Dear Juke

August, 2000. Greg and I had moved into our house on South Winooski that spring, and after three years in funky studios and cramped one-bedrooms in Tucson and Boston, and a little less than a year of marriage, we were ready to commit to a dog. We spent that first summer in Burlington working, walking to the farmer’s market, skinnydipping, meeting neighbors, and dog shopping. Strays and mutts and untameable beasts at various shelters and humane societies, none quite right, none of them Juke – the dog name we had picked out (it’s Hebrew for cockroach). We were okay with being patient.

Then we met you.

You were six months old. You had been living with a foster family since March, when someone had discovered you and your littermates abandoned in a curbside box in the cold. Your spotted dalmation paws were still disproportionately big for your slight black lab frame. The three of us went for a little walk out behind Animal Crackers, the pet store that housed an All-Breed Rescue program. Greg led you through some kind of little tunnel; I remember he was impressed that you were brave enough to do this. He had longed for a dog since losing the two labs he had raised to his ex, but I felt less certain. I grew up with a cockerpoo. The name alone makes it a hard breed to take seriously as a “real” dog, the running, jumping, swimming, slobbering kind. But it was I who crouched down that summer day, put my face up close to yours. I looked into your deep, warm brown eyes. You looked into mine. I asked you, “Are you Juke?” You said yes.

On the ride home, you leapt into my lap, shivering and scared. Then you slept for the better part of the next three or four days, and we worried a bit that you wouldn’t be energetic enough. To think now, to think that we were concerned you wouldn’t be enough of anything. Preposterous! You have taught us everything we will ever need to know about “enough.” You have embodied unconditional love. You have made us feel our “enough”-ness no matter how tired we’ve been, no matter how busy or distracted. You have touched so many people – young and old, men, women, children, dog people, cat people, you name it. For years now, we’ve called ourselves Agents of Juke; some days when we’re out and about, it seems that our raison d’etre is simply to make sure you touch people’s lives. Strangers who won’t make eye contact with us approach you on Church Street, drawn in by your safe, gentle presence, your wiggly, inviting tail, your shiny black coat, your sheer animal magnetism!

Juke, you met Aviva and Pearl when they were each three days old. They have not known a world, a life, without you, anymore than they’ve known one without us. You are curious, patient, sometimes needy. In fact, always needy, unabashedly needy, gloriously needy, shoving your snout under the quilt, climbing all 68 pounds of your handsome self right up into our laps like a Paris Hilton dog. Needy, like us – only without the fear, without the hiding, without the apologies or defenses, without the struggle, without the judgment.

Juke, you have carried your own pack on the Long Trail, up and over peaks and ridges, in winter, summer, leaves and mud. You have raced up Honey Hollow Road only to fly down the other side alongside Greg on his mountain bike. You have swum in circles in the lake, further and further from shore, looking like a mythical sea creature and woefully unaware that the swallows circling overahead were playing you like a fiddle. You won a medal in the Green Mountain Iron Dog race, you and Greg a team, you and Greg totally in synch, like a mother and child. You have embraced the Vermont seasons just as our whole family has embraced you: You are a fifth grandchild to my parents, a nephew to my sisters, a cousin to my niece and nephew. You have spent the night on a sailboat with a stoner; you’ve road-tripped with dog-sitters. We’ve lost count of how many people have asked to be your godparents.

But over the past several months, you’ve lost weight, lost interest completely in your food. You’ve frequently been out of sorts, not yourself. Finally last week, Greg stepped onto the scale with you. You weighed 55 pounds. Suddenly, we noticed: Your ribs are showing. Finally, I brought you to the vet two days ago, got the ball rolling. “Complicated” is what Dr. Chu called the results from your initial lab work. Greg recalls that one of your littermates died of lymphoma; I’m having a hard time not jumping to the worst. Dr. Chu recommended a series of further diagnostics and suspects something is wrong with your kidneys but doesn’t know what’s causing the problem. Today, she is doing x-rays and urine cultures and flushing your kidneys. The big question on our minds is that of cancer. Today you are at the hospital, without us.

I want to feed you, feed you, feed you like a Jewish grandmother.

Yesterday, after spending half an hour on the phone with Dr. Chu, I raced home to see you. When I opened the door, Sasha (who I call a “Juke cat” due to the striking resemblance) came to greet me, but not you. I could feel the panic clench in my chest as I called for you. “Juke?!” You came out from my study then, and I burst into tears and held you for a few long minutes, taking in what Greg has always called your “rich doggy smell.”

I’m trying hard today to think positive, but it’s hard. Even more difficult is imagining our lives, our home, a world without you. Hopefully whatever’s going on in those kidneys of yours is a treatable infection. Today, I am thankful for a million moments together, for how fully you share yourself with us, for what a patient teacher you are. If we lose you now, I don’t think you’ll be back; you are fully evolved. You are enlightenment embodied. We love you.

11 thoughts on “Dear Juke

  1. bella says:

    What a tribute to this family member that has offered such love and been a presence in your life. I was moved.
    I send healing thoughts to Juke. I imagine this is a scary and sad time. May you comfort one another.


  2. Meg says:

    Oh Jena-What a beautiful and lovely letter to a soul so pure and kind. Sending love to your whole family and healing energy to you beautiful beautiful child.


  3. lahdeedah says:


    Your obvious love for Juke and everything he is and has brought to you all is just so painfully touching.

    This reminds me so much of one of the best examples of first-person writing I’ve ever read. It’s by Stanley Bing (he used to write for Esquire years ago) and it’s called “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” I’ll try to locate it for you.

    One thing you can feel fabulous about is that you and your family have given Juke an amazingly sweet and fun life. Lucky, lucky dog.




  4. Jena Strong says:

    Thanks, everyone, for leaving such loving and supportive comments. Juke is at the vet again today getting his kidneys flushed. Last night, he bounded through the snow. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Just like life.

    I’ll keep you posted…

    xo Jena


  5. Karen says:

    Said a service this morning for Juke. And be assured, if indeed enlightened, Juke will most definitely be back because the enlightened vow to save all sentient beings. You’ll see Juke everywhere, and know peace.


  6. lahdeedah says:

    Lovely, heart-felt comments here, Jena. I have a doggy heart and it goes out to you, your doggy-hearted family and to sweet Juke.

    Here’s the link to to the story I previously mentioned. May want to read this at a later date, as it’s a tribute…but the most beautiful tribute I have ever read:

    much love to you and Juke,



  7. John says:

    Oh, Jena.
    As one of those “cat people” who has been won over by Juke, I wish him a grace-full journey, wherever it takes him.
    Blessings on your family.



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