A local family says goodbye to their beloved pet in a traditional Hindu service at Sardis Lake.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem | Illustrated by Sarah Mccullen
When Sankar Bokka left his home in India in 2001 to study at Ole Miss, he left behind the woman to whom he was engaged. Jyothsna (pronounced Jo-thsna) Sankar speaks good naturedly about how Sankar promised her a move to a big city after he finished masters’ degrees and a PhD. After 19 years of marriage and two daughters, Oxford is still home, and Jyothsna is fine with that.
Early in their marriage, the couple made a decision that changed their lives. They adopted a puppy.
“The mother of the litter of six was rescued off the highway,” Sankar said. “We decided to go see them. There was one puppy sitting very quietly and calmly. I thought he would be a nice, lazy puppy. So that’s the one we chose.”
Sankar’s initial perception of Mac was completely wrong, but the fact the pup had an unlimited amount of frenetic energy did not matter — the couple already loved Mac.
Jyothsna had grown up with a pet back home in India; Sankar had not. But the Hindu couple holds all living things in high esteem.
“We believe animals have a soul just like human beings,” Jyothsna said. “To us, Mac was, from the very beginning, like a member of our family. He was like our first child.”
The Lab/beagle mix was 1 ½ years old when Sankar and Jyothsna’s daughter, Disha, was born. Mac was a constant companion to Jyothsna during her pregnancy.
“It was as if he knew and understood my labor pains,” she said.
From the moment baby Disha, now 14, arrived home from the hospital, she and Mac were inseparable.
“When she was born, it was like Mac felt he’d gotten a real, live toy,” Jyothsna said. “He sat at her feet when she ate; he slept beside her crib. I always felt my kids were very secure, thanks to Mac. It was like they had a big brother.”
And when daughter Isha, now 8, was born, Mac proved he had enough unconditional affection to share. He couldn’t stand for his girls to get in trouble.
“When they got into trouble, he sensed it,” Jyothsna said. “He would get up and head to another room, glancing back at them as he walked away.”
Photos of their sweet, brown-eyed boy have positions of prominence in their home and there are computer files galore of family pictures that always include Mac. These days, they peek at those pictures often, and as time continues to pass, the photos bring them laughter rather than tears.
Mac died March 12, 2021. He was nearly 15 years old.
“He’d had a tumor for quite a while,” Sankar said. “But no issues. The vet kept an eye on it.”
At some point, the tumor began to spread, Mac’s vision was affected and he started to experience pain.
“The day he died, he could hardly walk,” Sankar said. “I picked him up and put him in the car, and he looked at me with a look I will never forget.”
Five days after Mac’s death, Sankar called on his friend and neighbor Aaron Barton, a hunting and fishing guide who owns Barton Outfitters in Oxford. They needed his assistance to help them say goodbye to Mac in their Hindu tradition.
“They wanted me to take them out on my boat to scatter the dog’s ashes,” he said. “It was cold and windy, the water at Sardis Lake was choppy, it was a miserable day. I told them we should wait until a better day, but there is a religious timeline, and it had to be done that day.”
The family drove to Sardis with Mac’s ashes and other special items that became part of the ritual.
“We were all bundled up, and they piled in the boat,” Barton said. “It was the time of year the lake was low, too low to motor out.”
But it was important Mac’s ashes be scattered out on the lake, not near the shore.
“For Hindus, water is sacred and holds the memory of everything; it carries memory,” Jyothsna said. “That’s why we needed to be away from the shore. We needed to scatter the ashes in the middle of the lake so the flow of the water would not sweep them back to shore. The boat got stuck, and Aaron, bless his heart, pushed the boat until it was in deeper water.”
Barton was moved by the Hindu funeral traditions he witnessed.
“After they scattered Mac’s ashes, each said goodbye in their own way,” Barton said. “The girls read letters they’d written and then let them go into the water Then they pulled out bread and broke it up and tossed it in like they were feeding ducks. Apparently, the crusts of bread were one of Mac’s favorite treats.
“I’ll tell you, it tugged at my heartstrings. I was an emotional train wreck, and I was just a passive observer. But I’ve lost dogs I’ve loved, and it is overwhelming.”
In the early days of life without Mac, the family missed him terribly. One of his favorite toys was a stuffed puppy named Gilbert. When Disha felt sad, she’d pick up Gilbert and carry the toy around with her.
For the past three years, Mac had been Sankar’s shadow, becoming even more attached during the COVID-19 pandemic when the principal data scientist worked from home.
“He took it hard,” Barton said. “We talked several weeks after Mac’s funeral, and Sankar told me he couldn’t eat or sleep or think. He said all he thought would help was getting a new puppy.”
In early June 2021, the family welcomed a goldendoodle puppy named Simba. Truth is, it may well have been Mac who let his family know it was OK to move on.
“Our loss was immeasurable, but we wanted to remember Mac and cherish our memories of him, so we started watching videos of Mac through the years,” Jyothsna said. “After a few days, it became a routine to watch him before bedtime each night. As time passed, our grief was lighter and our memories sweeter.
“The girls loved Mac’s puppy videos so much they started asking for a puppy. We weren’t sure we were ready, but they convinced us. We started looking and found Simba. Mac can never be replaced, but Simba is a beautiful way for us to share our love again with a pet. And we will love Mac forever.”
The now-9-month-old, Kentucky-born Simba has clearly brought great joy into the family’s home.
“When we first got him, he would just sit quietly,” Sankar said. “Now, look at him. He ran three miles with me the other day and still had so much energy.”
Memories of Mac still abound, and his name enters the conversation easily.
“We still miss him every single day,” Jyothsna said. “Sometimes I slip and call Simba Mac. Still, Simba is the center of attention, and we are spoiling him too much. It’s a much happier house with him in it.”