2015 turned out to be a hard year for my family. Right before our son’s first birthday, my husband left the Army (he decided not to re-enlist) but didn’t have a job lined up. We were prepared for a short period of unemployment– we had some savings– and we were optimistic about job opportunities in the tech field that my husband was getting into.
Right after our son’s first birthday, things started to spiral. I was dealing with some health issues and since we no longer had insurance, I sought alternative treatment. This cost us thousands of dollars which we put on credit cards. My husband still had been unable to find a job and we quickly blew through our savings paying our mortgage, utilities, and food. We were starting to panic.
Every Saturday, our local PetSmart would hold a pet adoption event and we’d take the kids to go pet the dogs and just have a little levity and fun in our otherwise darkening life. The rescue organization that was there every Saturday was primarily a Great Dane rescue and our tiny children would ask us every week if those big dogs were small horses. Our daughter was always distraught to find out that you couldn’t ride the dogs. There were also usually a good deal of young dogs or puppies that would jump up and beg to be petted, which delighted the kids. We had talked about getting a dog for a while and had even fostered a couple for short periods of time, but no dog ever seemed to be a good fit for us.
One Saturday, we were in the parking lot about to go pet some dogs, when I received an email from my dad. I had told him about our struggles and he had responded by saying that, if we wanted, he would pay to have our things moved to his house and we could stay with him until we figured things out. Now, we lived in Texas at the time and he lived in Pennsylvania. This would be no small move! But as our situation was growing bleaker, we became more desperate. With this offer in the back of our minds, we walked up to the adoption event.
This week, there was a new dog there. He was a Lapponian Herder aka a reindeer herder; a beautiful black dog with stripes of white and some tan highlights. “His name is Jack,” his foster mom told us, and he was three years old, house trained, and rarely ever barked. A nice, calm fellow who just wanted to be loved on and have people to love. I turned to my husband, “This is exactly the kind of dog we need when we can finally get one.” Jess agreed. But, being unstable, we knew we couldn’t give a dog a home at that time.
After six months of unemployment, my husband finally secured a job and the crisis of my medical issues passed. However, we had maxed out our credit cards, blew through our savings, and were behind on many bills. But life was looking up. It was near the end of September or maybe the beginning of October and we felt optimistic. We had decided to stay in Texas and it seemed to pay off. We woke up on a Saturday morning and realized we hadn’t been to see the dogs in a month or so. The rescue organization had moved their adoption events to another location that wasn’t as close to our house, so we had gotten out of the habit of going. “I wonder if that one dog is still there,” I mused. “We could actually get a dog now,” my husband said. With that, I grabbed my phone and did a search on the rescue’s website. Sure enough, that black dog was still in need of a home. I immediately called the rescue and set up a time to meet the dog again.
The next week, we rolled up to another PetSmart adoption event and met the dog. His foster mom was on hand to tell us more about his disposition and about his health. She told us his story, how she found him on the side of the road during a rainstorm, emaciated and on the brink of death. She told us how she pulled over that day and wrapped him in towels and carried him into her vehicle. How she took him to a vet and found out his poor body was riddled with heartworms. She told us how he was estimated to have been born on the 4th of October three years prior (making him just a few days younger than our oldest daughter). She told us about how she nursed him back to health and how he had, just the week prior!, been given a clean bill of health, that it took six rounds of heartworm medication to finally rid him of them, and that this was the first week he could even be adopted. To say that we were astounded and elated is an understatement. We made a plan to meet with her again in the next week to finalize paperwork and give that dog, Jack, a home.
Within the week, the kids and I drove to meet the foster mom and finalize things with this new addition to our family. “Are you going to keep his name?” the foster mom asked as I filled out paperwork. “Mostly,” I replied. On the line for name I wrote, “Jackson Coakley Francis aka Jack.” We wanted a longer form of Jack, which is why we chose Jackson, and Coakley was in honor of the recently deceased Paul Coakley who was an amazing man whose intercession we had been asking for. Francis, well, St. Francis had always been a rather big part of our lives (my mom always had a devotion to him and eventually became a Secular Franciscan, and I went to Franciscan University of Steubenville) and it turned out that the dog had probably been born on his feast day and there we were adopting the dog on his feast day. We knew St. Francis had saved this dog just for us.
“One more thing,” the foster mom said to me and she helped me pack tiny children and new dog into my SUV, “you have to be very vigilant about his heartworm protection. The vet said he will not survive another infestation. Because of that, also be vigilant about his other protections.”
Vigilant we were. We took care of Jack like he was another baby, because to us, he was. He was the member of our family we had been missing and St. Francis had saved him from death just for us. I’m positive of this fact beyond a shadow of a doubt.
When Penny came into our life in 2019, Jack was the first to realize. I didn’t even know I was pregnant yet when he was suddenly always at my side, sniffing me and making sure I got to my chair without incident. It was weird behavior coming from him, but when the pregnancy test came back positive a week later, I understood. He was no different when Penny joined us outside of the womb and the two became fast friends. He always looked out for her (and would sleep outside the other kids’ doors, too) and let her lay on him and snuggle him. That was Penny’s privilege.
As it turns out, the lower end of the life expectancy for a Lapponian Herder is 10 years. Jack turned 9 in October 2021. He started having trouble getting up a flight of stairs, though not much, and his veterinarian said he was just getting old. He still had a clean bill of health and we were still vigilant about that. Tragically, Jack died a few days after Christmas 2021 while we were away visiting family in another state. The cause of death is unknown but attributed to age. He began to throw up bile and then stopped breathing for good. It was a quick and relatively painless end for this fellow who had already suffered so much.
The hole he has left in our family is big and it is felt. He may not have had an immortal soul but he left an undeniable mark on our family, one that will not soon be forgotten, washed over, or healed. Jack taught our family about mercy, grace, wonder, and love–– lessons God wanted us to learn about Him. Jack was a conduit of God to my family. This is how I know Jack will be in heaven when I get there someday (God-willing). He would not turn away His creature that did His work so perfectly on earth. Would that I could say the same about myself. In a real way, Jack taught me the way of perfection. I’m indebted to that dog and to the God who made him.
I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven. I know that none of them get there by their own merits but by the grace of God and the people who loved them. I actually don’t know much about the afterlife at all, but I believe it is good and comprised of all that is good. This is how I know Jack will be there. Maybe the dogs of the mean Thomists’, the type that are all, “Your dog doesn’t have an immortal soul so it can’t go to heaven”, don’t go to heaven. Maybe they haven’t believed enough in the goodness of God’s creation. My dog, though, is definitely there. Beyond all else, when everything else is dark, I believe in the goodness of God and His creation.
Rest easy, Jackson Coakley Francis Williams. By the grace of God, we’ll meet again. Thank you for being our good boy.