Letter From Katie: A Song for J.D.

The best dogs come unexpectedly, and show us the way home.

J.D. was not a glamorous dog. Not at all. You’d never see him all tricked out like a French poodle, with a flashy rhinestone collar and a leopard-skin sweater. He was a sturdy dog, a cross between a pug and a beagle—“puggle” was the name of his breed. He weighed about 30 pounds, and he was the color of a baked biscuit, a light tan with dark, silky ears and liquid brown eyes that could melt your heart.


illustration by Eleanor Davis

He came to me unexpectedly, like the best dogs do. I got a phone call on a dark snowy night from an old friend, Constance Coleman, an artist and animal activist who has made a career of painting portraits of dogs. (She has painted Oprah’s dogs and President Bush 43’s dogs as well.) “I’m at the Fur Ball, dear,” she said in her sweet-toned voice. The Fur Ball was the annual fund-raiser for the SPCA, and Connie volunteered at the event that year.

“Did you raise a lot of money?” I asked, and she laughed. “Yes, we did, but that’s not the reason I’m calling.” It seemed she and her daughter, Amanda, had found the “perfect” dog for me at the Fur Ball, and they wanted to bring him by.

My heart sank. My last dog, a retriever named Sister, had died in my arms about a year before, sick from a tumor in her lungs, and I had sworn the dog-lovers’ familiar oath: “Never again.” It was what I said to myself when I felt her go cold in my arms, when I felt her soul leave her body. I’m sure I’m not the first person to lament the fact that we outlive our animals. It simply isn’t fair, and I wasn’t falling into the trap of caring again.

But I hadn’t reckoned with the face of the little creature Connie brought. He looked like a miniature Winston Churchill without the cigar, all jowls and double chin. He came to me in a mannerly fashion, and licked my hand when I stretched it out to pet him. How long, I thought, since a dog had licked my hand and settled down under my touch. “I need you,” he was saying to me in canine speak, “and I need a home.”

“I don’t know,” I said to the Colemans. “I’ve had two dogs, and both of them died. I sort of figured I had retired from the business.”

Connie laughed. “I’m afraid you don’t get to do that, dear,” she said. She gave me a rare stern look. “Not while there are dogs who need homes.”

I petted the little fellow again, and he cradled my hand between his head and his chest. He felt as soft as mink. His dark eyes gazed into mine.

“He’s adorable,” I said. “How come he doesn’t have a home?”

“Well, he did have an owner and evidently they went everywhere together. The owner was killed in a bad car crash. The dog was also in the car and was thrown to safety, but he’s spent a lot of time in one shelter after another. Evidently, the owner’s family didn’t want him.”

It was a measure of how far gone I already was that I didn’t doubt a word of this sad story. After all, he was the star attraction at the Fur Ball, and Connie, a notoriously good judge of dogs, had picked him for me. How could I say no?

After they left, I found food and water bowls for my new friend and put him down on a pallet of blankets and sheets for a bed. I was hopeful that he’d sleep there, but I was wrong, of course. He wanted on the bed, and he was so small and so alone I picked him up and stroked him for a long time. It soothed him; it soothed me as well. He snuggled under the covers, wiggled his way to the bottom corner of the bed, away from me, and he began to cry, softly, sadly. It broke my heart. “You’ve had a bad time of it,” I said to him. He wailed a little louder and eventually fell asleep, still sniffling.

The next morning was like Christmas. His sadness had passed, and he was a cheerful, warm dog again, licking my hand, insisting that I pet him more. I found one of Sister’s old balls and threw it for him. He chased it, and I laughed as he tried to get it in his small mouth. Outside, the winter wind was blowing. It was good to be inside with a creature as soft and sweet as this little dog was. Soon, he was following me as I walked through the house. In the kitchen, especially when I opened the refrigerator, I’d hear the click, click, click of his nails on the tile floor. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight. When I curled up to read the newspaper, he curled up beside me as if he might be interested in election returns or even who was running in the last race at River Downs.

I named him J.D. At first I meant to honor the bluegrass banjo player J.D. Crowe. Then I remembered the writer J.D. Salinger, and of course there were other J.D.s as well, so I changed the meaning of the initials to Just Dog. It was a fitting moniker for what someone once called “a humble dog.”

