Nearly two months have passed since the day we said goodbye to our beloved dog, Zion. To say he was more than ‘just a dog’ to me is a total understatement. Early in our marriage, Kevin asked me if I had to choose between him and Zion, who would I choose? I told him he probably shouldn’t ask me that question.
The morning of Zion’s last day seemed a morning not unlike the others before it. Zion had been in slow decline for a few months, recently not putting any weight on his back, right leg. He was 15 and a half and counting, and I knew his end was on the horizon.
I came home from my morning yoga class and one of the boys met me at the door.
“Zion’s leg is swollen!” he blurted out with great concern. “And we cleaned out all of his eye goobers,” he added with a certain amount of pride, wanting me to know Zion was being well tended.
I turned to Kevin for clarification and knew by the look on his face that this was serious. I walked over to where Zion lay on the ancient rag-rug I had rescued from the junk pile when my Grandma moved out of her big house in South Dakota. His back knee joint was swollen almost to the size of a baseball, and I could see the skin beneath his fur was bright red.
“The joint is really hot and hard,” Kevin said as I pet Zion’s ears and examined the leg.
My sweet Zion had gotten so frail, though I had not wanted to notice. Months had gone by, maybe even a year since he had chased a stick or a ball or anything, which had defined his whole life purpose.
“Oh Schmoops,” I uttered affectionately. That was a nickname that had emerged somewhere down the line, likely from Kevin, who comes from a family where to be loved means to have a nickname.
“I can take him in,” Kevin offered, knowing I had an appointment that morning to drop off artwork at a brewpub for an upcoming show. And, also, because it would be so very hard for me to handle the news that we both knew was coming.
“Ok, I’ll call the vet,” I said.
I got Zion at a time when my life was bursting with the potential of youth, but totally at loose ends because my parents were dying. I was in my second year of graduate school in Seattle. I had wanted a dog for years already, and had been looking on Craigslist, and Petfinder, and visited every pet shelter that crossed my path. I even had a near miss when I stopped at the animal shelter driving back from visiting my sick parents. I stopped late in the day and found a beautiful litter of freshly hatched chow-mix puppies. They still had that skunky, musky smell that some puppies have right after they are born. I fell in love with one sweet little girl (I was sure I would get a girl dog), but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I got back into my car (which actually had a note on it with the phone number of a handsome stranger—that’s another story) and drove a little way down the road. I couldn’t stop thinking about that little puppy, so I pulled over and found a payphone to call my dad.
“Absolutely not!” was his response. “You’re in school and it’s a puppy! You don’t have time for that. It sheds, it poops, it eats. How are you going to take care of all that?”
But I was lonely, scared, and a little defiant, so I drove back to the shelter to adopt that little fluffball. When I got there, she had already been spoken for.
Not long after, I found a listing on Craigslist for a six-month-old, fully-trained, Aussie-Border Collie Mix. This seemed perfect. Fully trained! I liked the sound of that. I emailed the owner, and we set up a meeting near school. It was love at first sight. His name was Ryan, and he was such a beautiful boy. I shook Eileen’s hand and the dog sat obediently at her feet. We sat on a bench outside a café and chatted. In my mind I was thinking, What’s wrong with this dog that she wants to get rid of him? She explained that she already had a high-energy dog that took a lot of her time. She seemed to like me but wanted the dog to be neutered before I took him home, so I would have to wait a week. She worked at a vet clinic, so she would take care of it. I drove to Shoreline, (where they lived) to visit him one more time at the beach. As we walked from the road toward the water she said, “He loves the beach. He’ll go crazy the minute his feet feel the sand.” And it was true. He and her other border-collie-mix, Jack, tore up and down the foaming surf line, taking turns chasing one another.
About a week later, Eileen brought him to my house with a crate, and dog bowl, and a bag of food.
“Can I pay you for any of this?” I asked, hoping she would say no based on my meager grad school salary.
“No. I just want him to have a good life.” That was the last time I saw her. And I promptly changed his name to Zion.
Kevin helped me load all of my artwork into our van, and then we walked back to the house to get Zion. Kevin picked him up as gently as he could around his middle, careful to avoid the bulging leg. I walked ahead of him, opening and closing doors, and Kevin laid him gently across the back seat. I pushed back the fur beside both of his eyes with my hands and kissed him on the head. He stared back at me with nothing but calm stoicism. I closed the door and turned into Kevin’s arms with a deep sob.
“Call me the minute you know anything, ok?” I said.
“I will,” he said, releasing me.
I paused for a moment and watched the car drive away, then busied myself with delivering the art. I left the kids in the care of our visiting friends and headed out. I had just pulled up to the brewpub when my phone rang. I took a deep breath and answered.
“Hi Nic.” I could tell by the sound of Kevin’s voice that it was not good news. “The doc saw him right away. She said she couldn’t diagnose it just by looking at it, but it could be some kind of infection that they could treat with antibiotics, or it could be something like cancer. They can take an x-ray or do a biopsy to try to see more…”
We had already made the decision that we were not going to treat anything major. He was more than elderly. He was not living his best life. But still, I couldn’t let him go without a fight.
