Many of us have memories of a favorite pet from childhood. My family's dog Ralph came to us when he and I were both one. My mom said that during my toddler years he would follow me around the yard, guarding me from trouble. Of indeterminate parentage, Ralph taught me the unconditional love only dogs can offer. He made me a dog person before I even knew what it was to be a person.
Yet, if you had told me that I would one day spend what roughly equals a mortgage payment on medical bills for my current dog, I would suspect you'd been dipping into the kitty's catnip. However, I recently financed (yes, financed) cancer treatment for a dog who only cost $250 brand new, straight off the show room floor (complete with new puppy smell).
Granted, this is not just any dog. Jack is a 6-year-old yellow lab who is known and loved by the entire neighborhood. He was named after the dog in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series and the main character from the book I, Jack by Patricia Finney. As a puppy he loved nothing more than chewing up anything left unattended: shoes (especially if they were new), the kids' toys (several Polly Pocket dolls lost limbs one summer afternoon) and even the pump hose while it was still attached to swimming pool, thereby flooding the entire backyard with water. Luckily for us all, he grew into the best dog ever. He knows how to sit, spell (W-A-L-K) and when to act ashamed ("Uh-oh, Jack, what did you do?"). He is a bird dog extraordinaire--pheasants and ducks alike quake at the mere mention of his name. He is the giver of kisses and the healer of broken hearts. Jack is a good dog.
So when we found the lump on his lip the size of a blueberry and the vet mentioned the dreaded C word, I was more than a little upset. I knew Jack couldn't stay with us forever. Maybe one day when he could no longer keep up with the younger dog retrieving the birds, after our son went off to college, when our girls had grown past the age that a snuggle with the puppy boy made a bad day a little brighter, I knew we'd have to let him go. But not yet.
My husband's parents were originally farmers. Any animals they had served a purpose: cats killed mice, dogs kept away coyotes, pigs were bacon. My husband always told me he'd never let a dog sleep in our house--they'd be in a kennel outside. Today our dogs each have a memory foam bed next to the fireplace. He always said that he wouldn't pay large amounts of money to keep a dog alive--he'd just go back across the street and buy another lab for $250. Yet we agreed that Jack was too good of a dog to let go without a fight. And this kind of fight costs roughly the same as our house payment.
Yesterday the vet removed the tumor, took chest x-rays and an aspiration of his lymph node to see if the cancer has spread. Now we wait and see if our future holds a dog named Jack. And while we make payments on his medical bills, we love him and spoil him and let him give us as many kisses as he wants.
When the day comes that Jack is no longer a happy dog, when going for a walk no longer makes him wag his whole self with excitement, when his body no longer lets him enjoy this life, I will have to let him go. That is what good pet owners do.
Jack is the dog our kids will remember their whole lives. He will be the dog that sets the benchmark for every other pet they ever own. When they come back to visit us as grown ups and we reminisce about the old days, I know Jack will come up with every other memory. Remember when we first got Jack and his coloring was so much like Sam's we said they were brothers? How about when he was a puppy and used to stand on top of the dining room table? Or how he ate half of that birthday cake and then got sick all over the house? Now that was a good dog.