Our white puppy Jack grew to the size of a small pony. An over-sized mixed-breed collie, he had a head as broad as a St. Bernard and long shaggy hair. My brothers, sisters and I liked him, and he liked people.
Still, when the family planned to move across the country, the station wagon had no room to transport him to our new home. So Jack, barely a year old, moved over the hill to the farm where my toddler cousin Hope lived. She grew up knowing him as her dog.
Still, each time we drove back for a visit and pulled into the farm yard, piled out of the car and stretched, Jack greeted us with his tail wagging – as he did all visitors.
“Hey, Jack! C’mere boy,” I would call, pat him on the head and begin talking to him. At first he just looked and listened. Then he’d do a doggy double-take, begin dancing all around, and crying at how much he had missed us. With deep throaty sounds, he would talk in rising and lowering tones as long as any of us petted him and said, “Yes, I missed you too, Jack.”
“Where have you been?” he would push his head close and whine. At least that’s what I understood him to say with his intense emotional welcoming and bodily thrust to get as close as possible, even if I backed away to go inside and visit folks. It took as much effort to break away from him as it does from a chatty person with a 100 stories to tell. Jack stayed outside.
He responded as our dog, yet was not our dog. He was Hope’s dog, her childhood companion as the decade younger, last child in a family of four. When she was little, he hovered over her as she played in the yard. As she grew, Jack trotted beside her when she went to the fields.
“He never was an inside dog … except when a thunderstorm came,” Hope recalled. “And then, he would go into the attached woodshed and lay next to the door, clawing anxiously and leaving claw marks on the door.”
Every morning he watched the bus take her to school and every afternoon when the school bus brought her home, he bounded across the yard to greet her … until she was 12 and he did not show up.
Hope’s dad came out to regretfully tell her, “He just died of old age.”
“He was the only dog I had ever had. Of course, I was brokenhearted when our dog died. I think I was in seventh grade. My dad wanted to do something nice to cheer me up. So he took me to join Sarah (her year-older cousin) and some classmates at the movies.”
Going to the movies in the nearest small city was a big deal for this farm girl. She had to go through a couple villages to get to there. So she was prepared to enjoy this excursion even though she had no idea what movie was playing. She bought her ticket and went into the darkened theater.
“We didn’t know it ahead of time but the theater was showing ‘Where the Red Fern Grows.’” – a poignant film about a beloved dog that dies.
“I bawled through the whole thing! I’m sure that my cousin’s friends thought I was weird-o for crying so much over the movie,” Hope said. Maybe, maybe not. At least she had the words and tears needed to communicate how much she missed him, knowing he would never return.