“Can you have them do an x-ray. Just to see?” I choked back tears.
“Yeah, of course. I’ll have them do that,” Kevin said.
I hung up the phone and tried to collect myself. I knocked on the brew pub door and was let in by a 20-something dude in a trucker hat. Trailing just behind him was his caramel-colored dog he called ‘Bevvy’. I felt an instant pang in my heart. I managed to hold it together enough to make the delivery with few words.
I got back in the car and texted my dear friend, Lindsay. “We might have to say goodbye to Zion today. Kevin’s at the vet with him now.”
I set the phone down and started the car. I flashed back to all of the other hard messages I’ve had to send in my lifetime. “My dad is sick.” “My dad is dying.” “My mom is dead.”
As I pulled back into our driveway, my phone rang. I didn’t want to answer, but it was Lindsay. I parked the car and put the phone to my ear.
“Hi,” I squeaked out.
“Oh Nic,” Lindsay said. “Tell me what’s happening.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but there were no words. I just cried.
Lindsay had been one I had dragged to pet shelters with me when I was desperately searching for a companion. She had known Zion almost from the very beginning. She knew how much his companionship had meant to me. She knew this would be a hard day.
I took a deep breath and regained composure. I explained to her what I knew from the vet.
“Do you need anything? Do you want me to come over? I am off today,” she offered.
“No, I’m ok. I’ll let you know,” I said.
“Ok. Ask me if you need anything. No matter how small or silly it seems. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Linds.”
I hung up the phone and walked to the house. The boys were occupied upstairs and our friend Yvonne sat at the table. I got a glass of water and sat next to her to relay the latest news. I was interrupted by my phone ringing. I saw it was Kevin and answered.
“Hello?” There was a pause. I braced my heart.
“Hi Nic,” Kevin managed to say before his voice broke into sobs. I could hear him apologize to someone on the other end. He composed himself and continued. “The x-ray showed that he has a broken leg…” he choked back another sob, “and that there’s cancer in the bone.”
My heart sank. Tears rolled down my cheeks in unending swells. I was not surprised, but I was devastated.
“Should I come there? I need to see him again. I need to be with him.” My mind was racing. I wanted this to somehow be a happy ending.
“No, no. I will bring him home. They are really busy right now, so we have to wait a couple of hours for…” he trailed off, careful not to say the actual words of what we needed to do.
“Ok, yes, bring him home. We are here.” I hung up the phone, and the boys tumbled down the stairs. One look at my face told them everything. I invited them to come sit with me on the couch so I could fill in the details.
“Is Zion ok, Mama?” Leo asked, his eyes piercing blue, the same blue as my mother’s.
“No, honey. Zion has a broken leg,” I started. How was I going to say this?
They both sat so still next to me. “There is cancer in the bone, so the bone isn’t able to heal itself.”
“Is Zion going to die?” Jude asked, his forehead wrinkled.
I had to say it out loud. “Yes, honey,” I was crying again, “they will give him a shot to –” I paused, struggling for the words, “make him fall asleep.”
“Forever, right?” Jude said, as if clarifying for his younger brother.
“Yes, forever,” I said.
Leo moved away with a frown and settled into the corner of our sectional couch, as Jude and I hugged and cried together.
“Papa is going to bring him home for a while so we can be with him,” I said, pulling away from Jude’s hair. I wanted to make this meaningful for them. “Let’s make a bed on the floor for him.”
The boys busied themselves collecting Zion’s dog bed and blankets and pillows from all regions of the house. Meanwhile, I texted Lindsay, “Can you come over?”
She texted right back, “Just checking out at Home Depot. I’ll be there shortly.”
Kevin reappeared in the window with Zion dangling from his arms. I rushed over to open the door.
“We made Zion a bed!” Jude said with mustered enthusiasm.
Kevin set Zion down on the massive pile of pads and pillows and quilts. Unaccustomed to so much attention, Zion looked around and hobbled up from the bed as if to remove himself from the center. He apparently still had work to do. With a broken leg.
“Did they give him something for the pain?” I asked Kevin, cringing every time I caught sight of the bulging joint.
“They sent me home with a pill,” Kevin said, producing a large, white tablet from his pocket. “Should I wrap it in a piece of meat and give it to him?”
I shook my head. “Give it to me.” I had seen him spit out far too many pills. He was wise to our antics. I gently parted his jaws, dropped the pill down the hatch, and softly held his muzzle closed until he swallowed. He knew I would take care of him.
Zion continued to pace around the room on three legs, wondering what all the commotion was for.
“Would you like to give him some treats, boys?” I asked, retrieving a bag of chicken jerky from the pantry.
We took turns breaking off pieces and handing them to him one by one. We could not spoil this dog enough for all of the goodness he brought to us.
“I know!” I exclaimed. “Let’s give him his own bowl of ice cream!”
Years ago, Kevin had established a habit of letting Zion lick out his ice cream bowl when he was finished. I rarely joined in and pretended to be disgusted by this unsophisticated behavior. No dog of mine would eat from the table! But today I would deny him no pleasure. Leo put the bowl down in front of Zion with glee. Zion lapped happily, looking up at regular intervals as if he was getting away with something.
