Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Tribute to our Jayhawk

It all started with a ficus tree. . .

As a new couple, Tom and I followed the recommended pattern of future parenting. When we first lived together in an apartment in Lawrence, Kansas our first joint, living purchase (besides the ill-fated fish that we shall not mention) was a impulsive decision to buy a ficus tree. I barely remember the day we brought it home, but I do remember how quickly it died in the corner of our kitchen. Depressed and unsure what to do with it, we set it on the porch outside where the Kansas winter buried it in snow and ice. I recall looking out over its dead branches throughout the months, thinking when spring came we would just toss the whole thing in the dumpster.

But then a miraculous thing occurred when the weather warmed. Instead of dead, empty branches, a new sprout of green leaves had formed off of the main trunk. Something was still alive in there despite being starved and frozen for months on end. Happily I pruned away the dead branches and pulled it back inside. When the time came for us to move to Massachusetts less than a year later, I remember Tom saying we should give it away or toss it. I was incredulous! No way. This was the miracle tree and it was coming with us! We made room for it and it made the 1700 mile trek in the back of the U-Haul.

That ficus stands in the corner of our kitchen to this day. . .18 (!) years later. It has lived in 5 different homes with us and a symbol of our lives together. When it starts to drop leaves every few months I panic momentarily, but then remember it will survive. Just like we have.

After our success with the ficus, of course the next step was to get a puppy. We had been married almost two years. We had bought our first home on Cape Cod that spring and had been talking about getting a dog. We both wanted one very much, but Tom was going away for an extended period of time for work in the month of June. Logic told us we needed to wait until he returned so all the puppy duties wouldn't fall on me alone. But once we had made the decision to get a dog, it was really tough not to scour the classifieds for possible leads. And of course once we saw the listing for black lab puppies not far from us. . .how could we not just go take a look?

So there we were. At a breeder's house in the rain. Standing in the mud room (and in this case it was a MUD room) looking at an adorable litter of six-week old black lab puppies all cuddled around their mother. We were just coming to look right? Strange, we just happened to have $400 cash with us.

I remember how cute they all were. There were puppies of all different sizes. They loved their mom and were trying to snuggle in as close as they could to her. They paid no attention to us.

Except for one.

One puppy was climbing over his brothers and sisters. Stepping on their bellies and heads to get to US. Wanted US. Forget all those other dogs and that mother dog. This one. . .the biggest of the litter with the biggest, roundest tummy wanted to check us out. He was clamoring to get closer, tripping and falling in his little puppy feet. Tom snatched him up while I went for a little, cute snuggly puppy that was barely awake. We snuggled and petted them for a few moments. I put one down, picked up another. Tom stuck with the big guy.

"I like this one." He said.

"Hmm." I considered the dog in his arms that was wiggling and squirming, just trying to get more attention from me and the person holding him. I remember thinking he was full of energy and hyper.

"What about a calm, sweet one?" I asked looking at all the quiet puppies at our feet.

"No. This one." Tom said, unwavering, trying to manage the grunting little ball of fluff.

It was true. The dog in his arms had the most personality and the most interest in us. After a few more minutes I was sold. We handed over the cash and listened to the instructions from the breeder on how to administer the deworming pills and other facts about the dog and his lineage. Then we were on our way. Proud parents of a cute black lab puppy.

I remember it took us awhile to come up with the perfect name. Should it be a tribute to photography? Nikon, Kodak? How about something reminiscent of our time in the midwest? We loved touring the Rocky Mountains together, hiking in the warmer months, skiing in winter. Rocky?

Cute but not quite right.

Something we both love and miss?

Our beloved Kansas Jayhawks. In Kansas, a dog named Jayhawk would be generic, confusing. Jayhawks everywhere. But here. . .it would pay honor to my home, the place we met, the place we fell in love and a way to remember our glory days at Allen Fieldhouse.

Jayhawk it is.

Who knew we would have to explain his name over and over throughout the years. "You named your dog after a helicopter? Is your husband in the Coast Guard?"

