Jasper Is Away

When Jasper was diagnosed with cancer in late 2007, I encouraged the kids to devote more time to her. “You’ll miss her when she’s gone,” I said. I thought I was helping lay the emotional groundwork for our Labrador retriever’s imminent death, but truly I was preparing myself.

Jasper’s health deteriorated over the next seven months until in her last six weeks, her body resembled a bag of bones. When she turned up her nose at dry dog food, we gave her canned dog food, then canned cat food. When she refused that, too, we coaxed her into eating steak, eggs, smokies, muffins, potatoes, cheese, bits of salmon skin – whatever she would consume. In her last week she rejected food altogether, but allowed us to squirt water from a sport bottle into her mouth. Soon she was too weak to stand. She lay passively on her pillow bed in the kitchen, watching us move about, sometimes almost in a trance. She’d occasionally swish her tail in greeting, or turn up her belly for a tummy rub. We’d pull her bed from room to room so she could be with us, carry her outside on nice days to enjoy the fresh air, and turn her body from time to time for her comfort.

When in her last few days Jasper sometimes even refused water, we realized she would expire from dehydration, and we had to face the hard fact that euthanasia was the best choice for her, if not for us. We couldn’t bring her to the vet’s office for the procedure, because even in prime health, Jasper despised the place. To take her there for her last hour would be to betray her. At last we found a vet who agreed to come to our home.

Jasper’s last day, July 31st was sunny with scudding clouds and a brisk wind. We carried Jasper where she was happiest. She’d always been an outdoor dog, and in fact had rarely slept indoors, even in winter. Each of us took a special moment that day to bid Jasper farewell. I’ll neverforget Jasper’s reaction when she saw Erin, Meara and I crying as we petted her ever-glossy red coat. Her ears pricked and her eyes darted from face to face. She’d always been attuned to our emotions, had always stood by in quiet concern when any of us was upset. It was utterly touching that day to witness her altruism even as she herself was slipping away, and so ironic that she couldn’t know that it was for her that we wept.

While awaiting the appointed (and dreaded) hour of the vet’s arrival, Pat and Meara and I kept Jasper company, reminiscing about her many funny exploits. We laughed and cried as we scribbled down memories of her unruly puppyhood and her lively teens, the quirks and heroics she displayed in her live-aboard days of our sailing sabbatical, and her sheer joy to return home. We revelled to recall her river valley adventures, her unabashed bids for affection, her bliss in running freely. We remembered how she would challenge the sweep of a broom, bark at the crack of thunder, incite us to play hide and seek. I recounted the heart- wrenching day she got lost and was brought to the pound. Jasper’s 13½ years had been full.

As if she’d heard and understood all the memories, Jasper suddenly perked up. After weeks of lingering and languishing, she pulled herself to a sitting position and grinned widely, tongue hanging out, eyes bright. This renewed energy was ephemeral, and perhaps there is a medical explanation. However, I like to think it was Jasper’s way of showing us her best self, the way we’d like to remember her. It felt like a parting gift.

We chose to have Jasper’s remains cremated, so we could scatter her ashes in her favourite haunts: the nearby park, the river valley trails, and the river itself, where she’d loved to take a dip on summer runs. A good many ashes remain in Jasper’s chief domain, our backyard, a place that seems so vacant now, as achingly empty as the moment of arrival home, when Jasper is no longer the first to greet us.

Meara remarked a few days later that the blowing wind felt like a visit from Jasper. That’s a sentiment I accept when I recall my departed father and grandparents, but belief in human after life doesn’t answer for me the troubling question where Jasper is now. I cannot accept she’s vanished, I tell myself.

She’s only away.

Months later, I still feel bereft. We’ve given away leftover bags of doggy treats, and stowed away the leash and collar, the food and water bowls, the hairbrush and shampoo. I haven’t yet washed Jasper’s pillow bed, though. It still holds her scent.

JKK

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