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Friday, April 11, 2014

3 Leaving Lessons – Requiem for a Jack

A few weeks ago, I said goodbye to one of the best friends I’ve ever had.  A life spent in the military, traveling from place to place and working tirelessly towards a dream doesn’t often afford the opportunity gather much of a family; let alone a companion.  Nevertheless, at the suggestion of friends, just after I took the Nevada Bar Exam, I went to the local rescue and adopted an Australian Shepherd that I named Jack.  He helped to fill an otherwise empty house, provided a faithful companion when they seemed perilously hard to come by and a playmate when playtime was increasingly scarce.  When times got tough, he was an ever-ready ear, a fluffy pillow to hug and someone always happy to see me, when welcoming arms were in short supply.  I promised him that I would make it through for both of us, that things would get better and that there would soon be a time for as much play as he could handle.  Taking my dreams to the next level meant even greater sacrifices of free time and home time, and Jack ultimately spent most of his days with only a dog door, a big back yard and automatic feeders for company.  Those dreams have finally come to mean selling the house and moving closer to work – and ultimately, a life with no place for Jack in it.  But just as he taught me lessons in life, he taught me even more lessons in leaving.  And so, as the only fitting requiem I can must, here are the three most important of those lessons:

1.  Loving can mean leaving.  Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone or something you love is letting them go.  I can tell you, it’s dramatically easier advice to give than to take.  But along with mystery aches, waning memory and an systemic misunderstanding of anyone under the age of 25, getting older means knowing that sometimes the best things in your life are better off not in your life any longer.  The vast majority of people who have contributed to who I am today are people who I simply don’t know anymore.  Their contribution to my life is in no way diminished by the finite nature of their presence, because their impact is infinite and ongoing.  Coaches, teammates, friends, enemies, lovers and more – each of them special to me, all of them long gone.  For animals, whose life span and memory are far shorter, this is even more important and true.  Jack will be lucky to get fifteen good years on this rock, and the fact that he spent two of them lighting up my darkest days was a great gift to us both.  He left me knowing how to catch a fifty-yard Frisbee toss on the fly, I left him knowing that sometimes the best way to say “I love you” is throwing that Frisbee.  In leaving, he got a life with full-time friends and family, and I got a whole lot less house to worry about.  I think a lot more about the days he was here than the day he left – and I’m pretty sure he does, too – if only to remember exactly how that Frisbee is gonna fly. 

2.  Time after time.  There are few lessons more universally learned and poignant than the value of time – and how it changes. When things are bad, life is long, when they are good, life is short.  If you can find someone or something that can make your bad days shorter, you should hold on with everything you’ve got.  At the end of my sometimes interminable days, the hour between getting home and falling asleep never passed by more quickly than when we chased each other around the house.  Of all of the great and terrible gifts I have given and received, I have never found one which costs more, means more or stays with me as long as simple time: the time I take when I have precious little to give, the time spent when it seems like there simply isn’t any left and the time I get from those too busy to even imagine what type of sacrifice it took to give it to me.  All Jack ever wanted from me was some time.  He loved his treat, toys and big back yard – but there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t drop when he saw the leash appear in my hand, or the Frisbee come out of my pack.  He desperately loved tug-of-war, but letting him win was the worst way to end it – it wasn’t the toy he wanted, it was the tugging.  I never have time in great supply – I’m not certain I ever will, but the great blessing of being busy is to know just how much it means to simply show up, to listen up or to give up some other appointment.  I regret a great deal more the nights I couldn’t find time to play more than letting him find a family that had them in abundance.

3.  Understanding is overrated.  I’ve seen my share of dog whisperers, pet psychologists and animal activists.  I’ve read studies, stories and whole sites dedicated to trying to figure out what your pet is saying.  And I’ve come to one conclusion – we have no f*&king idea.  But more importantly, it doesn’t matter at all.   I don’t know why Jack used to squirm around on his back when I would get home – making funny noises and looking like a slow motion seizure.  I thought it meant that he wanted his belly rubbed, but approaching him would make him snap right back up and grab something for me to throw.  And so, when I got home, I would just let him go through it – and I loved watching him go.  I never figured out why sometimes he would bring things back to me, and sometimes he would just come back without them – but I always loved chasing after them with him at my side.  I never knew why he would only sleep in my bed when I wasn’t in it – and would jump off as soon as I laid down, even when I implored him to stay – but I loved seeing that dog-shaped wrinkle.  Sometimes the best part of loving something or someone are the things you don’t get – because there is a beauty in mystery, and we’ve got no better shot at understanding our dogs than we do at understanding our gods. 

* * *

I had the enormous good fortune to actually meet Jack’s new family as they adopted him.  They come with a ready-made brother for Jack – and a new name: “Huck.”  Not too long before they came to get him, they lost a long-time family member, and couldn’t suffer to see their remaining pup mope around alone.   They spent an hour or so making friends while the requisite paperwork was filled out and at least two other families lamented that he had been adopted so quickly.  Jack was always a popular boy.  We took pictures, talked and learned about his new, big back yard, a family that always had someone at home and the great toys waiting for him a short drive away.  In a year filled with tough times, I have often wondered if I had beaten all the feeling out of myself – and Jack taught me one last thing.  He took to his new buddy so quickly that he hardly noticed the tears in my eyes and the catch in my breath.  I didn’t call him as he left, because I wasn’t crying for him – at that point I wasn’t crying at all.  I simply smiled when he didn’t turn around to look for me as they drove away.