Aja in 2015

Our Dog Aja

Aja in 2015

Last night our dog died. Her name was Aja and she was 10 years and 10 months old.

She was the second pet dog that I’ve ever had in my life. The first was Josie, a puppy chosen and named by my daughter Erin when she was 8 years old. Erin named Josie after her doll, Josephina. Josie grew with our children and we had 13 years with her until she died in 2014. At the time, I was at peace with the idea that Josie would be my one and only dog in my life. However, soon my wife and sons convinced me to go to the Humane Society and “just look” at the dogs. Soon it was apparent that this 4 1/2 year old Jack Russell was going to be our next pet. My only condition was that we carry on the “tradition” of naming our dogs after songs from the classic 1977 Steely Dan album. This dog became the title song with Karyn’s counter-condition being that we use the unique pronunciation of Aja as “Ossha”.

We were Aja’s third owners, with no given facts as to why her previous two families gave up on her. Soon we learned that this was probably because while she was smart and perfectly housetrained,¬† she was just too damn undisciplined for the previous two. And undisciplined she was.

Unlike Josie, who could be let loose in a field and reply from a far to verbal commands, when something caught the attention of or sparked a fear in Aja, she was off like a torrent. Our backyard fence? Yeah, right! She would leap over it in a single bound. No doubt, Aja had some serious abandonment issues as well as a keen sense of when Karyn and I were planning to go on a trip. And those were the days she would forge her greatest run-aways and be nearly impossible to catch. But also she loved to be chased, keep away was her favorite game. It drove us nuts for a while, until we decided to just stop pursuing her and soon after she decided to just stop running away.

On the flip side of that undisciplined frustration were the unique and incredible qualities of this dog. When she loved something, she loved it with every fiber of her being. This passion applied to going for walks, rides, eating, singing, chasing squeaky balls, yelling at the mailman, and most especially bonding with the people in our family.

When we first got Aja, she was very hesitant to bark. But after a day or two with me, those inhibitions loosened up. Soon we were barking at everything and we even set off the occasional “bark bomb” on some quiet summer afternoons when neighboring dogs reacted to us and that cascaded down the block until the whole neighborhood was a chorus of barks. When I played my guitar, Aja would often harmonize with high pitched howls and I even developed a song just for her, made of nothing but barks, grunts and howls. Aja got so tuned in to this special “dog” song that she would instantly react when I hit the very first E power chord. In fact, once I had my guitar detuned a half step (hence making that ‘E’ an ‘E-flat’) and when I hit the opening chord she sort of raised an ear and an eyebrow at me as to say “dude, I know what you’re trying for but it’s not quite right”.

She loved rides but only down familiar roads (again the abandonment issues made her nervous whenever we took her anyplace unfamiliar). So we developed some regular routines with the car rides, one of which became the inspiration for a song I wrote called “Cherry Avenue” (due out on the next Sinclair Soul album coming in 2021). While the song is largely metaphorical about life, Cherry Avenue actually does exist. Unlike the grandiose corridor in the song, the actual Cherry Avenue is an unkempt back alley filled with trash cans, dilapidated garages, sheds, overgrown weeds and various states of backyards. To Aja, this was the most interesting place on Earth – filled with cats, squirrels and various familiar dogs – and I would cruise at 5 mph so that Aja got as many barks in as possible and always leery that someday we’d be confronted by a shotgun wielding homeowner sick of us disturbing their peace.

Once we drove by a local horse farm as a group of horses were feeding behind the fence very close to the road. I pulled over as Aja stuck her snout out the partially opened passenger window to catch their scent and assess the situation. Then she let out a sudden yelp, which spooked the horses and caused a mini stampede. I’ve never seen Aja prouder than when these creatures, 50 times her size and weight, ran away on her “command”. Going to “yell at the horses” became part of our routine, although they very quickly became wise to her and never again got spooked.

Karyn was the primary dogwalker in the family, but I joined them enough times to know how absolutely exhausting these walks could be for us humans. Aja had boundless energy and when she got us off the property she was eager to alert of us of every happening in every nook and cranny of the neighborhood. She would try to chase squirrels up trees, communicate with other pets as we passed their properties and God forbid if we ever came face-to-face with a dreaded postman.

We had Aja for 6 years, which seemed to go by in a flash. She appeared to age very little or change much at all during the first 5 of those years, an era when Aja was also my one and only co-worker, being I’m a self-employed business owner. However, 2020 changed everything. With the pandemic, Karyn also started working from home in March and, although Aja was thrilled about her “mommy” not leaving every morning, it was right round this time that our dog to change. At first the signs were subtle – more fatigue from her walks, shorter times interested in chasing the squeaky tennis balls, less interest in the outside happenings when we went for our rides. Soon it was Aja who was getting tired out on the walks, so much so that we merged it into a walk/ride where I’d pick up Karyn and Aja half way through their normal routine. But then some more severe physical signs emerged. In June she started shaking at times, sometime not being able to walk straight so we brought her to the vet.

After an examination, we found out that Aja had a tumor on her pancreas and it was most likely inoperable. The net result of this was sort of like a reverse-diabetes where her body produced too much insulin and it was getting increasingly harder to keep her blood sugar high enough. At the vet’s suggestion, we started feeding her 5-6 times a day at modest levels and this did work to stabilize her for most of the summer, although her enthusiasm for all those things still waned. Then, about a week or so ago, Aja had a very bad day, but she did snap out of it and strung together about 4 or 5 good days right up through Saturday. In fact, on Saturday, Aja sang our “dog song” with me for the first time in quite a while. Like many other things, she had lost interest in singing in recent months and this “comeback” performance was a very pleasant surprised which turned out to be our last one together.

On her final day, yesterday, my wife cancelled all plans and spent the entire day with her. She could tell early on that something was not quite right but Karyn and Aja had several quality hours during the day. When I returned in the evening, things turned really dour and we had to bring her to the emergency animal hospital where we made the gut-wrenching decision to end her suffering.

The last song Aja heard on the radio as we arrived at the animal hospital was “Africa” by Toto, which contains the fitting lyric;

“The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company…”

Aja will not be forgotten.

Oh, the Memories of Hazleton

March 1997. I receive a phone call from my former fiancé stating that our son Jeremiah, who was then in kindergarten, had been disciplined for talking too much by having duct tape placed on his mouth and told to stand in a closet. Thinking that she was surely exaggerating the situation, I called the school principal expecting to find out the real truth. When he started reading from what sounded like a prepared legal statement, I knew this bizarre incident was actually true.

Out of a Clear Blue Sky

World Trade Center
Who’d ever imagine what the day had in store?
Terrorists, explosions and so much more.
September 11, 2001, was like a movie take.
Or a terrible nightmare, though we were awake.

But I didn’t cry as much today.
Time heals all wounds, that’s what they say.
To heal the wounds of such attrocity,
Would be miraculous it seems to me.

Dear Lord, where are You? Help us please!
Give us peace, fulfill our needs.
How will all those who lost someone,
Ever find peace in what was done?

Will those searching, having so much trouble,
Finding someone alive in all that rubble,
Be able to feel the peace You give’
When so many died and so few live?

The tears are back, my eyes are full.
How could anyone be so cruel?
Bless us Lord that we may be
Closely united, closer to Thee,
In the face of all this tragedy.

Peggy Albano
September 2001