Yesterday was the worst day of my life. Yesterday I said goodbye to my friend Jack.
I’ve never lost a child, a sibling, a parent. I’m thankful for that, as I have friends that have dealt with such pain. And I’m not suggesting that the passing of a pet is on that level. But for me, this is simply heartbreaking.
In truth, it was a day that was coming for some time. Jackson “Daniels” Kurtz had long been troubled, a reality that grew clearer each year. He was incredibly uncomfortable in his own skin, spending the bulk of his time crippled by anxiety. And sadly, his response was often aggression.
For a 10 pound dog, with big floppy ears and a fluffy tail, it’s surprising just how terrifying he could be when he had an episode. His teeth came out, and within an instant, he was Mr. Hyde. He was unpredictable, except when he wasn’t. Touched on his back a certain way, or approached when curled in a tight ball, and he was almost certain to explode into an eight second fit of snapping panic.
Were it just my wife and I, we might have been able to find a way. For months, years even, I told myself we simply needed to “manage the situation,” gating Jack in the kitchen when guests arrive, taking care to avoid touching him in a way that might provoke an explosive response. But when you have a two-and-a-half-year-old little boy running around the house, “managing the situation” becomes increasingly difficult.
To say that our son Oscar is active is akin to calling Kim Kardashian slightly overexposed. He tears into life with a zealousness most of us have long forgotten. And though he adored Jack, referring to him – and our other dog Rudy – as “my puppies,” having him around an unstable Jack presented certain dangers.
For many, today’s news will be shocking. There will be a certain amount of shock in learning that we allowed Jack to live in our house as long as we did, knowing that he’d already lunged at Oscar on multiple occasions, at times even drawing contact with the flesh of a finger. But for most that know us, for the friends and family that understand how devoted we’ve been to both our dogs, the disbelief will be in the other direction. It will seem simply unimaginable that this was our only option. And I understand that line of thinking, because it’s exactly how I feel.
As Erin frequently noted, the very essence of yesterday’s appointment sits in direct contrast with our personal values, with our belief system. Far too often we’ve heard about the family that gave away their dog when they had kids, the family that gave up on their pet because it had all become “too much.” We would never be those people I promised myself. Instead, I would be the guy on the streets of Manhattan, walking two dogs with a child strapped to my chest in the Baby Bjourn. Oscar would know his dogs names before his friends names, and he’d learn to walk through the apartment cradling his snacks close to his body, so as to avoid having anything swiped between the kitchen and living room. And for 33 months, that’s how it was.
But while Oscar grew, Jack regressed. He became more anxious, less predictable, harder to manage.
In all of New York City, there is only one veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Elise Christensen, DVM. We call her simply “Dr. C.” After six months on a waiting list, we first saw her in April of 2013. She evaluated Jack, and offered us the first real understanding of his condition. She likened him to a schoolyard bully. Not in the sense of someone with a desire to torment others, but rather a creature relying on aggression as a means of overcoming extreme insecurity. In an effort to quell some of Jack’s nervousness, Dr. C. prescribed medication. Cautious to avoid over-saturating him, she began with a fairly mild dosage. No change. The doses increased, different medications were added, and the regiment intensified. Still, no change. Remarking that she’d never seen a dog so strong-willed, ultimately Dr. C. settled on Paroxetene, a generic form of Paxil. For the last year or so Jack took one each day, all part of attempts to “manage the situation.” And yesterday morning, as part of a breakfast that included cheese, and hamburger – all lovingly prepared by “Mama” – Jack had one more Paroxetene.
About six months ago I told Erin that I would never be able to willingly endorse this course of action. I apologized for abandoning her, for not supporting her, for forcing her to deal with the unthinkable without my help. But I just couldn’t do it, I told her. I admittedly avoided the situation, changing the subject every time she said “we really have to talk about Jack.” And so, she went it alone.
She called the Humane Society. They couldn’t take him, they said. He’s a liability, they said.
She had my parents reach out to our family vet., a fantastic woman who rescues challenged and troubled animals. He’d regress she said. Away from the relative stability we had provided, Jack would likely grow only more anxious, and respond with more aggression.
So, she called Elise Christensen again.
Dr. C. confirmed what the Humane Society had said, what my family vet. had said, what we had feared. We’d exhausted all our options.
Of course, I wasn’t aware of all this. Remember, my wife had been acting alone. She’d been placing calls, writing emails, and exploring last resorts all without me. She was simply stronger than I was. I would have never been able to ask those questions, to hear those answers, to digest those words.
It wasn’t until I accidentally saw a cryptic text message on Erin’s phone – a message of solidarity from my sister, saying that my family supported her – that I was brought up to speed.
Through watery eyes, Erin explained what had been going on. Who she’d spoken to, what she’d learned, how hard it had been. Though I desperately hoped there was another answer, I asked to be brought back into the loop. I simply couldn’t bear the idea that all this was happening without me, that Jack’s days had become numbered while I sat blissfully ignorant of the countdown.
