I, Lana, talked with Jake about where to publish this piece after I’d written it. It’s a personal story about our beloved old dog Lilly and how she supported Jake’s transition while she was undergoing her own. In the end, I realized Go Deeper was the only place for this story. I share it with love and gratitude.
Twelve years ago, my partner Jake glimpsed a caged, trembling dog through a pet store window. He was against pet stores—he knew how those dogs were treated—but one glimpse of this fawn pup, all angular ribs and starved, skinny legs, quivering behind those bars, and Jake had go to her.
She was covered in dirt when he took her in his arms. Her fur, he often tells me, was soft as a rabbit’s. When she looked up at him with those huge brown eyes, the two became inseparable. In those moments, he made the decision and reached for his credit card. Pet store or no, Jake knew this: It’s never wrong to save an animal in pain.
At the time, Jake wasn’t presenting as male. He had a different name and was considered to be a woman. He’d lived decades knowing his true gender, caged by society’s prejudice and fear—when he was barely three years old, he’d told his parents, “I’m a boy,” yet he grew up afraid, trapped in an identity that wasn’t his.
Years after he saved Lilly, when he still wasn’t out as trans, he and I met in a writing class. He presented as female and I identified as a lesbian. We dated happily for months and I moved in swiftly, taking to Lilly and Jake’s other dog, Sophie. But two years later, on a golden day, when we married on the beach in Provincetown, Jake still wasn’t out. I’ll never forget the sunlight at that simple wedding. Lilly leaped around on the beach, all legs and grin and lolling tongue. Even though cisgender men generally terrified her, unwittingly casting shadows of the terrors she’d known as a pup, she wasn’t afraid of the queer boys of Provincetown, who called her babygirl and told her she was pretty.
She didn’t know that everything was about to change.
The day Jake said he wanted to transition, he wept the whole night while I held him, trying to calm him. Lilly panted and paced around the bed, desperate to comfort her master, but nothing could convince Jake that he wouldn’t lose me. I placed my hand on his back, feeling the sobs wrench out of him. How could I convince him that I’d always, always love him? We couldn’t know that I’d soon become fearful too, convinced that he’d be attracted to men, not women. But on that first night, as Lilly paced the bed, all I could see was Jake’s courage and pain. He even said, “What if Lilly doesn’t recognize my smell, once I’m on testosterone? What if she thinks I’m someone else?”
“It won’t happen,” I said. “I know it.”
The truth, as we soon found out, is that animals don’t care. Yes, dogs navigate life by scent, but Lilly didn’t once seem confused as Jake’s body changed. His shoulders grew broad, his hair grew thick, and we celebrated each little shift. Once he was able to comfortably look at a pre-transition photo, he laughed, “I had doe eyes! Look!”
But Lilly only ever saw and smelled the owner she’d trusted from the moment he’d found her. Jake was her security, the one whose side she rushed to when the maintenance guys came round; the one she’d quiver against when a loud noise sounded or a stranger—any stranger—entered the room. Lilly embraced me wholly as a member of her family, but Jake was always the heroic Top Dog who’d saved her life. You could see it in those wide, brown eyes of hers: Jake was her everything. Why would she worry if he changed?
In truth, back when he’d saved her, Lilly had needed to transition too. For the first few years, she would hardly touch her food and remained bony and frail. Jake would take her out for walks, in those early days, and passers-by would berate him, telling him he was starving his dog, saying they should report him. Poor Lilly shrank away from those people, trembling behind Jake’s calves, hoping he’d protect her from their rage. Malnourished though she was, it took years for Lilly to eat even half a bowl of food.
But when Jake started smelling like the man he truly was, Lilly didn’t care. How foolish we humans are to think that gender and biology could ever affect such love! Truth was, unlike the people that surrounded us, Lilly was steadfast when it came to Jake. As Jake’s body slowly changed, every “Ma’am” he received sickened him and each trip to the restroom filled him with dread—I used to wait for him outside with my cell phone in my hand, praying that he’d emerge unscathed. But whenever we came home, Lilly was there, lolloping about, tooting like trumpet, filling the house with music. I’d joke that her favorite song was Bonnie Tyler’s I Need a Hero, because Jake was her hero—and she was his. Even when he started to read as male to the majority of strangers, Lilly didn’t care. She just leaped about, all legs and butt, our little dancing deer.
In spite of her gallivanting nature, we always knew that Lilly’s arthritic back legs, which the vet’s operations had failed to fix, would be the death of her. What we didn’t imagine was that our “pet store” boxer, who’d always been labeled “sickly” by vets, would live to the ripe old age of thirteen. Even so, the day came when those back legs were too stiff and painful. Devastated, we took Lilly to be put down.
In her final moments, as the vet held out the needle, we talked to her gently and petted her fur. Though she tried to struggle up, her legs wouldn’t let her, so we stroked her as she passed, telling her what a good girl she was.
Her passing was peaceful. Both of us cried.
There was still time for one more miracle, however. As Jake was saying his final goodbyes to Lilly, I, heavy of heart, left to organize the paperwork. But as I entered the waiting room, I stopped, stunned. The radio was playing Bonnie Tyler’s I Need a Hero. I felt the message immediately:
Some heroes don’t only know when to save lives. They also know when to end them.
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