw-prints made. I stood there, over this lifeless body that had none of Jesse’s spark and the only thing I could think or say was this: “You have no idea who this was. You have no idea.” I remember repeating that phrase over and over. How could they know?

Slowly, I took out my phone and lay it on the table and asked the vet and her assistant to watch for a minute so that they might understand who had been lost to us. For the previous holiday season I had made a mock movie trailer featuring Jesse. I did it partly as a gag and partly out of pride in his abilities. Now it was his epitaph. I pressed play:

 

Epilogue

It’s been nearly six months since Jesse died. I do realize that in this year of COVID and loss it may seem insensitive and clueless to go on about the loss of a dog when so many have lost mothers, fathers, siblings and friends. If I’ve offended anyone, I can only offer my regrets — that was not my intention. But the magnitude of another’s loss doesn’t change how it felt to lose Jesse. How it still feels. Only a few things have helped. One is a lovely book of pictures that the staff at Camp Bow Wow in Ann Arbor gave to us. They all signed it and it was filled with goofy shots of Jesse in play and mischief. It was especially moving to me because I could see from the pictures and the writings they left in the book, that they really did know who he was. And they loved him too. It was a very generous and touching gesture for which I will always be grateful.

Another thing is, of course, time. I won’t get over it — there are tears on my face again as I write this. But time helps dull the ache enough for me remember Jesse with smiles more often than tears. And writing this blog has helped as well. I’m not sure that anyone who didn’t actually know Jesse will want to wade through this story but writing it has helped me come to terms with the way things ended. 

I’ve never lost a dog in this way before. Old age? Yes, many times. Cancer? Yes, unfortunately. Injury? Yes, my sister’s dog hurt his back while in  my care and I couldn’t leave him in pain. Explaining that her precious loved one, for whom I had assumed responsibility, was gone forever was a hard task. 

But never have I lost a dog because I hesitated to act. I’m not foolish enough to blame myself for Jesse’s condition. But I know that this is true: if I had trusted my instincts and taken him to emergency when I first noticed something wrong, he would very likely be with me today. He trusted me, he tried to tell me and I was too pre-occupied or just too stupid to figure it out and help him. My only defense is that I did not believe that something so deadly and serious could evolve so rapidly. I still have a hard time believing it.

So I can live with myself but I’ll always feel the pain of letting him down. Of course, if Jesse were here he’d just toss a ball in my lap and tell me to stop moping and throw the damn thing already! Which brings me to the last thought I’d like to share with you about Jesse. I’m not a religious man. But, if I’m wrong and there is an afterlife I know for a fact that the first sound I will hear in heaven will be the voice of God yelling:

“Down, Jesse! I said, get down!”

Jesse James

 

5 thoughts on “Jesse’s Story”

  1. What a wonderful tribute Jeff. I simultaneously laughed out loud and had tears streaming down my face. Sending you and Lucie a lot of love.

  2. Omg Jeff! I hope it’s okay that your Mom shared with me your blog about Jesse. The stories had me laughing , crying and gave me goosebumps throughout the entire blog. I’m so sorry 😢 about your loss. Jesse wasn’t an ordinary dog and you really captured his personality plus. I hope you consider writing whenever you retire. You have a magnificent way of expressing yourself and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing your stories and Jo’s stories whenever she came home from a visit with you guys in Ann Arbor. Maybe your boy Jesse has planted that seed for you or at very least I hope helping with the healing. I also hope you consider when the time is right another dog. Jesse was lucky to have you and I would like to see another dog be so lucky too.

    1. Maureen,

      I’m glad you got to read it and even more that it brought out a smile or two. He was such a happy guy, It wouldn’t be right if his memory didn’t make for a few belly laughs. Thanks.

  3. Oh Jeff, this is a beautiful tribute. Brought tears to my eyes and now you have me missing that silly boy. My heart goes out to you and Lucie. Gale

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