The raggedy old collar resurfaced while cleaning up the back room. As I sat down on our kindling box and traced a finger over the orange nylon, an afternoon sun illuminated one auburn hair wedged in the buckle. I thought about my friend. His name was Jake.
He was the biggest pup in the litter, and the only red one, too. The man that owned his parents, and him at the time, called him Bear. And he was ornery as a bear, mauling his brothers and sisters while I asked about bloodlines and shots and worming. The bully wasn’t quite so big and bad as I grabbed him by the scruff and examined his teeth, but he wasn’t scared and he didn’t glare at me with a baleful stare. His attitude said he knew exactly who he was, and my doubts about taking him home evaporated as we made eye contact.
I had a working hog farm at the time, which translates into having no life off our property. Our house was on the farm, and there were often week-long stretches that I did not go anywhere. Jake — I named him “Jake” on the first day we met because he just looked like a “Jake”— and I got to be pretty close. I spent more time with Jake than I did with my wife and daughters.
Heelers are smart dogs, and Jake figured out a lot of things about the farm on his own. Within a couple weeks he knew that pigs in the pen couldn’t get him, and that biting a snout poking through the bars of a gate was a bucketful of fun with no consequences. There was a time or two I swear a doggy grin crossed his face when a quick nip brought a squeal of surprise from a nosey porker. Jake also knew that a pig in the walkway was not something to take lightly and his best course of action was to hide behind my legs or run to the barn exit. But as he grew older he became a great help in moving pigs onto the stock trailer — better than some of my helpers on two legs. He was smart enough to know that most pigs would turn, but that a big hog dead set on running him over would do just that. That’s something that a lot of folks find out the hard way, like the guy that left our farm one day with hoof prints on his back.
He was never a playful dog. With Jake it was either work, take a walk, or just hang out on the porch. He would fetch a ball or catch a Frisbee when I asked him to, but never with enthusiasm. Sometimes he even grumbled about it, growling under his breath as he brought the Frisbee or ball back.
For three years we spent nearly every day together. If I was outside Jake was with me. Christine, my wife, would know that I was somewhere out on the farm if Jake didn’t greet her when she came home. But in 2001 Jake’s life was forever changed when an autumn thunderstorm destroyed our pig barn. Rather than go into huge debt to rebuild I chose to take a job off the farm. Jake had a little bit of separation anxiety. For a couple months after, he would be frantically scratching at my truck door as soon as I pulled into our driveway. As time passed he became less anxious when I was gone, but I could never leave his sight when I was home and outside.
The only place on the farm where I didn’t really want him to accompany me was the bluff line on our property. A big rock outcropping provided a place to sit and watch deer, turkey and sometimes just feel the breeze or watch the sun slip over distant Pilot Rock Mountain. Jake wouldn’t chase a deer, but holding in a bark was too much to ask so I would tell him to “stay” as we passed a large white oak on the way to the bluff. To his everlasting credit, I think he would have sat by that darn tree until Kingdom Come. I can’t remember a single time he broke rank and moved until I gave the ok.
I could fill a book with stories about Jake. There was the day he got nervous around a stranger on the farm and peed on my leg and into my rubber boot. Marking me as his territory? Who knows. There was his look of utter shock when our pygmy billy goat, Stinky, rolled him over with a head butt. Jake was elevated to hero status when he killed a copperhead that nearly bit Christine. He made sure no one came down the driveway without us knowing about it, and while a stranger might get out of the vehicle no one got on the porch without our approval. Sometimes even our approval wasn’t enough. Christine told me about the day she pleaded with him to go easy on some utility workers. They even tried to bribe him with baloney sandwiches, but no deal. The porch was off-limits to strangers while Jake was on duty.
One evening, in the spring of his eighth year, Jake didn’t meet me at the truck. He was sitting on the porch, wagging that stump of a tail, waiting on me. Even before I climbed the wooden steps I could see illness in his eyes. I sat up with him late. He never ate or drank, and I had plans to take him to the vet in the morning. But morning never came for Jake. I found him at sunrise, lying beside our home, directly under my bedroom window. He normally slept on the porch, but on his final night of life he was looking for me. He died mere feet from me as I slept that night, so close that had the window been open I could have leaned out and touched him. I wish I would have opened that window. I wish I could have stroked his fur and told him it would all be ok. I wish I could have been there with him to say goodbye.
I buried him under the big white oak and told him to watch for me, that one day soon we would walk through fields and sit on the porch together again. Surely the Creator in his infinite wisdom and love made a way for Jake into the next realm. And say what you will, but if there is no place in heaven for a soul like Jake then heaven doesn’t sound that great to me.
Some people don’t understand how you can love an animal like family. Some folks can’t understand how a grown man could cry for days over a smelly red dog. I myself can’t understand how even now, nine years after his passing, I fight tears as I write this. And I still can’t comprehend the depth of Jake’s love and friendship. As his life was fading, the only thing Jake wanted was me.