And J.D. was truly a humble dog. He was as loving with other dogs as he was with people. I took him to visit a woman friend who had two English setters, and we left all three dogs in her house while we went out to lunch. We were gone about two hours, and by the time we got back, I was more than a little worried. Would J.D. be able to hold his own with these two large, high-strung hunting dogs or would they gang up and traumatize him?

We pulled in the driveway and hurried through the downstairs door. “J.D.,” I called but got no answer. My tension was mounting. “J.D.,” I said again. When I found him, all three dogs were on the beautiful leather sofa in the den. Both the large dogs were sitting on their haunches, making a kind of cradle of their legs and hip bones, and right in the middle was little J.D., stretched out like a prince, his eyes closed in a kind of ecstasy.

J.D. loved people, too; he was a distinctly social dog. At the first knock on the door he sprang into action. He didn’t jump on anyone, but he followed them right on their heels until they were forced to pet him or at least say hello. When he got to know them really well he could tell by the sound of the car engine if it was a friend coming to call, and he sat and howled in his best beagle voice. He didn’t bark, but he did howl. Ah-wo-woo-woo, he’d yodel. When it was time for my guest to leave, he’d slip out the front door while I wasn’t looking and follow his target right to their car and attempt to get in. J.D. loved his walks, but a ride in the car was beyond wonderful to him—it was a little slice of heaven.

The toy poodles across the street from us became his pack, or as we called them, his “posse.” Their owner, a graceful, blonde woman named Gwen, was good with J.D. She could make him do things he’d never do for me. Gwen said it was my tone of voice. “When you tell him to sit or come, don’t end the sentence with a question mark,” she’d say, then she’d demonstrate her point by putting him through his paces. In the mornings when I let him out, he’d head up the hill to say good morning to them all and sniff around a bit. Weekends when I had to be away from home, he stayed with Gwen and the poodles, settling into the pack contentedly. He curled himself like a donut in one of the tiny dogs’ straw beds.

I will never believe again that dogs can’t fall in love, for J.D. was totally in love with Chanel, Gwen’s black and white toy poodle. And Chanel made it clear she returned his affections. He liked all Gwen’s small dogs, but Chanel was special. She would lay flat on her belly and wag her tail excitedly at his approach, and though they were both “fixed” their affection for each other was obvious to anyone who was watching. They kissed each other on the mouth. “Get a room,” we’d say to them and they’d just cuddle closer to each other.

J.D. belonged to the neighborhood. When he could wriggle out the front door, he followed the postman on his rounds, staying a respectful distance in back of him. He hooked up with the UPS drivers, and he visited the neighbors on our dead-end street with some regularity. Two neighbors, Harold and Angela and their little dog Hershey, brought him home many times. One day when I was calling him, a strange man got out of his car. “You lookin’ for J.D.?” he asked, and I said yes. “He’s up at the apartment with the guys watching the football game.”

I didn’t know which apartment, which guys, or what football team J.D. was betting on, but I knew I’d eventually find him at a stone house around the corner. It was a Gothic looking gray two-story house with a spooky tree out front. I didn’t know why he was so drawn to this place, but Gwen and I came to call it his “summer home.” He liked to lie on the cool concrete porch, his belly spread out, his chin resting on his paws. It was at the summer home that I looked at him one afternoon about a year ago and realized he was blind.

I was shocked: J.D. was getting old. The soft tan fur on his muzzle was white now, and his jowls were sagging ever so slightly. He and Chanel continued to be devoted to each other, but his walks up the hill to her house were taking longer, and his belly, once young and taut, was loose and floppy now. In fact, he was eating lean kibbles and low-cal treats, and he didn’t deserve that belly. Gwen and I took him to the vet where we got alarming news. J.D. had the beginnings of congestive heart failure. I refused to believe it, refused to believe I couldn’t fix him. Gwen and I gave him expensive heart pills every day, along with his thyroid medicine and his Lasix. We learned to roll the pills, some of them quite large, in something called Pill Pockets, so that J.D. would eagerly swallow his medicine twice a day.

For a while he seemed to be his old self. The vet had given him six months to a year, but I was optimistic. He couldn’t be dying, I said to myself. He looked better, yet despite the diuretics he was taking the liquid in his belly wasn’t diminishing.