But it became a good story and we helped spread the word and educate these salty New Englanders about a tradition of college basketball. Now when our friends see a Jayhawk on TV or hear about the Jayhawks in the NCAA championship, they tune in and pay attention, thinking of us and our pup.

But back to the day our puppy arrived home. He was a sleepy guy. The energy and playfulness he exhibited at the breeder's seemed to be gone and he was almost lethargic throughout the afternoon and evening. When he did wake up momentarily it was to wretch and gag, revealing disgusting, white little squirmy worms all over our kitchen floor.

Uh-oh. Did we get a sick dog? We looked at each other sadly. The big tummy made sense now. We piled the dog back in the car and headed to the breeder's. Told him our concerns. He reassured us. "All puppies have worms. He's fine. He's healthy." Somehow he convinced us and we took him home again, making a bed for him in our downstairs bathroom, lining it with newspaper. As soon as we could we took him to the vet who put him on a new worm medication. That seemed to help and before we knew it the fat tummy was dwindling away and our dog started to grow!

Tom went away for his trip and I was extremely LUCKY to have co-workers at the rehab facility I worked out who were huge dog lovers. My boss had a lab of her own and she insisted that I bring Jayhawk, crate and all, to work each day while Tom was away. The patients would love him and I could continue the 2 hour crate training even while working. This was great! So for 2 weeks, Jayhawk came with me to work everyday. I would take him out for a walk every couple of hours and the patients got to love and frolic with a very rambunctious and playful little guy.

My parents came to visit their little grand-dog and during this time Jayhawk had his first experience with the beach. I remember my dad being nervous about letting him off the leash, afraid the current would carry him away. But Jayhawk loved it! Loved the sand, the water the birds, the wind. He was in puppy ecstasy. More, more, more became his mantra. He was relentless in his energy. Unstoppable! He also loved the people we would encounter. He would sail past other dogs and go right for the owners. Pet me, pet me, pet me. More, more, more. Love me. Aren't I cute? More, more, more. 

Sometimes Jayhawk's exuberance would bring me to my knees. He would not let up when he wanted something. He was a 15 pound bundle of energy. He wouldn't stop trying to bite my hands. Tears came to my eyes once in the backseat of the car and my dad had to shout from the front like he was an unruly child. The yell stopped Jayhawk momentarily but then he was back to his campaign to eat my hands. I felt like a child myself, wondering if I was in over my head.

Then Tom returned from his trip. I filled him in on all our adventures and it only took a few minutes of watching our out of control dog to realize that we were going to need some outside help. Call in Joe the Dogman.

Joe loved Jayhawk for his energy, but also seemed to laugh at us for our inept handling of him. We started puppy school and Joe continuously had me pinning Jayhawk down to show him who was Alpha Dog. Sure that calmed him for the moment, but then back up on the leash and I was a goner. We started with the simple chain collar, but soon Joe realized we were going to need to call in the big guns and graduated me to using the pinch collar. "Don't worry. It won't hurt him." He assured us. "Just a quick jerk and he will learn to stop pulling." This seemed to work. Sort of.

Nothing was going to keep Jayhawk in check, we soon learned. He was all puppy. He was all energy, rambunctious, unyielding. Full of life and love. We put him in classes with other dogs and he would embarrass us with his pulling and want for all the other people in the class (Dogs? What dogs? Let me at the PEOPLE!!). No amount of petting and love was ever enough. More, more, more. He seemed to say over and over.

We continued going to Joe until we finally accepted that Jayhawk's personality was just as it was always going to be. "Don't worry the puppy stage only lasts a couple of years," Joe said, laughing. Um, Joe? Did you mean a couple of years or 14 years? Cause we're still waiting!

If you meet Joe on the street today and bring up Jayhawk, I guarantee he will remember him!