Not long after, the pill seemed to kick in, and Zion laid down again on his prepared bed of softness. I stretched out next to him on my side and stroked his head. I suddenly wanted to memorize everything about him—every spot, every angle, every toenail. Then I realized I already had. I knew that amber spot in his otherwise ice blue eyes. I knew the tear drop marking that streaked out from the corner of his right eye. I knew the smell of his paws, the feel of his fur, the exact place to scratch to make his leg kick. This dog had been by my side for 15 years, the most difficult years of my life. He was my person. He was a piece of my heart.
“Can we watch a movie, Mama?” Leo asked earnestly from his corner of the couch.
“What movie do you have in mind?” I asked, rolling over and drying my eyes again.
“Hotel for Dogs,” he said.
Jude butted in, “Noooo! That will be too sad.”
I thought for a moment. Leo needed a distraction to be able to be present. Jude was wailing, but Leo was feeling deeply in his own quiet way.
“We can watch it, Leo. Jude, you don’t have to watch. I’ll put it on.”
Lindsay had arrived somewhere in the middle of it all. We were all just trying to be as present with the moment as we could. Zion was lazy for the first time in his whole life. I could tell it was hard for him. The alertness never left his eyes.
We watched the clock tick closer to the time we had scheduled to take Zion back to the vet, taking turns lying beside him on the floor bed, letting the movie be the soundtrack instead of needing words. When a funny story came to mind about Zion, we would share it—like the time he puked all over Kevin’s face in the car and I got mad at Kevin for being grossed out because I was about to have our first baby and babies were gross, or the time Kevin took Zion running out in the county and Zion got spooked and ran back to town and hunkered down at the co-op until Kevin found him there. And then there were pauses and so many tears.
The movie ended, and I asked the boys to come close to Zion.
“Lindsay, will you offer a blessing?”
We all put our hands on Zion and on each other. I don’t remember much of what she said except that the prayer felt perfect and beautiful and ended with something like, “May the sun always be in your fur…”
I thought of all of the adventures Zion and I had shared, all the ground we had covered, the family we had become, the tears I had cried into that fur. This dog had been one of my life’s greatest gifts.
Lindsay said the “Amen”, and we breathed a collective sigh. I wished for time to stop.
“Ok, boys,” I said through tears. “You can say goodbye to Zion now.”
Jude wailed loudly. Like, really wailed. “Noooo! I don’t want to!”
Leo retreated quietly to his warm corner of the couch. I rubbed Jude’s back as he sobbed over Zion’s body. “I know, honey, I know.” I tried to console what could not be consoled. “Dogs just don’t live forever.” Although somehow in my heart, I believed maybe he would. Maybe this would be the way the Universe could balance out all of the losses I had seen in my life. Maybe I would have the everlasting dog.
“It’s time,” Kevin spoke gently.
“Ok, I know,” I said, feeling some panic, “Just give me one more minute.”
I lay there on my side facing Zion as he looked deeply into my eyes as he always did. He had such knowing eyes. I remembered the day I brought him home, how he ate shrimp shells at a party the first weekend and I was sure he was going to die. I remembered bringing him home to meet my parents, and how my dad always wanted him to be more friendly, luring him in with a frisbee to get a pet in. I remembered how much he loved when Kevin came into our life, because Kevin meant that fun things were about to happen. I remembered the trip we took to Moab after my parent’s died, Zion sitting at the base of desert towers as we climbed. I remembered him pacing wildly as I screamed in childbirth at our house in Portland, finally settling beside the birthing pool as a labored with Jude. I remembered him dropping a tiny stick on day-old Jude’s lap as he sat swaddled in his baby seat. I remembered him riding in the broke-down car that had died on the top of Steven’s Pass as we all rode in the tow-truck. I remembered him allowing Leo to snuggle up to him in his older years, letting go of his impulsive nature to work every minute.
There was nothing more I could wish for this precious creature. He had lived his absolute best doggie life. And I was there to witness nearly every minute.
Kevin lifted him slowly off the makeshift bed. Jude sat next to Leo on the couch and Kevin brought him over for one last pet. Lindsay joined the boys on the couch as I walked Kevin to the car, opening and closing doors. Kevin laid him gently on the backseat as the tears continued to roll down my face. I leaned in and took his scruff in both hands.
“You have been the best boy ever,” I spoke with my lips on his head. “I love you so, so much.”
I moved away to let Kevin back out. I watched the car disappear down the road with a little piece of my heart I knew would never return.
Now, a month later, I still catch a glimpse of something grayish brown on the floor out of the corner of my eye, and for a second in my unconscious mind think it is Zion. I have thought much since his passing, how natural his death felt, how explicable, how acceptable. And how different that feels from the other losses I have had to bear.
I don’t think I am afraid of dying. We all die. We all know that, deep in our bones. I am afraid of dying without fully living.
Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
We can’t wait to begin living fully until we reach ‘someday’, some goal, some fulfillment of a prophecy. We can’t live as if we will live forever or even one more year. We must live this moment. Nothing is worth more than this day.