The day came when he didn’t really want to go outside. He didn’t have much appetite, didn’t try to beg any of my “human” food. Then early in September, he woke me up panting as if he’d run a 100-yard dash. At first I thought he was in pain, but then I heard the liquid in his chest, and I knew it was his heart. Gwen and I picked him up and took him to the veterinarian.

It was a busy day at the clinic. Dogs standing in line with their owners eyed each other and gave off signals of aggression or friendliness, some barked, most had their tongues hanging out of their mouths, panting like dogs do. J.D. was still breathing hard. He was indifferent to his surroundings, his eyes glassy, his tail drooping. Despite his distended belly, he had lost a pound.

The vet didn’t smile when we told her what was happening with J.D. “Let’s put him up here on the table,” she said, “where I can get a better look at him.” She took out her stethoscope and pressed it at various spots on his stomach.

“How long has he been like this?” she said.

“Since he woke up this morning,” I answered. “He wouldn’t eat breakfast, and he has refused treats of any kind.”

She took him in the back room for an x-ray, and I started crying. When she came back in with J.D. she put him down on the floor, and he ran under my chair.

“His heart is enlarged,” she said, “but there is something else there which might account for some of the fluid he’s got. It’s the fluid that’s choking him.” I tried to stop crying but I couldn’t.

“Look,” she said, and her face was sad. “There isn’t going to be any happy ending here.”

“Is it time to put him down?” I asked, hoping against hope that she’d say no, but she didn’t.

“It’s your decision,” she said. “I don’t want to influence you in any way, but he is very uncomfortable.” It was the old social contract humans made with their companion animals: You do not let them suffer.

I finally agreed and nodded yes, and I was signing papers and sobbing and fussing because they wouldn’t get it over with. I was afraid I’d change my mind. When the technician finally came in to take J.D. from under my chair, he wouldn’t move. He went into dead weight mode, and when he did that you couldn’t move him no matter what. He was resisting. That’s when Gwen began to weep. “He knows what’s going to happen,” she sobbed.

All around us we heard a chorus of happy, healthy dogs barking, and in my rage and resentment I wanted to gather all of us up and just leave, get out before it was too late, make a run for the border. But I just couldn’t justify J.D.’s suffering. I couldn’t put him through another night of choking in his own fluids.

After what seemed like an eternity, the technician got J.D. up on the table and prepared him for his injection. Gwen couldn’t stay in the room, but I did. I held his little paw, and he began to calm down. The vet gave him one shot to put him to sleep. One of his brown silky ears flopped over his paw. “He’s asleep now,” the vet said. “He won’t feel anything.” And with that my own sobs stopped, and the vet gave him the final injection.

Gwen and I rode home without J.D., both of us subdued and quiet. I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing or not. No matter what train of thought I followed I couldn’t find the answer. If they’d uncovered a growth in his abdomen he couldn’t have withstood surgery because of his heart. Should I have tried? Was there something else I should have asked?

I’ll never know of course, but I do know that a decision had to be made, and that I had to make it. Garrison Keillor once said, “There are no answers, only stories.” And that is all I have to offer—a story about one small dog that lived well and how he died. Gwen and I made a little altar on the mantle with J.D.’s picture, which my friend Nick found on his camera and printed out. One friend sent a dozen yellow roses, and another made a small bouquet of dahlias picked from her backyard, the blooms of which spread out on the mantel like spiders.

I am lonely, but I see J.D. everywhere, and I believe he is with me more than I expected he’d be. Maybe he just gets homesick now and then. Maybe the summer house is closed. I am careful not to sit on his side of the bed. When I walk, I look carefully at my feet so that I won’t step on him. Then I slap myself on the forehead. I have forgotten once again that he is dead. That he won’t be underfoot, that he won’t take up over half of the bed or pull off more than his share of the blankets in the night.

At the end of the day I watch the twilight spread, and that is when the loneliness is the most acute. I realize I am glad I said yes to him when he needed me. He never stopped repaying his debt, and his loyalty was one of his most outstanding character traits. As hard as it has been to get over him, I’m never sorry I took him in, and I feel joy at having known him. Other times I feel I am living in a house that is haunted, only I am the one who is the ghost.


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