A year ago today, we let our dear chocolate lab, Django, slip away from disabling illness. And it’s the handsome active dog that I want to remember today.
The floppy brown puppy who barked and peed too much grew into an elegant and handsome eighty pounds of dark mahogany. Ten years ago, when I was still working and Victoria was finishing high school, we bought a home in South Florida. It gave my husband, Ray, and Django a winter retreat and was just a few hours across the peninsula from the Tampa undergraduate school Victoria had selected. Django handled the 2,800-mile round trip on I-95 like a seasoned traveler. He was happy to jump out for a pee (then back in for a treat) at any rest stop: the crowded cement parking lots in New Jersey; the flowering gardens in Virginia; the spot in Georgia where palm trees make their first appearance. We discovered dog-friendly hotels along the route. When we were closing on the house, we stayed just an hour north in Juno, where Django introduced us to Dog Beach, a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of leash-free canine heaven.
When I could fly down for a week, Django accompanied me on my morning runs, loping ahead off-leash like a wolf. When I couldn’t get away, he kept Ray company. They lay by the lake. They watched television. They took long walks. Sometimes, Django showed more sense than his human companion, refusing to move when the afternoon heat was simply too much. At other times, like when Ray realized that a stitch in his side was a hernia, Django took the lead, walking slowly ahead as Ray minced his way home. He became a favorite in our gated community, especially among parents of children that had been afraid of dogs until this gentle boy came along.
Django’s happiest place was Dog Beach. He leapt to his feet as soon as we crossed over the Intercoastal and strained on his leash as we made our way to the beach entrance. Released from the harness, he flew down the dune steps and across the wide beach to stand in the surf, ears blown back and hair ruffled by the wind. When Ray caught up, Django nudged at the Chuck-It, barking until Ray hauled back and flung the tennis ball down the beach. Django galloped full-out under the arc of the ball, wheeling around at the last moment to catch it in his mouth before it hit the water or to chomp at it after a quick paddle into the waves. A parade of mutts followed Ray and Django down the beach, Django tolerating even the yappiest until one deep woof took care of the annoyance. He rested, panting and encrusted in sand, only when Ray buried the ball to take a break. The sun and salt water turned Django’s hair a surfer-dude burnished auburn.
About two years ago, Django began sliding onto his right hip when chasing the ball. Arthritis, the vet said. We threw the ball less frequently and closer, and then not at all, but the slipping slowly escalated. Ray tried one more trip to Dog Beach but Django could no longer negotiate the sand, and strangers helped Ray carry our dog back up across the dunes.
He began losing weight. Eventually, the vet diagnosed a neurological condition similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was progressive and incurable. Our dog was wasting away.
Ray was the first to say it. “We can’t let him suffer.”
We sustained Django for another three months, and it broke our hearts to let him go.
Django will always be this alert, loyal, gentle giant who loved nothing more than standing in the surf, a tennis ball in his mouth. Our second annual contribution to Friends of Jupiter Beach, which maintains the 2.5 mile Dog Beach, is going out today. If you are in South Florida and have a dog, get to know this organization. Even if you don’t have a dog.
Nothing has filled the hole in our hearts.