We soon found more loves for Jayhawk. "Fetch" tops the list. Of course. . .he's a retriever! He fully lives up to this name and would run 10, 100, 1000 times back and forth across the yard to get the tennis ball. This carried over into swimming as well. Toss the stick and he would swim miles if he had to, to get it and bring it back to us. Never tiring. More, more, more!  Hiking, running, walks on the canal. . .loved them all. The more opportunities off the leash the better. He loved to be free. He would run ahead, but always come back for us. Are you still there? Come on. Let's go. More, more, more!! He would catch sight of a stranger near us and his tail would start going a million miles and hour and he would run to them. "Don't worry, he's friendly." We'd always shout. He'd dart past their dog and head straight for their hands. Pet me, pet me, pet me. Oh yeah. More, more, more! 

After a couple of years, we realized we had somewhat successfully parented this crazy dog. Were we ready for the real thing? You guessed it. . . Melanie came along. Tom did what the nurses at the hospital told them to do. Take something of the baby's home so the dog can get used to the smell. He took one of the little hospital caps. Um, let's just say it was destroyed in about 30 seconds. We were sure that wasn't going to carry over to the actual baby, right? He sniffed her and was curious when she came home, but then full attention returned to us. I think this marked a time that he started to calm down a little. . .Melanie was never in danger around him. She was never knocked over by his exuberance and he pretty much steered clear until she was old enough to pay attention to him. Then she became another source of food. His favorite spot was under her high chair. Sniff, sniff, sniff. She would drop a stray Cheerio and he would scramble, knocking everything out of his way to get to that one tiny morsel.  After she was out of her highchair he would stick his nose in the seat and lick and clean and push the chair against the wall, getting every last crumb.

We have never had to worry about crumbs on the floor with Jayhawk around. Hair yes, crumbs no.

Their bond was really formed when Melanie was old enough to throw a ball. We taught her how to use the Chuck It, to keep her fingers from being accidentally nipped and slime free. Over and over and over again she would throw it. I would have to call from the back door to remind her to let him rest and get a drink of water. He seemed to be thankful for a break and would pant heavily in the shade, but only momentarily. . .then they were back at it. Joy and love as the ball would sail through the air, over and over again.

Kylie"s birth was another barely noticed blip for Jayhawk. He took it in stride, not minding the division of attention, seeming to know that someday this new person was going to be another source of food and entertainment for him. Now I would be in the backyard with them. Pushing Kylie in the baby swing, Melanie playing with him, back and forth in the yard.

Then one day we heard the unmistakable chime of an ice cream truck getting closer. An ice cream truck in our neighborhood?? Never had this happened before! We ran inside, grabbed a few dollars and out the front door. To our horror. . .there was Jayhawk, doing everything he could to get into the truck. Man with ice cream coming to our house? My dream come true! How could life get any better!! Let me in!! Melanie remembers him being successful, actually getting into the truck with the guy. I must have blocked it out because my memory says I got him before that happened. Whichever it was, we never heard those ice cream bells on our street again after that day. Oh, and the ice cream we bought? I think Melanie had maybe one or two bites before it somehow found its way into Jayhawk's eager jaws.

As happy go lucky as our big guys was, we learned that he also had issues with anxiety. Put him in a kennel for a few days and he became a barking, quivering, sleepless mess with severe intestinal distress. After a few very large vet bills and a hoarse, exhausted dog upon our return, we decided home pet sitting was the only way to go for him. Also, long car rides got his anxiety through the roof. Sure we could take him on a 3 day car trip to Florida. We'll just give him a bit of prescribed medication to relax him and leave late at night. He and the kids will sleep the first 8 hours of the trip, right?

Uh-huh sure. Five hours of non-stop barking later, he finally laid down in New Jersey. Kids cranky, mom and dad with excruciating headaches. . .

On the way back from Florida we scrapped the prescription meds and doubled up on the Benadryl and spray bottles. Worked much better!!

At age 6 Jayhawk was diagnosed with a mast cell tumor. Cancer! We had it removed and worried. He's too young! Not fair! Then more lumps started to appear all over him. At first the vet wanted to remove each one, but these weren't cancer! Yay!! We switched vets and stopped removing the bumps and learned to live with a lumpy, but healthy dog.

