My Juno

Even now, several years after she died, I still see Juno curled up in her chair when I first walk in the room. I still smell her; that warm, doggie smell- sometimes leathery, sometimes something riper. But always the smell of sweat, of running, of abandon and of the outdoors. I can feel her chest, rising and falling along with her soft breathing, when I used to lay my head on her warm belly at night. Early on, Juno had claimed the reading chair in our bedroom as her own. She would curl up in it, like a luxurious sultan and either sleep or keep a watchful eye on the human proceedings unfolding in the room. She watched me discreetly, always wanting to know if she was needed or wanted. Juno was the most empathic being I have ever known. She took the emotional temperature of the people around her and adjusted herself to the prevailing tenor. If I was happy, she was happy; she’d jump and gambol and want to join in, urging me on to further playfulness. If I was distraught, she would gently but persistently rub her snout into me, trying to insinuate herself between me and whatever it was that was distressing me. Juno couldn’t abide discord. Once, when my wife and I were fighting, she got up off the chair and literally backed out of the room. Seeing her leave like that was a silent but harsh rebuke, and made me question my anger. My anger was toxic and Juno’s not being able to stand it was proof. She often led me to my better self.

 Juno was my daughter Amelia’s dog, but we lived very close to one another and Juno lived at both our houses. Amelia is an equestrian and is wonderful with animals, and she trained Juno splendidly. I remember Amelia saying as a child, “I always wanted a dog that would follow me around wherever I went!” And she trained Juno to stay close, even unleashed. Of course, she would run off after the occasional deer, but she always came right back. It turned out that I also loved having a dog that followed me around wherever I went! Inseparable pals. In her slightly goofy, heart-on-the-sleeve manner, she reminded me of Joe Gargery in Great Expectations; “Which dear old Pip, old chap”, she’d say to me, “you and me was ever friends”. 

  Juno was a good part lab, part Weimaraner, and Lord knows what else- a vigorous hybrid with the most noble profile imaginable. When people asked what kind of dog we had, we said, “a Baltimore brown dog”. We were intent on getting a dog from the pound, but around Baltimore, it was hard getting anything not a pit bull, or something with a lot of pit in it. But one day, there this beauty appeared in a photograph from one of the ASPCA sites that Amelia scoured daily, and we put down a deposit sight unseen. She drove off into rural Maryland and came back with Juno. 

Was there anything more beautiful in the world than Juno running? Mouth open, tongue wagging, ears flying: she realized every dream I ever had of running without restraint, tearing up space, running because it felt so good to run. I had been a college athlete, and now in my 60’s, with a spinal cord injury and two back surgeries behind me, she reminded me of who I once was. As one of my old friends sympathized of my injury and of my new physical limitations, “I never knew a chair that could contain you”. I never knew a yard or field that could contain Juno.

I can see now, that Juno played a crucial part at a particular time in my life. I am an artist and a teacher. As an academic, you have to go where the handful of jobs are, often wrenching you away from family and friends. I grew up in Brooklyn, went to college, grad school and met my wife in Manhattan, and lived in Morningside Heights until the rents and a second baby forced us to the realization that we could no longer stay in NYC. I got a teaching job at the University of Richmond, where we moved in the mid 1980’s. It was hard going, leaving family and dear friends. Looking back on it, I carried on like we were being banished to Siberia. In fact, Richmond was very, very good to us. I grew as an artist and a teacher, and our children blossomed. After a decade in Richmond, my wife, also an academic, got a position which landed us at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in the late 1990’s. Again, I lost immediate contact with all the friends we made in Richmond, as well as those I had initially left behind in NY. But then, an amazing thing happened; an offer to teach at The Art Students League of New York, which was in striking distance of Baltimore on Amtrak! Teaching gigs at other NYC schools followed, and I once again had a foothold back in NY. I started going up to NY to teach three days a week, taking Amtrak up on Wed mornings and coming back to Baltimore on Friday afternoons. I was able to reconnect with my friends and family in NY, at least those who had not themselves moved away from NY. On Friday afternoons, I’d come home to Maryland, where I would paint intently and spend time with my family. I did this for 22 years. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had gradually worked myself into a position where I had half of my friends up in NY and half of them still down in Richmond. But I had no friends, not even companions, where I lived and spent most of my time. It didn’t seem to matter much until my girls went to college and moved on in their lives. All of a sudden, I realized that I had no companions in my life, other than my wife. Even though, as an artist, I am schooled in solitude, I am still a fairly outgoing, gregarious person. But in my own community, I did not participate in any communal activities. I had no work colleagues; injuries forced me to give up the sports I loved and was very good at. I don’t go to temple or church or the rotary club, so I don’t meet anyone with common interests. Just when I started to realize that this was becoming a real problem, Juno came into my life.

There is a video I took of Juno playing around in this huge pile of wood chips from a giant ash stump that we had finally gotten ground down. The ash was ancient, so the pile was enormous and Juno couldn’t resist nosediving into it, rolling around in the woodchips, trying to rub every inch of her beautiful, lithe body, hoping to scratch this stubbornly elusive itch. She’d roll and squirm and contort her body, and all but disappear under the wood-chips until she would finally emerge, stand up, shake off the wood chips, try and regain what was left of her dignity, and trot off. It was the closest thing to witnessing pure joy and comedy that I have ever seen.

One day, when she was about 8 years old, Juno didn’t look well. She had been lethargic and moping around, which was quite unusual. Amelia called me, and we said that we’d keep an eye on her. But at 5:30 the next morning, my son-in law called to say that Juno was having trouble breathing and that Amelia had taken her to the emergency room of the Animal Hospital. I rushed over and joined her. After doing a CT scan, the doctor told us that she had a tumor on her heart, and that the cardiac sack was filled with fluid. She was having trouble breathing, and they could put her down right now. What! WHAT! We went from her feeling lethargic to putting her down in fewer than 24 hours. We were in no way prepared for this. Any options? If we could get her there quickly, there was an animal hospital in Annapolis that had a cardiac unit. But we had to get there quickly, because she was basically drowning- her heart couldn’t really pump for all the liquid. And, it would be $2,500 to walk in the door. I know that some of you are thinking, oh for God’s sake, it’s a dog! Well, all I can tell you is that she was a beloved dog, and not only did Amelia and I adore her, I liked her a hell of a lot better than most people I came across. Juno had nothing to offer but love and playfulness. She never dissembled. You always knew where you stood with her.

In Annapolis, they drained the fluid from her heart, and there was Juno again! But they warned us that the fluid would probably come back. Maybe in a month, maybe a week, maybe a matter of days. We got two days. Juno was herself for two glorious, cautious days, and then her cardiac sac started to refill with liquid, starting to drown the creature that had become my dear companion in a difficult time. Always the best of friends, Pip.

Do you want to see love? I have a photograph I took of Amelia giving Juno a last hug in the car when we arrived at the Vet to put her down. There is Amelia, round eyes red, brimming with tears, smiling stoically, because she is still hugging that sweet animal, who was still breathing, and if she were still breathing, maybe all this would go away. Juno, baffled, sad, struggling to breathe, but still thankful to be held by those loving arms. Me, taking the picture through my own tears and trying to brace myself for what had to be done.