By Rhiannon Giles
Jessie came to us a hero. In 2006, a house fire sent him ripping through a screen door to drag his sleeping owner off of the couch. The damage made the house unlivable, and they were forced to surrender Jessie in their search for a new place to live. It would be easy to look at this from a place of judgement and complete disbelief that anyone would give up the dog that saved their lives. I remind myself that I do not know their circumstances, or the full scope of what losing their house might have meant for their well-being. The fact remains—Jessie needed a home, and Steven needed Jessie.
Jessie’s legs were made of steel. Actually just one leg. And by steel I mean titanium, surgically implanted after a collision with a car. Steven had lost his last two dogs in car accidents, not through any negligence on his part, but through extraordinary rash of bad luck. I was devastated at the thought of him losing another; we did not yet know that you would need much more than a car take out Jessie James. In the end they inserted a metal rod in Jessie’s leg and he made a full recovery. We worried about his leg, that it might be weak or fragile, that he might need to lead a sedentary life.
Jessie became one of the gang, a friend who would listen patiently, as most dogs do. My friends and I had been rotating through one apartment for a few years, a small second-floor space in an up-and-coming, if slightly gentrified, neighborhood in Asheville, North Carolina. We spent lazy evenings on the balcony, watching hippies walk to the co-op and the bar down the street. One night, Steven and several friends took a stroll down for a beer, leaving Jessie to chill in the apartment. It was a nice evening, and the door to the balcony was left open. They were about halfway down the street when they heard the sound of a dog running up behind them. They looked at Jessie, then back at the apartment, then back at Jessie. His being there defied all logic. A neighbor had seen Jessie jump from the second-floor balcony into the bushes in order to get to his beloved people. He would not be left behind. Not again.
We no longer worried about his leg.
Where Steven went, Jessie went. They would sit in the river and share a beer, or wander around downtown Asheville. Jessie was an intimidating dog with a wolf-like appearance, and people would cross the street rather than meet him head on. We were standing in a hotel hallway waiting for an elevator when a couple turned the corner. They simply said, “We’ll catch the next one,” as they backed away.
Hiking was a favorite pastime. Once, near the top of a waterfall, Steven lost his footing and fell into the river. He managed to grab a boulder and avoid going over the precipice of the falls, but while he tried to work out what to do next Jessie jumped in after him. He reached out and grabbed Jessie by the tail just before he went over the edge, using his free arm to pull him against his body. Steven had one arm around the rock, and one arm around the dog, leaving exactly zero arms to carry out any escape plan. They were trying to save each other.
I still feel the familiar tingle of panic rising in my throat when I imagine Steven having to make the choice to save himself by letting go of his beloved dog. I wonder if he would have held on until he was too weak to save either of them. Luckily a man walked down the path at that moment, and though he spoke only Russian, it was clear that they weren’t just out for a jolly swim at the top of this waterfall. He held out a tree branch and Steven managed to grab hold.
In 2010 My husband and I bought a house just before our first child was born. And I mean just before. I was eight months pregnant when we moved, and felt like I was drowning in boxes and chaos. Steven gave me one of the best gifts I have ever received, coming to visit for the weekend to help my husband tame the madness while I lounged in bed. The detached garage at our new house had been built by the previous owner, and it has what we will call “character.” It showcased unique features, such as vines growing through the walls and a pile of flags left by the previous owner. Confederate flags. Welcome to the south, y’all.
That Saturday the dogs were playing as the guys worked. Jessie was taking his time exploring the new digs when he decided to check out the second floor of the garage. He stepped off of the floored area and onto an area that was nothing but acoustic ceiling tile. No match for 60 pounds of dog, the tiles gave way, and Jessie fell. The first floor was bare concrete, but he somehow managed to land on bags of rotting sunflower seeds left behind by the entrepreneurial Confederate with questionable building skills. Jessie barely even noticed.
Steven traveled the country, taking many visits to New England before an eventual move to Portland, Oregon. He had one of his final brushes with death on the cross-country trip to their new home. Somewhere around Missouri I got a frantic phone call from Steven asking me to look at the radar for him. This wasn’t an unusual request—we are both huge weather geeks. But his tone of voice was a little less enthusiastic than usual. A tornado warning is one thing, but a tornado warning in the Great Plains with a green sky is quite another. I looked at his location via the tracker he had set up, and then at the radar. A super cell with a hook echo was passing uncomfortably close. He pulled into a to a McDonald’s parking lot and made the decision take Jessie inside the restaurant. Employees, customers, Steven, and a dog named Jessie all crowded into the small fast food restroom as the tornado moved by.
They made it to Portland, and Jessie retired into life as a hipster. He enjoyed PBR, music you’ve probably never heard of, and a sense of smugness. Also, eating things he shouldn’t, sniffing the cat’s butt, and the occasional mild adventure or river trip. Over the last year, the legs that carried him through so many heroic acts and incredible mishaps started to ache. He moved more slowly, and needed help getting up and down stairs. His superhero days were behind him.
This morning I heard that Jessie was no longer able to stand, and Steven had made the heartbreaking decision to let him go. They have spent this last day together, Steven curled around his best friend as Jessie dreamed of chasing rabbits. Dreamed of legs that are whole. As I wrote these last sentences a text came through. It simply said, “He is gone.”
Godspeed, Jessie. Wherever you are you don’t have wings, you have a motherf%*#ing cape.
Rhiannon Giles is an overwhelmed mother who only occasionally considers giving her children to the circus. She has a sarcasm problem and writes regularly at rhiyaya.com. To keep up with new posts and see some of her favorites, join her on Facebook and Twitter.