Farewell to a friend

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The phone rang at about 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

It was my ex-wife, Angie. "Ex-wife" is not a term I like to use very often, by the way. Usually when I mention Angie to others, I use the phrase "Keegan's mom" to clarify who I'm talking about.

Our son is almost 14 years old now. For the lion's share of two decades, I've covered stories in a six-county radius here in northwest Iowa in large part because I never want to be very far away from him.

Keegan is with me most weekends and he was with me when the phone rang Sunday.

To understand the phone call, you have to know about my dog, Jake.

-- * --

Keegan's mom and I had Jake before we had Keegan. The timing seemed right about 16 years ago. When you live in an apartment, you want a house. When you get a house, you want a pet. Next comes family -- at least that's how it worked for us.

Jake was at the Humane Society of Northwest Iowa shelter in Milford, but he didn't stand out right away. I remember barks coming from all directions as we walked past the chain links and hard floors of the kennels. I saw a litter of puppies that were so cute and playful, you could have cast them in one of those "I spilled, but you can't be mad at me" paper towel commercials.

We almost took one of those little pups home.

But, then, a high school-aged volunteer snapped his fingers at eye level near one of the other kennels. Up popped Jake, literally. He didn't jump at you, or on you. He just jumped, straight up, from his hind legs.

He was older than those tempting pups we were considering. He had a lot of yellow Labrador in him, but his hair was longer and he was a little smaller than your usual Lab.

And he was quiet. That was the other thing.

You could see he wanted a home, but he didn't seem anxious. It was more unassuming. He had manners -- we'll always wonder who gave him up, why they gave him up and how hard that must have been.

The shelter had a room with chairs and doggie toys so that families and their prospective pets could get to know each other. Jake was far more interested in the toys than he was in us. We didn't mind. We took this quiet, jumping, handsome Lab-mix home.

Angie's shoes paid a terrible toll. It took us far too long to realize that all he needed was a few extra squeaky toys. We were just as excited as he was when we hid a new, brown, furry hedgehog toy behind our back. His ears would perk up when we made it grunt for the first time. Two days later, we were picking up pieces of white stuffing. We helped keep the grunting hedgehog industry going for well over a decade.

Jake had the same expression of excitement for the word "gopher," as in "gopher a ride."

-- * --

He was waiting at the front door when we brought a tiny little mystery person home.

Jake heard noises from a crib. He endured those toddler years. The two were side-by-side in cars and on couches. As Keegan grew up, Jake grew older.

Angie added a second and third dog to the mix. The new additions pestered Old Man Jake and kept him young.

Jake's sight and hearing began to fade, but he seemed comfortable. If I had to come inside to collect my unorganized son and his belongings, I'd give my napping Jake Dog a scruff on the neck or a rub on the belly while I was there.

Keegan and Jake were with each other for 13 years and 10 months.

Until that phone call Sunday morning.

Jake could no longer get up to even walk on those spring-loaded legs of his. He seemed dazed and Angie said he "mooed" as he breathed. Their vet thinks Jake may have had a stroke. I had to wake my son up and tell him Jake was running out of time.

But, I told Keegan too soon. He was too upset to get dressed quickly. Too much time passed. By the time we reached the house, Jake was gone.

"That's OK," I told my son. "His spirit is still here."

Jake did one last thing for us. Angie hoped she wouldn't have to ask a vet to end her suffering companion's life. I didn't want to be at work when I got the news. Those things didn't happen. Our quiet, dignified friend left us in a quiet, dignified way.

We have nothing but gratitude for the people who worked with our Jake as a puppy. He had a long and happy life.

Thank you, Humane Society for keeping him safe.

And thank you to the thoughtful teenager who snapped his fingers to help a kind, almost-overlooked soul find a home.

Most of all, thank you, Jake. For everything.

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