In recent years, his eyesight has diminished, his hearing isn't as sharp, his back legs give out now and then. He can't jump into the car or up on the bed. He doesn't catch the treat every time I toss it to him. He can't find his ball in the woods after we toss it. He stops at the bottom of stairs and barks for someone to come walk him up (I feel like he's one of my patients. . .needing "contact guard assist" to go up and down the stairs!) At times I have thought he wasn't going to have much time left. . .his bladder giving out suddenly a few times in one week, but then it just stopped happening. A strange new lump that grew out of a paw, but then it just went away. Vomiting his dinner two or three nights in a row and weight that seemed to be melting off of him, but then his dinner started staying down and his weight going back up again.

The vet calls him the "miracle dog." She said at his 13 year visit that she thought we should prepare ourselves for the fact that he's aging and probably wouldn't see 14. At his 14 year visit she said he looked better than he did at 13!

Brandi joined our family last summer. . .my mother-in-law's Scottie Dog. She is a funny little thing. They get along well and certainly get each other going. Brandi has learned to be more playful and Jayhawk has learned from Brandi when it's 5:00 (dinner time!!). She rushes through her dinner and dashes back to help Jayhawk with his.  He just moves over and lets her climb up and eat out of his bowl. We have to watch every second of meal time to make sure everyone stays in their corners!

I asked the family today, individually, what their favorite memories with Jayhawk are. Tom said right away that he always loved taking Jayhawk for runs in the woods. Kylie's answer quick too. "Throwing the ball to him in the yard." I have many that come to mind. I love seeing Jayhawk at his most joyful - at the beach - in the water - running circles around his family, then settling down panting and peaceful. But I also like those times when I know he'll always be by my side. I make the girls' lunches and cut up the cucumbers for them each day and he never misses it, knowing I will toss him the ends.

But Melanie wouldn't give me an answer. The girl who has known him every second of her 13 years. The girl whose room is a "Black Dog" theme. The girl whose main birthday gift last year was a portrait of her dog that her dad took. The girl who lays on the living room floor, using Jayhawk as a pillow. The girl who has assisted the vet with every shot given, every toenail clipped, every aspiration of lumps done. The girl who panics every minute Jayhawk is outside and she has lost sight of him. The girl who has thrown countless number of sticks and balls to him over the years. . .hours and hours of endless, joyful play. Instead of answering me, she asked, "Why are you asking? You're scaring me. What's wrong with Jayhawk? Why are you writing about him?"

She knows. She understands. But denial is strong. Jayhawk had a tumor removed last month and she was there for it. I explained with the biopsy came back positive for aggressive melanoma what that meant. I told her that we are going to give him a pill that should help delay it from coming back quickly, but it is aggressive and he is almost 15 years old. Treat each day as a special one with him. Remember all his good times. Love him every minute he has with us. Learn from his endless energy and true joy that lives in his heart, his never quiet tail, his large all-knowing eyes. Know how deeply he loves us and we him. And know that despite the fact that everyone who has ever met him thinks he's a bit crazy, we are so happy that we chose him to spend his years with us and to be an integral part of our family.

But she's not ready to answer. Her answer is too complex. Too deep and too personal. When she's ready I expect she'll share some of her more special memories. Or maybe she just can't because every moment has been special. And she just wants, more, more, more. . . 

A dog is like an eternal Peter Pan, a child who never grows old and who therefore is always available to love and be loved.   -- Aaron Katcher 


Amy Young said...

Kelli, this is a beautiful tribute. Every time I was around Jayhawk, I was happily reminded of my Wendy, a rambunctious lab who acted like a puppy until the last second of her 10 years with us.
Thank you for sharing your story with us!

Marsha said...

This is wonderful writing. Tears in my eyes, thinking about my beloved Westie, Dewey, and other losses. Dear sweet Jayhawk, slobbery and energetic and exuberant and so ALIVE. RIP and you gave it your best. Can't ask anymore than that. Marsha