Sunday, April 08, 2007

Blackjack, 1994-2007

Blackjack was preternaturally timid. By way of compensation, nature gave him a forbidding appearance and ferocious bark. Though big and handsome, he was emotionally needy even by canine standards, stubborn, and didn't take direction well. He was a literal watchdog whose favorite actitivity was standing in front of the house, all senses on alert for threats to homeland secuity - cyclists, the UPS track, and especially other dogs.

As you've surely guessed by now, Blackjack was the Gee family dog. He was caring, gentle, full of delightful absurdity. He was my beloved friend. He died suddenly yesterday at 12 1/2. At 8 a.m. he threw up. By noon, an infinitely kind veterinarian at the Mass Vet Referral hospital in Woburn was explaining Blackjack's time had come. At 1:30, I had to say goodbye for the last time.

All four Gees are in the midst of the deepest grief and devastation imaginable. It has taken 15 minutes to write these two paragraphs. Every other sentence, I keep expecting the nose bump inside my elbow that was the signal Blackjack felt it was time for attention to be paid to him, not some dumb machine, and I find it necessary to pause. I do not know how long this pain will be the dominant fact of our family's life. I suspect it will be awhile.

Well, there's no story so commonplace as the death of a family pet. No one's in the newspaper business 10 minutes without learning readers ADORE stories about other people's dogs. Heartfelt obituaries are especially popular.

Besides sorrow, what Blackjack's death has left me is a renewal of the mystery I feel at the human-pet relationship. What propels our species, which stands viciously atop the planetary food chain, capable of cruelty to itself like no other, to voluntarily give our love to members of other species? Why are dogs, of all creatures under the sun, known as "man's best friend?"

One guess here. Dogs are interested in people. They pay attention. A person can make a dog happy with pretty minimal effort. That feels good, especially considering the effort it takes to make other people and ourselves happy. On the next to last day of his life, Blackjack felt my return home was as big a deal as he did the first days we had him as a puppy. Emotional support can be tough to find, but not from dogs it isn't.

People love all kinds of animals, of course. There are few mammals that we haven't tried to make into pets. There was a series of movies about a kid who had a whale for a pet. I'm an ex-tabloid hack, not a philosopher. I couldn't begin to tell you why that is. I only know it says something good about humans-another commodity too often in short supply.

One thing I learned yesterday from Josh and Hope. My children are 22 and 18, and their friends were full of compassion and shared sorrow. They're all at the age when childhood pets die, one of the lesser publicized but important rites of passage to adulthood. No one gets a life without insupportable loss attached. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

I've been through two of those now. The dog I had as child died when I was 19. The dog I got for my kids, no, to be my family's companion and my own, died yesterday. Will Alice and I go on the third-most common type of pet-the one empty-nesters get for the joys of caring for another living thing? Dunno yet. That idea's years away. Now all we can do is try and burn every memory of Blackjack into our brains so vividly nothing can fade them.

Today is Easter. Whether one is a Christian or not, the Easter story is a powerful human tale with deep significance for us all. Today, a sizable segment of humanity celebrates the idea humanity is a species worth saving, despite much evidence to the contrary.

When I see a person with a beloved family pet, I see the same celebration. I see evidence there's hope for us after all. In these parts, the hope's clouded by pain, pain that oddly highlights the happiness Blackjack brought us for over a dozen years.

Farewell my best friend. You did what every dog is supposed to do. You were there for humans to care for. You brought the joys of caring to their hearts. Loss hurts like nothing else. Joy beats it every time, though. Joy can never be forgotten. That's all the eternity we know of here on earth.


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