Winter brings solitude to the woods, and silence. All the sounds of summer are absent – motorcycles and lawn mowers heard in the distance, the voices of other hikers and the barking of other dogs. There’s just the sound of own footsteps crunching against the gravel path, an occasional bird call, our own rhythmic breathing in the cold. My faithful companions beside me on this early weekday morning, I have the path to myself.
Always the trailblazer, Jack prances ahead of Ralph and me, in a gait befitting the King of Terriers. He sniffs at fallen tree stumps, piles of leaves, ever curious who may be lurking beneath – a chipmunk, maybe. He contemplates the river, so easily seen through all the naked tree branches. A few degrees warmer and he’d be pulling me towards the bank to take a drink of icy water or wade right in, mindless of the chill and the depth and the current, while Ralph, the cautious one, the thoughtful one who understands the possible consequences of such brazen acts, hangs back.
They came into our lives on Thanksgiving weekend, 2001, when their owner’s reserve unit was mobilized to respond to 9/11 and they went into Airedale rescue. Jack was four years old, Ralph just shy of five. They were the fortunate ones, placed immediately together in a forever home. We were the fortunate ones, welcoming a pair of well-cared for, well-trained dogs into the family. They arrived via volunteer transport from Ohio with their own leashes, collars and toys, complete medical histories and a heartfelt letter from the man who raised them acquainting us with their personality traits, likes and habits. I have thought of this man often since, hoping he returned home safely, hoping that he knew his dogs remained always together, always loved.
Jack inspects the bushes and piles of twigs along the trail, appraises some droppings from a horse, too cold and dry to merit much attention. He walks out onto a frozen puddle, the ice cracking beneath his weight with a hollow sound like a door slamming shut in the wind. He wanders into deeper brush and fallen leaves and burrs cling to his coat. Even now he is so full of life, looking forward to whatever is waiting around the bend.
Jack is the happiest living being I have ever known. He greets every day as an adventure and every stranger as a friend. He is handsome, athletic, fearless; still vital and strong willed. If a positive attitude were all it took to hold his illness at bay, he could win this fight. I tell myself he has time left. He is still strong enough to hike, happy and excited to go for walks and ride in the car, still interested in the opening of the refrigerator door.
But as we walk there are ribbons of blood trailing from his lips that crystallize in the cold, and I am forced once again to admit that there is no turning back from this path, that soon I will brush those leaves and burrs from his coat for the last time.
Jack grows tired as we approach the bridge. He slows down and sits. I kneel beside him, wrapping my arms around him, still so muscular and strong and fit after 12 years of living and six months of fighting an aggressive, fatal cancer. I bury my face in his coat, I feel for his heartbeat – too faint, too fast. I tell him once again that I love him, and he responds in kind as always, with a low, deep-chested murmur.
Then he rallies; we cross the bridge and wind our way back down the trail along the west side of the river, where the forest is thick with old-growth oak and there are many fallen tree trunks on the forest floor to explore. Ralph and Jack stay close together, following each other to sites of interest. Oak leaves cling to their muzzles.
We come out of dense forest to the footpath that leads to the bridge on the road, the last bridge we three will cross together.
In Memory of Jack