Northside SF
Jasmine Blue's Tails of the Dog Park
Chapter 43: The Steller's jay's song

And oh, here come those sidewalks
And oh, here I go
And oh, here come those long walks,
my friend
Where roses in canyons
And night blooming jasmine still grow
                   by John Stewart

Jazzy with her new favorite toy
As fall turned into winter, Jazzy’s radiation side effects faded along with the autumn leaves. Like Dr. Kent had promised, her energy slowly returned, but she still wasn’t the pit bull I knew before the cancer; the pit bull who came to stare at me when I was writing at the dining room table, head cocked, ears forward, big butt wagging in anticipation of a long walk she knew she could guilt me into no matter how much work I had left to do.

Giving her pills had also become a challenge – she was wise to all the tricks, from hot dogs to liverwurst. On a trip to Pet Food Express, manager Will recommended something called Pill Pockets. It seemed too good to be true. “They’re smelly and squishy and you can hide the pills inside,” he explained. “Yeah, right,” I thought, but to my surprise, they actually worked – for a while. Then she figured out how to tear each little treat apart with the one canine tooth she had left on top and leave the pill, which she cleverly pushed under her bed with the tip of her nose.

I resorted to desperate measures, making homemade chicken stock and dipping the Pill Pockets in it. I placed a bowl of them in front of her and walked away, pretending it wasn’t important to me whether she ate them or not. Jazzy sighed and went back to sleep. I turned on the TV and Mad Money with Jim Cramer popped up on CNBC. As he ranted and raved and played with his crazy sound effects (“Sell, sell, sell! Buy, buy, buy!”) I heard Jazzy growling – she was watching Jim Cramer, and evidently she didn’t like what he was saying about the state of the stock market. The hackles stood up on the back of her neck and she got up from her bed and started barking. I watched in amazement as she went into a feeding frenzy, angrily inhaling her Pill Pockets with both blue eyes fixed on Cramer. I quickly recorded the episode to my DVR. The next day when it was pill time, I figured it was just a freak thing, but I was wrong. As soon as I turned on the recording of Jim Cramer and his wacky antics, she went crazy again and inhaled all of the Pill Pockets. Day after day I used Jim Cramer to incite a feeding frenzy, and day after day it continued to work. Once her medicine was gone, I would switch him off and Jazzy would settle down on her bed and go back to sleep.

Since Jazzy’s symptoms had improved and her energy was up ever so slightly, I made several attempts to lure her into the car for a trip to Stow Lake, but still the furthest she would go was a short walk across the street at Buena Vista Park. When I brought out her collar and leash, she barely acknowledged it, just the tip of her tail tentatively wagging. How I missed the Jazzy who brought me a stuffed toy, her entire body wagging with that unique, quirky display of understated enthusiasm as she went in circles around and around me; how I missed the frustration of trying to put a pink, sparkly collar on a moving target.

One gloomy December afternoon, as I sat at the dining room table writing and Jazzy lay on the sofa nearby, I heard a loud squawking coming from the garden. At first I didn’t think much of it – there were scrub jays that came daily to pluck sunflower seeds out of the birdfeeder. But as it continued, I realized it was a more ear-piercing, obnoxious squawk than a scrub jay’s; more like the Steller’s jays that soared from tree to tree, following us on our frequent walks around Stow Lake, waiting for peanuts.

“No, that can’t be. We don’t have Steller’s jays over here,” I said aloud, but I got up and went to the window anyway and was startled to see the telltale, neon blue Mohawk as it flashed through the grey sky away from our plum tree. The superstitious Sicilian in me took it as a sign – it was the Steller’s jays from Stow Lake beckoning us back. But over the next few days the Steller’s jay never reappeared, and I figured my eyes had played tricks on me. The gardener at Buena Vista Park confirmed it was wishful thinking when I asked if he ever saw Steller’s jays in the area. “Nope,” he said, resting his elbow on a shovel, “I see a lot of them at Stow Lake, but I haven’t seen one here in over a decade.”

A few days later, I put some peanuts in front of the garden door for the squirrels and settled into my dad’s old velveteen chair to do some editing when I heard that squawking yet again. This time, there was no doubt what I saw – on the patio was a Steller’s jay, his head tilting herky-jerky from side to side, neon blue Mohawk bobbing away, staring at me through the garden door. He picked up one peanut, then another. I sat in silence and watched as he finally decided on the peanut he wanted and flew away.

It just seemed like too much of a sign to pass up. I went to the coatroom, got Jazzy’s collar and leash, and stood by the door. “Do you want to go to Stow Lake, Jazzy? Do you want to go see the Steller’s jays?” She lifted her head and looked at me, and for a moment my heart sank – I was just a superstitious, sentimental crazy person after all, pinning my hopes on a visit from a bird. But then it happened: Jazzy got up from her bed, went to her toy box, and picked out her new favorite, a pink “Ugly Doll” that I bought at a kids’ store in Davis because it was soft enough to hold in her tender mouth after the radiation. Slowly, she made her way over to me and began going in circles around my legs, ducking her head so I couldn’t grab the Ugly Doll or get the collar on her neck. I sat down on the floor laughing and she climbed in my lap, pushing the doll in my face and wagging her butt – to my surprise, she let me have her favorite toy.  I fastened her collar, hooked on the leash, grabbed some peanuts, and we headed for the car. As I opened the door, Jazzy gathered all her energy and hopped into the passenger seat. On the way to Stow Lake, she sat stoically beside me, staring at the road straight ahead with that understated enthusiasm I hadn’t seen in so many months.

Just as we pulled up to Stow Lake, the skies darkened and it started to rain. Jazzy and I sat for a few minutes watching the drops careen down the front window until finally it subsided to a light mist. “Ready girl?” I asked, and leaned over to kiss her soft ear. She closed her eyes, leaned her entire body against mine, and put her head on my chest. We sat quietly for a few more minutes, my right arm around her muscular shoulders and my chin resting on the top of her big, square head, and then I got out of the car and went to let her out. At first she seemed unsure, but once she got a whiff of the rain-soaked air, she hopped down without hesitation and began sniffing the grass, then the flowers, then the gnarled roots of the grand old trees. She let out a sneeze – actually more like a huge snort of joy – and did a full-body shake that started at the tip of her nose and shimmied its way to the tip of her tail.

The rain had kept all but the diehards away, and as we headed down the path and into the mist, we seemed to have the whole place to ourselves. It was so peaceful yet so uncertain – I didn’t know whether I had six months left with Jazzy or six years. Dr. Kent’s words began echoing in my mind: “Fibrosarcoma is an aggressive cancer that almost always returns.” But today I pushed those words out of my head and took my cue from Jazzy, just living in the moment. The only sound I heard was the ear-piercing, obnoxious squawk of the Steller’s jays growing closer as they soared from tree to tree, following us around the lake, waiting for peanuts. It was music to my ears.


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