The next few weeks passed painfully. I often began crying on walks, specifically in the evening, when Jack would greet me at the door after work, his tail wagging, his ears pinned back. He’d rush me as I returned home from work, placing his front paws on my thighs. He’d use my legs as support while he stretched, shaking off the cobwebs following what had most likely been an epic nap atop a couch from which he’s banned. I’d bend over, hug him tightly, he’d kiss me. And I’d bury my face in his neck, saying only “Oh Jack, oh Jack…”
Perhaps I had already begun saying goodbye.
Only recently had I stopped pleading with him to be better. I used to ask him to “help me out here,” begging him to avoid any outburst that would bring him closer to an end I was praying wouldn’t come. But he didn’t understand. He never has. He couldn’t help it, and that’s what made it so hard.
Had he been a violent, angry, attacking dog, this would likely have be a lot easier. But he wasn’t. In fact, in his heart he was very sweet. He begged for attention, but wasn’t always comfortable receiving it. A guest might spend an evening at the apartment, an evening full of soft – if not overzealous – kisses, and gentle pawing, and ask “this is Jack? The ‘aggressive’ dog?” But on other nights, the other Jack could come out. The Jack that has bitten our nanny, a handful of dog-walkers, and Erin and I countless times. But as quickly as that aggressive version of Jack arrived, that’s how quickly he was gone, and with no recollection or understanding of what had transpired only moments ago. There were occasions on which Jack had bitten me, and drawn blood, only to then lick the wound upon sensing I was injured. He truly had no idea that he was the cause of the pain. And that’s what made it really hurt.
Six years ago this week Erin and I, and Jack and Rudy, landed in New York City, as a family, determined to start the next chapter of our life. I never imagined Jack’s story would end this way. Maybe we shouldn’t have brought him with us. Maybe we should have never taken him out of that Florida strip mall pet store. As my wife pointed out, it was most likely seven years ago today, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, that we brought him home. We had stopped into the store only to pick up some treats for Rudy. Instead, we brought her home a brother. She dutifully put up with his shenanigans, defending her turf, losing fights, incurring her own injuries, all the while looking at us as if to say “really?”
I like to think that by taking Jackson out of that pet store that we rescued him. With his condition, we could only surmise how poorly he’d have been treated had he landed with another family. He’d likely have been abused, mistreated, or worse. But is anything worse that what we did? Are we the exact people we often criticized, did we become the exact family from which we tried to rescue him?
In strong moments, I remind myself that we gave Jack seven good years. That he had a happy life, full of vacations to the beach, countless gourmet treats, his own personal dog-walker, and a position of honor within our family structure. No dog was ever more loved, that much I feel certain of. He slept in our bed at times, and when he didn’t, he was forced to “rough it” on the couch. Perhaps more structure would have helped. It’s hard to say, and harder to wonder.
Erin would laugh as I referred to myself as Jack’s “Guardian Angel.” I was his only hope, I told myself. I had to protect him, had to keep him in our family. If I couldn’t save him, no one could. My wife was far stronger than I could have ever been. She made the tough calls, had the hard conversations, drew the impossible conclusions. I simply existed in a naive world of excuses. If I wasn’t really Jack’s Guardian Angel, I certainly was his biggest apologists. With blood dripping from my hands, I would say “it’s okay, he’s sensitive. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
In the end, I feel I failed him. I couldn’t protect him. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t really his Guardian Angel.
Looking at the evidence, his resume, his body of work, I can’t in good faith say we made the wrong decision. But at the same time, it’s also nearly impossible for me to say we made the right one. Perhaps that’s the lesson. In life, there are no “right” decisions. It’s about making impossibly difficult choices, about doing the very best you can.
“Okay. He’s gone.” Dr. Matthew Gordon said the words softly, but clearly. Erin and I hovered over Jack, tears streaming down our faces. We said our goodbyes, told him how much we loved him, promised him he was going to a better place, a place where he wouldn’t be haunted and crippled by his own demons. It was a moment simply too painful to imagine. We had done the unthinkable. Neither of us could fully comprehend what had happened. It was an end I never believed would come, at least not like this.
Several hours later, Erin and I returned home, having spent time grieving over cheeseburgers and whiskey. I had pounded two pours of Jack Daniels, because, of course. Oscar was in his bed, and Lynn the babysitter was reading to him. He looked up at me, and said “Dada, you were walking Jack?”
“No buddy, I wasn’t.” But I wish I was. I wish yesterday had simply been one, long dog walk.
Today Oscar is still asking for the other one of his puppies. When we walked Rudy to Starbucks for our morning coffee, our son insisted on bringing a toy that could be dragged along the sidewalk. Erin and I took turns walking Rudy, Oscar walked his toy. Someone was clearly missing. Someone will always be missing.
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