Chasing Butterflies: A Dog’s Legacy
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
About twenty years ago I briefly traveled to Israel during my sophomore year of college. During that trip my best friend and I met a musician who we quickly found out lived in a neighboring town to ours in America. I instinctually commented, “Small World!” He corrected me, “It’s not a small world. It’s huge, infinite. We just get pushed in the right direction.” From that day forward those words became a part of me. I wore them like an invisible tattoo and for better or worse, I took solace in this idea. Years later I would learn that this includes the pets we are meant to meet, who often appear in our lives completely unexpectedly.
I stumbled upon, “Chasing Butterflies,” by Jordon Frank of Frankly Speaking; a song and music video he wrote for his dog, Keys, 3 months before he died of Lymphoma. It captures the essence of the human-animal bond and the depth of the relationship we share with our pet. I teared up as the song awoke dormant emotions that have become harder to access as time passes. It felt like a warm blanket that I couldn’t take off. Like a teenager grieving a relationship ending, I spent hours listening to it on replay, playing my own video in my head of my life with Tovi, my soul dog.
I had to find this man. I had so many questions. How did Keys come into his life, why didn’t people think it would work out, what milestones did they experience together, how did his grief manifest, and most importantly, my hallmark question: Did he ever adopt again and if so, what was that experience like for him?
Jordon and I spoke on a beautiful September morning from our respective porches in Maryland and Ohio. Despite the miles that separated us and not knowing each other, it felt as natural as reconnecting with an old friend. Talking about love and loss brings up the raw stuff that comes with life; the things we don’t say when people ask us how we are and reply with the obligatory “good.” I’ve found that the unconditional acceptance and love we receive from our pet is often the gateway to which we learn to how to be vulnerable and connect more authentically with others.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Jordon told me. What started out as a memorial to Keys ended up touching the world in a way he never expected by resonating with so many. Three years after its release it continues to touch grieving pet owners with over half a million views - a legacy that aligns with his core values that the most important things in life are not things, but the relationships and genuine connections we create. While the song tells the personal story of his relationship with his soul dog, it is written within the context of a general framework that gifts people the opportunity to insert their own memories into the lyrics. The bolded text are lyrics from the song that write this chapter in Jordon’s life.
“When I first saw you, I knew I had to take you home; you were my angel set from above to set me free.”
Jordon was 22 when Keys came into this life. As a young, aspiring musician he describes his day job as, “picking up poop at a dog park.” It was a time when life landed him in the exact place he needed to be. One day a woman appeared at the park hoping to find homes for a litter of brindle puppies. Jordon, who always goes for the underdog, felt drawn to the one black and white puppy, and without giving it much thought, took him home.
“My friends they argued, I couldn’t raise you on my own…But I was sure that you were meant to be with me.”
He laughed as he told me how texted his roommate to tell him he had just gotten a dog. His excitement was interrupted when his roommate was adamant about not having a dog; between travel for his music career and youthful, carefree lifestyle he couldn’t see it working. Crushed, Jordon put up an ad on Craigslist and immediately got a response from a man who was eager to adopt him and planned to get him the following day. Spoiler alert…that never happened. Jordon spent one night with the 8-week-old lab mix and knew they were meant to be together. He appropriately named him, ‘Keys,’ after his love of the piano.
“Let’s get in my car and, I will take you for a ride; go to the bar and greet all the customers inside.”
Not only did Keys not disrupt Jordon’s life, but he expanded it and grew Jordon in the process, making him feel complete in a way he had never experienced before. Key’s laid-back personality - almost human-like - naturally led them to go everywhere together. They kept each other company during the long drives to Jordon’s gigs and Keys even made appearances on stage when the venue allowed. Bars? Keys came too, everyone knew and loved him.
“Through all the hard times, you were right there by my side; and when I needed answers, well I just looked into your eyes.”
Jordon speaks openly about his struggles with depression and anxiety that began in his mid-early twenties and describes Keys as saving his life. As soul mates do, he had appeared at the perfect time. Keys gave him a purpose and a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and most importantly a loving companion to just ‘be’ with him, whatever mental state he was in. Jordon explains how dogs don’t have the expectation for us to be happy all the time, “they understand emotions in a way humans never will.” Being a performer, he felt obligated to portray the persona that come with that line of work. After the show was over, his mask came off and he was “back to his own scary thoughts.” But with Keys by his side he wasn’t alone with them.
“I won’t forget all that you’ve done for my life.”
A few years into their relationship Keys started to have episodes of collapsing for no apparent reason, lethargy, and had a decreased an appetite. It was an emotional roller coaster for Jordon to see improvement followed by decline. At the young age of 5, Keys was diagnosed with Lymphoma and given only a few months to live. During this painful time, they found comfort in music. Keys would lie under the keyboard while Jordon sang to him. His favorite song was “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which Jordon informs me is a song about a boy and his imaginary friend who go everywhere together. With Keys by his side Jordon wrote, “Chasing Butterflies,” and together they filmed a music video during what would be their final 3 months together.
Like many of us Jordon went through the stages of grief which included blaming himself and second guessing his decision, but he realized that the ultimate act of love is to be able to let go when it’s time. “Grief is something that needs to happen, but people don’t like to be without something.” These words moved me. Losing something can bring us back to a type of primitive state. Like a child having a temper tantrum, we fight to hold onto a past that is no longer, and have a hard time accepting change. While Jordon describes grieving “hard” after such a tremendous loss, he took comfort in knowing that Keys wouldn’t want him to stop living life to its fullest. “That chapter in my life came and went.” He describes it as a chapter he will never forget while also honoring Key’s memory by moving forward and writing the next chapter in his life.
