On an August morning after my 49th birthday, a lanky spinal surgeon positioned my X-ray on a rectangular light panel and pointed to gray chunks of bone and one disk squeezed into oblivion. “You’ll need surgery,” he said, “followed by therapy and a lengthy recovery.”
My thoughts came in frantic bursts. How would I work? Who would cook, clean, and drive my daughter to school and appointments? When could I walk my dog again? A normal life seemed shaky at best. However, I accepted the inevitable, realizing my pain level and quality of life required upgrades.
I went home to the comforting arms of my husband, Gary, and daughter, Cara, then cried into the warm chest of my 2-year-old Shih Tsu. Jack was my first puppy, a black-and-white fluff ball named after my favorite Beat writer. He had been the energetic runt of his litter. He chewed rugs and developed a fondness for paper. It wasn’t unusual for him to leave a trail of Charmin from the bathroom to the living room. I’d find nibbled remnants in every corner of the house.
In spite of being mischievous, Jack was downright lovable. We taught him to tap a small bell that Gary had screwed into the frame of our French doors, his cue when he needed to relieve himself. Jack mastered the task. If we didn’t answer his call right away, he’d strike the bell continuously until we appeared. He beamed at the music he created, as if he was his own one-man band.
My spinal surgery was scheduled for October. I hired a woman to manage the accounting end of my business, arranged for a cleaning service, and ran errand after errand. Reality hit me hard. Months would pass before I’d watch Cara figure skate at the local ice rink. Visiting my son, Ryan, at UC Santa Barbara, 300 miles away, was out of the question. Planning for Thanksgiving dinner would require help and some creativity. I’d even be denied my everyday joy of walking Jack through the neighborhood. I apologized to him in advance, and he responded with sloppy kisses and hearty wags of his tail.
My surgery was successful. I was released from the hospital one week later equipped with two titanium rods and four screws in my spine. After the excruciating car ride home, I sighed at the sight of our blue two-story, high on a hill overlooking the valley.
Gary pushed my wheelchair up the concrete ramp to our backyard, and there was Jack, retrieving a red Frisbee that Cara had thrown. In a flash he bounced to my side, undaunted by the strange metal contraption confining me. “Jacky Wacky,” I cooed, lowering my hands to stroke the white patch just above his mahogany eyes. For a moment it felt like old times. The sun drenched my skin. The sound of the waterfall soothed me. I accepted gentle hugs from my daughter and a raucous greeting from Jack. It was heaven.
Now Jack rarely left my side. When I slept or rested with the benefit of pain pills, he curled up against my legs. When I finally got the hang of using a walker and plodded down the hallway, he happily ran circles around me. “Look at us, Jack!” I’d boast. Then I’d praise him, thankful for my furry nurse—my grinning, wide-eyed therapist.
During the next six years, Jack matured and accompanied me to work every day. He became the office mascot, greeting clients and postal carriers, and he relished the afternoon light that streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Just after his eighth birthday, however, Jack lost interest in his daily walks. He scratched constantly, and the skin on his belly began flaking off. His vet struggled with a diagnosis and recommended the highly reputable veterinary clinic at UC Davis. After a battery of tests, it was determined that Jack was battling a rare liver disease.
I was never able to take him home. He deteriorated rapidly, and aides provided round-the-clock care. When we decided to end his suffering, Gary, Cara, and I whispered our goodbyes. And just as Jack had always been there for me, I was there for him. I held his ravaged body as he took his last breath.
To this day, I think about Little Jack Kerouac and smile. When I’m ill or undergo surgery, I remember his brushy wagging tail, his enthusiasm for living. He has inspired
me to endure disappointment and to treasure each moment in my daily life.
Constance Hanstedt is a business owner, author, and poet living in Northern California. Her memoir, Don’t Leave Yet, How My Mother’s Alzheimer’s Opened My Heart, was published by She Writes Press in 2015.
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Main article photo by: akespyker