Mark Ellis says goodbye to his family’s aptly-named Jack Russell terrier.
The clearest memory I have of the time before Jack became our family dog was that I desperately did not want a dog. I was divorced, and with shared custody felt like I had enough on my plate. It was only after my then-nine year old daughter cried and said, “We’re never going to get a dog, are we?” that I relented. We began looking around and came up with a farm outside Portland that specializes in Jack Russell terriers, and came away with a frisky guy named, at that time, JR-6878. He was marked down from $450 to $300 because he was a broken-coat Russell, not the short-haired variety most people wanted.
After deliberating for two days with a long list of names, my daughter came up with Jack.
Those first nights were hell, as Jack seemed spooked being away from his mother’s den. He kept the household awake, not howling or barking, but rustling around, as if looking for a way out. It could not have been easy for him, going from a farm full of his own kind into a busy house populated by me and often my children. We are all Libras, and Jack is a Sagittarius, so it must have seemed to him an edgy, cerebral, and slightly neurotic environment. He chewed up a few books left on the floor, including my Webster’s Dictionary.
We soon realized that our sensitive, left-over pup was full of heart, and smart as a whip. He loved us all, but quickly adopted my daughter as his soul mate. After a few episodes when Jack was startled by someone walking into her room, there was no doubt in my mind that he would lay down his life for her.
He was one of those special dogs that author Tom Robbins writes about, a dog capable of smiling. We’re not sure if he actually understood the concept of humor or just learned to mimic the lip muscles of the humans who were constantly smiling at him.
At the age of only a few months, after we’d only taken him to the dog park several times, my daughter came crying again, this time in near-hysterics. Jack had gotten out of the yard and was high-tailing it down the street. I jumped in my pickup and found him a quarter-mile from the house, just before he was set to cross busy Multnomah Blvd. The Gabriel Park off-leash area is across that street and I have no doubt he was headed there by sense of doggie-direction and smell.
The kids grew older and inevitably, while they still loved Jack, began taking quite a bit less of a day-to-day interest in him. Once my daughter discovered fashion and boys, Jack went from being constant companion to warm-fuzzy sleeping partner, and not much else. Asking her to spend time at the dog park was out of the question. She still liked dogs, but found the people there boring.
For a while, my son picked up the slack. He had any number of electronic devices rigged to his body, and was thus able to enjoy some family pet time without fear of social isolation.
For the most part though, the care and feeding of Jack fell to me, the guy who hadn’t wanted a dog. My family and friends found a bit of gallows humor in the situation when we talked about how the life span of a Russell can be 15-18 years. The joke became, would Jack outlive me?
The key to the dog’s health in those later years was getting him to the dog park on a regular basis. When he realized a trip was in the offing, he jumped up wildly, did a 360 spin in midair, and then hounded me all the way to the car. At the park he made many friends, both human and canine, and it was good for me too. I wasn’t getting any younger, and Jack was a real mover. We must have logged hundreds of miles together over Gabriel Park’s forest and field.
As energetic and vital as he was, Jack remained a sensitive, introspective, and trustworthy dog. I gave him a tag-line at the dog park, and it stuck: “The mellowest Jack Russell in Multnomah County. “
But my biggest boast was that Jack understood a vocabulary of over 60 words and phrases. While sitting on the couch together I’d run through the list, convinced he understood everything from “Up” to “What’s the matter with you?”
We almost lost him one night, when three coyotes came into our yard. It was the only time I ever saw Jack scared. Another time he hiked with us to the top of Mount Neakanie near Manzanita on the Oregon Coast. After a long slog, which actually tired him out, we watched as he found his way to a rocky outcrop to sit looking at the panorama of sea and sky. It was the highest geographic point he ever reached in his life.
Jack would not outlive me. Despite his scruffy coat, he was a purebred, and the diabetes came on quickly in his ninth year, October 2010. He gained weight, became sluggish, and was no longer able to jump up on the back seat. We wrestled with homecare, to the point of injecting him with insulin in the kitchen. I asked our veterinarian, “Aren’t Jack Russells supposed to live 15-18 years?” She told me that yes, many do, but that just as often ten years is a typical a lifespan for the breed.
The only option became intensive care at a pet hospital. The veterinarian counseled against this, saying that Jack’s condition would not improve and would have to be managed for the rest of his life. She asked me to think about whether having him alone in a hospital with tubes sticking out of him was really the humane choice. I knew that Jack was in pain, and through that pain I sensed a certain acceptance. It seemed as if his old trepidation about visiting the clinic had disappeared.
I’d never witnessed the euthanization of a pet before, so I did not know what to expect. My daughter simply could not be there, so my son and I brought Jack into a room especially designed for that moment when a family must say goodbye to a dear friend and companion.
The veterinarian said that sometimes people talk to their pets at the end, so I did, saying the first thing to pop into my mind, “Jack, I want you to go get in your bed, I want you to go to sleep now.” He looked right into my eyes, just as he had always done when hearing my words. I was amazed how quickly it was over after that.
That Saturday was Halloween. I knew that a lot of neighbors had missed seeing Jack in the yard, so I constructed a memorial on the front porch so that when the kids came trick or treating I could explain. I propped a photo of Jack on a little table, along with his collar, his bowl, a small vase with flowers, and a candle. By the end of the night everyone knew that Jack had passed.
I went out around midnight to bring Jack’s things in, and noticed that every other house was silent and dark. The neighbors had turned out their lights, and turned off their holiday decorations.
Jack’s candle was the only light.