Jordon explained that dogs understand life and death in a way we don’t, and they don’t waste their time here on earth concerned with others opinions of them. “Dogs aren’t embarrassed about anything – they fart and poop in public, they express their emotions with their voice not afraid to tell us what they need – they just live in the moment.” Through Keys example, Jordon learned to live in the moment. For the most part, with some exceptions, dogs don’t know what is coming next so they don’t have the opportunity to ruminate. Jordon explains: “Anxiety is produced by fear of the unknown and not being fully present in the moment. I’ve learned to make peace with anxiety rather than fearing it, and to live life fully despite it. I tell myself, ‘You’re not even there yet,’ and to take things day by day.”
Hearing anxiety described in this way, I’ve found my instinct to flee from whatever causes me the slightest bit of anxiety interpreted. Reminding myself, “you’re not even there yet,” calms the racing thoughts and bring me back to the present, increasing my ability to ‘wait out’ the unknown – a philosophy that regulates the inner temper tantrums.
Jordon is candid about his own struggles with depression and anxiety. Our conversation was peppered with a real dialogue about the underlying depression and anxiety we’ve both experienced throughout different times in our lives. Talking openly and authentically about these realities create genuine connection and overrides the taboo of admitting to perceived weaknesses. Jordon suggested I watch the video, "I Had a Black Dog, His Name Was Depression” by Matthew Johnson, which has been meaningful in his life. It’s is a short video about a man who suffers from depression which he metaphorically refers to as a ‘black dog’ that follows him everywhere in an attempt to highjack his life. At the end of the video the character makes peace with the dog which is symbolized by a loving embrace and incorporates the dog into his life rather than fearing him; ultimately learning to “tame” the black dog.
I couldn’t help but see the dichotomy of Jordon’s experience with his ‘black and white’ dog, who was never a source of darkness in his life. Keys was always by Jordon’s side and protected him from his inner black dog; much like he describes in his interpretation of their song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.” His predominantly black dogs (spoiler alert - there may be another second dog coming) protected him from the dark days.
The Next Chapter
Getting another dog wasn’t on Jordon’s radar. He appreciated this time of being “single” (dog-less) and not having the weight of centering his life around a dog as his career in music was growing. Two years later and totally unplanned, much like the way Keys came into his life, he met Reese. A friend rescued a litter of puppies she found in horrible condition and wanted Jordon to meet them. He impulsively (his word, which I totally get) took home the 6-week-old German Shepherd/Doberman/Rottie mix. However, it wasn’t long before he questioned his decision to adopt Reese. They didn’t form an immediate bond the way he had with Keys. Reese had some challenging features and naturally he compared the dogs. He had moments when he didn’t know if he could do it and thought about rehoming her. When I asked what stopped him, he simply replied, “separation anxiety.” He was Reese’s person and the one she trusted and depended on, much like Keys was to Jordon. “She wasn’t as adaptable as Keys and didn’t do well when left with others and I couldn’t do that to her.” The unconditional love he received from Keys prepared him to be take on that role for Reese.
Reese was affectionate in a different way than Keys and had this extraordinary ability to sense any distress in Jordon and followed his lead. “If I wanted to lie in bed all day, Reese was cool with that and if I wanted to go for a walk, Reese was cool with that too.” Reese was by Jordon’s side through some of the lowest moments in his life and she kept the “lows from getting too low.” He quickly came to realize that their differences weren’t a bad thing. “Change is scary, but change is beautiful.” Like Keys, Reese also travels with Jordon and has become a part of him that he couldn’t see living without. His love for Reese radiated
through the phone. As if she knew we were talking about her, I heard soft barks in the background and Jordon reciprocating by lovingly talking to and petting her as an expression of his love.
Unlike me, Jordon never felt that bringing Reese into his life complicated his grief. He attributes this to having 2 years to heal between the dogs and his pain wasn’t as raw by the time he met Reese. He sadly acknowledges that as time passes, memories of Keys aren’t as clear and easily accessed as they once were. I am haunted by this reality too. I could feel the emotion in Jordon’s voice as he described the experience of reflecting on Key’s life as opening old “memory banks.” While we may not remember the details of every moment or quirk as clearly, we never forget how their mere presence made us feel.
Every time we fall in love it’s a completely different experience, one that we can never duplicate. I also think the love and bond we share is colored by who we are during that chapter in our lives and what our pet represented to us on a deeper level. I have come to believe that we are pushed in the direction of our pet at the time we need them the most.
I can only hope that Keys and Tovi were also pushed in each other’s direction and are up there reminiscing about the great times they had with us here on earth. I hope they are happy to see us smiling again, happy that we were able to open our hearts to another dog, and that they are proud that their legacy has been an impetus for us to give back to others with our words. But most of all, I hope we live in their hearts as they live on in ours. These kind souls with eerily similar temperaments are meant to know each other.
**It wouldn’t be fair to ignore the known fact that black dogs are adopted at a lower rate and have higher euthanasia rates than any other colored dogs, often referred to as, “black dog syndrome.” (Click to read about it, it dispels the myth). Given that, I didn’t love the symbolism of a black dog being portrayed as a source of pain that perpetuates the discrimination against black dogs. Like Jordon, I see it for what it is: an outdated metaphor that dates back to the 1940’s that Winston Churchill used to describe his depression and not a representation of a black dog’s temperament.**