My Christmas wish was simple: I wanted Jinx, our fourteen year-old dog, to hang on long enough to greet my daughter as she arrived from Massachusetts. My daughter was eleven when Jinx was born in December, on Friday the 13th. She named Jinx and loved her wholly from the start and for the next fourteen years. We’ve seen Jinx start to fail over the last few months. She has been startled easily, by her food dish, by shadows, by her own paws. She’s wandered off, increasingly deaf and now losing much of her vision.
She has been trying to play with the other dogs, but forgets where she is, bumps into them, is nettled when they upset her unsteady balance. She yips and corrects their behavior, and, as the senior dog in the pack, still has their respect, but they no longer invite her to join in their canine games. She’s been alone outdoors more often recently; the faster, more athletic dogs have bounded away, leaving her to wonder where they have gone.
So, closing in on her final days but still gentle, sweet, and affectionate. Over the course of the last few weeks, Jinx seemed to regain some of her former energy; she asked to have the ball thrown, ran purposefully to chase it down, then stood with one paw covering the ball, not actually retrieving but claiming victory. We were heartened and felt certain that Jinx would hang on until our daughter flew in from Boston.
Better and better. The temperature was dropping fast, and we had hopes of a white Christmas. With a week to go before the holiday, our days were packed. I did a shift as a volunteer at the Hospice Thrift Shop, finished most of my shopping, began planning the Christmas Eve dinner, and accepted invitations to concerts on Friday and Saturday night. That was to be the end of holiday scramble; I wanted to clear the calendar so that I could give full attention to my daughter arriving on Sunday evening.
I walked from the concert hall at Southern Oregon University into the coldest night I can remember since moving here. Compared to the frozen north, it will seem laughable, but for us, a stretch of cold weather in the low teens is plenty daunting. I had turned off my phone, so powered back up as I began the drive home and saw that my wife had called repeatedly.
By the time I reached her, Jinx had been missing for two hours. She has been easily disoriented and oddly off course for about a week, and last night slipped away in a short moment as tone of the other dogs had to be tended to. My first thought was that this fragile old lady would not survive much more time in the bitter cold; I raced home to help in the search, driving slowly with high beams as I approached our home. I watched the road, of course, but also slowed in passing every deep culvert or dangerous ground above a creek running high this winter.
We searched through one of the coldest nights we’ve experienced here; the ground was hard with frost. In full sunlight, I had to use a shovel to break the ice on the water trough in the meadow; the broken pieces were more than two inches thick. I drove down every nearby road, jumping out of the car to call her name and whistle. Nothing.
My son and daughter-in-law hurried over, as did two good local friends. They stayed out for as long as they could, combing every inch of our property and those adjacent to ours.
I went out on foot, again calling and whistling, clapping. For several hours, I walked down every path I thought she might have taken. I climbed down the banks of the creek, fearing she might have stumbled into coursing water. I walked into meadows, fearing she might have been taken by a coyote or the cougar we’ve seen at the far end of the pasture.
By the time I finally gave up and came home, she had been out in the cold for five hours. My wife and I had to face the probability that our frail dog could not have survived unless a kind stranger found her wandering on the side of the road and picked her up. My wife posted alerts on every social media site she could find, but we began to fear a terrible and lonely end for a dog we treasured. We were also heartbroken that our daughter would arrive only to know that we did not know how Jinx had died or what tortures she had endured.
Exhausted, we had to stop the hunt until morning. I stepped into the room she’s claimed as her own, looked at the down comforter she’s been sleeping on for weeks, and wept.We left the kitchen door slightly open, in case she found her way home, and I slept fitfully on the couch near the door so that I could not fail to hear her should she make it home.
At first light this morning, we began again, walking up and down the same roads and across the same fields whistling and calling her name. Still bitter cold, by mid-morning, as hope flagged, we started to truly believe she hadn’t made it. Our thoughts turned to the most dreadful fears of what she might have faced.
But it must have been our turn for a Christmas miracle.
The phone rang at eleven o’clock. A caller with an area code far from our home, a volunteer working with a dog rescue agency, insisted that someone had found Jinx. She had fallen into a swimming pool almost a mile away, had been trapped in the pool all night. The family had assumed that the dog barking through the night was a neighbor’s poorly behaved pet and did not go outside to check until mid-morning. They found Jinx halfway out of the water, her front paws frozen to the cement at the edge of the pool. The person responding had to use a hammer to chisel her paws free.
We grabbed every blanket and down jacket in the house, drove too quickly, and found our dog near-death, trembling almost unrecognizable, wide-eyed, in shock. I don’t know if she knew us at the start; we simply bundled her and carried her to the heated car where I lay with cradled her in my arms. As we pulled into the driveway, I told my wife that I would stay with her in the very warm car, wrapped in the very warm blankets, while she prepared a virtual sauna in one of the bathrooms.
We spent the whole day holding her.. She was able to eat and drink, wobble a bit to take care of her business outside, and sit up to greet the next admirer entering her warm tent.
I picked my daughter up that evening; she held Jinx that night.
The miracles that matter aren’t really accidents: A stranger summons extraordinary kindness, long-overlooked gifts are finally recognized, generosity or forgiveness appears unsolicited. Our Christmas miracle arrived because Jinx loves life too much to leave it easily. She’s a gentle dog with a backbone of steel.
Do we deserve the loyalty and love our pets give so freely? I’m not at all sure we do, but I know we are our best selves when we recognize their heart and make room for them in ours.