An Illness of a Different Animal
My family’s dog died today. He was a 14-year-old golden retriever and had, in every sense of the word, far outlived our expectations. I could write forever about all his wonderful traits and everything that made him such an amazing dog (and there are endless examples) but I’ll simply relay that Zach was so popular he got more Christmas cards every year than I did. And I’m not really exaggerating.
Even though we all knew we were living on borrowed time with him—despite relatively few health problems given his advanced years—the news still hit me with head-on force.
It all happened quickly, my mother told me, by way of reassuring me that I couldn’t have been there. He had seizures at 8am; the vet quickly came to their house, and with my parents, my brother, my niece, and my grandmother all around him, Zach then went pretty quickly.
Of course I should have been there, but death is exceedingly slippery when it comes to logistics and planning. He was “my” dog from the day we brought him home when I was 12 until I formally moved out of my house and into my own place. My mother brought clothes from my old room down to the kitchen floor and placed them next to his head so he could smell me, but that seemed so paltry a substitute in his last moments.
“I asked him to hold on for me until I was feeling better,” my mother said through quiet tears. For four years and through three major surgeries, many setbacks, and excruciating pain, he never left her side. “Heaven help us if he goes, what will we do with her?” we all asked one another, knowing that being basically housebound for so long was hard enough for my mother. Having to do that without Zach curled up on her feet, standing guard at her bedside, or giving her comfort when she needed something to hug? Almost inconceivable.
It is no coincidence to my mother, then, that just last Thursday she turned the corner and began to have some semblance of a “normal” life. The searing nerve pain, the crushed discs, the inflamed joints, the overwhelming exhaustion—they all seemed to have finally settled into a tolerable state—not gone, but subsided enough so that she could leave the house an unprecedented three days in a row.
“I’m back,” she declared on Thursday, again in Friday, all the way through Sunday night. She even managed to get some sleep Sunday night—another recent triumph, given her constant pain—and Monday morning, Zach died.
Whatever guilt I had about growing up and moving out on Zach was tempered by the knowledge that he now had another role, an important one—watching over my mother as he had done for me. The first full day we had Zach, he and I bonded: I was home from school sick with bronchitis, and he jumped up on the couch and curled up on my feet. Through countless infections, surgeries, and setbacks, Zach spent years resolutely at my side, nestled on the couch when I was well enough to set up camp there, hovering on the floor next to my bed when I was too sick to be anywhere else.
When I left for college, he spent several nights in my room, waiting for me to come to bed so he could sleep. I came home less and less, I eventually got my medical situation under somewhat better control, and someone else needed him more.
“He’s amazing, he never leaves your mother’s side when she doesn’t feel well, even if it means staying there for hours,” my father would often report to me over the phone. I would nod, picturing him and conjuring up a scene I knew so well.
This morning it was his turn to be sick and luckily he was surrounded by people who adored him. I cried and hugged my own dog, one-year-old Sasha, and was glad that in the end, Zach had what we need most: a companion in the midst of suffering.