What do you wear on the day you know your dog, your beloved companion, is going to die?
I stood in the middle of my closet, letting the question rattle between the four walls, momentarily shocked by the shallowness of it. My question hung in the air like a bad smell, then gently slid between my neatly organized shirts and dresses, then burrowed into the pockets of my pants like a used kleenex, crusty and dirtied with tears.
And then I realized my query wasn’t callous, but a diversion. Like I’d already attempted to do that morning, by frantically scrubbing dirt off my kitchen counters. Dirt that no longer remained due to the numerous passes I’d already made, my arms weary from work but my mind still raging.
How profound that we measure the times in our lives with the pets we’ve owned. There was Patches, a dog from my youth, whom I mostly remember from slightly faded photographs and casual conversations with my mom, dug from memories long past, rusty and cobwebbed. Then Abby, the silly, affectionate wire-haired fox terrier we had through my high school and college years and into my adulthood. Even my husband still speaks fondly of his childhood pup, although she passed long before we’d even met. And while their sweet faces have faded to dusty glimpses in the mind, the grief at their deaths, experienced by those who loved them, is all but fresh and vivid. The endless tears, stained with love, happiness and, yes, even regret. And now it was our time, Taran’s and mine, to wade through the depths of such loss and sorrow.
Taran and I took turns laying by her, eagerly offering Zoe sips of water and dog treats that she continued to ignore. I curled my hair, applied a light base of makeup and sat, motionless in the car. My insides were filled with dread, I couldn’t ignore the relentless catches in my throat and my hands trembled beneath my thighs. I knew what was coming. I felt it in the depths of my bones and it left me breathless. How many mornings had we lightly joked about her surviving through another night? How many times had we stepped into a room and paused, cautiously watching to see if her chest would rise, if a paw would move, her nose would wiggle, sensing our presence?
And now how I ached to have those days back.
The boys played quietly in the backseat, not fully aware of what was in store, but knowing enough to hush their voices. Zoe had been a part of our family for almost 15 years and it seemed only fitting to have all four of us there to say goodbye.
I could hear the younger dogs’ anxious voices as soon as I emerged from the car. Taran had to carry our baby in, her back limbs too weak to support her ailing body. We were ushered into a room quickly, firmly closing the door behind the other dogs in the waiting room, one ironically a youthful version of our girl.
There wasn’t much to say. I heard the word “tumor,” understood that, at best, she might have two weeks, unlikely a month. Quality, not quantity I said. She was barely eating, couldn’t stand, unable to go outside without assistance. Our spunky, athletic, stubborn, intelligent, beautiful girl was a mere shell, gone most of the day – slipped away into her dreams – where she could run, play, eat and be free. Free from the body that had worn away, like the ocean gently molding the sandy beach each night.
Taran laid Zoe on the too-glistening table, and after a brief moment of struggling to sit, resigned herself. Our poor girl quit. She released herself into our trust once again as she had so many times before, a deep sigh escaping her lips. I held her, buried my face into the nape of her neck and sobbed. I don’t know if she understood what was happening, I could barely understand it myself. Where had all the time escaped to? Who had come and ruthlessly took the years away? I was angry at myself. Ashamed of the times I was too busy, too distracted, too selfish to give her what little she asked of me.
Did I even deserve her?
We gave the kind, soft-spoken veterinarian a choked sob of permission, then watched our sweet girl’s life fade gracefully from her eyes. Within seconds our beautiful Zoe left us to go on to a greater place, one filled with endless pools of glistening water for swimming and lush fields of green, perfect for unending games of fetch. Regaining her full hearing and eyesight, Zoe’s weary body returned to that of years before and the legs that struggled to sustain her, restored.
How fragile life is. Like a soft, delicate puff of air, so are we. This chasm between life and death is no chasm at all, yet a mere fraction of a moment. Here one breath, gone the next. I had never fully witnessed death. It’s life changing, I think. I know I left Zoe’s side a different person. How quickly yet simply the balance shifts.
I imagine there are those reading this thinking, “It’s a dog!” but she wasn’t just a dog. Zoe was so much more.
Taran had just joined the Army, our first duty station was in Heidelberg, Germany. And we somehow found ourselves picking out a pup from a large litter of adorable, round black labs. Taran and I had traveled to a local American Airforce base about four hours away. Honestly, we knew nothing about picking out a dog; we figured the dog would pick us. And so she did. Taran and I were instantly smitten with Zoe’s outgoing personality and tiny patches of white fur on her chin and between the pads of her little feet. You see, we brought Zoe into our lives the day before Taran left for his first deployment, and she was with me for four other deployments. My steady friend through the nights I cried myself to sleep, afraid for my husband and his Soldiers, praying for him to be returned to me. She traveled the Atlantic, was welcomed into six other homes, five additional duty stations and countless road trips. She lived through the birth of both of my children, and was the first to teach them what it meant to have a pet.
So poetic that she began our military journey with us and saw our family through to the very end of it.
Like a friend reminded me, “All good dogs earn their rest.”
Rest well, sweet Zoe. I pray that my fond memories of you reside within my heat forever. And while I weep for you today, I know that I will see you again.
After all, we’re only a bridge apart.