One day when our late, great dog Zero was just a little black fur ball of puppy love, as energetic a mix of black Labrador and Australian shepherd as has ever graced this cruel world, I was talking with a friend who had just put down her beloved pal.
I was on my way to throw sticks and tennis balls and swim in the Mississippi River with my buddy that day, and we were both free and easy and supremely unaware of how very lucky we were — and yet so we were, oh yes, we were — so when my friend Judith, a veteran dog owner and lover, said something about what we owe our dogs, it stuck with me then and every day over the last wonderful 13 years.
“Wonderful” because that’s how long our family was lucky enough to be with Zero, about whom my son Henry so wisely said last Friday around noon, as my daughter Helen and their mother and my dear friend Jean sobbed over our going-to-sleep-forever member of the family as he lay on the living room floor that he’d patrolled so valiantly all these years: “Zero knew us all better than we know each other.”
Nods amongst the sobs, hugs on top of those. That he did. Good night, buddy. Such a good boy. Pretty black. Best dog ever. Off to the big dog park in the sky. No worries, my boy. Don’t be afraid. Go get it. Run free. Love you so much, ZZ. Love you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Z.
Laughs amidst the tears. We ran through his greatest hits, his hilarious highlight reels, his goat-like eating habits, his crazy bark. We reminded each other of the time he waltzed through the Famous Dave’s kitchen, of the myriad soccer, baseball and softball games he loved attending and being part of, and of his constant, glorious, ridiculous, mortifying humping that made us the laughingstocks and pariahs of the Lake of the Isles dog park. We massaged him and kissed him goodbye.
Ouch. Zero was my constant companion, so much so that I can feel him on my hip as I write this, just as I can still feel him attached to my voice and hip from our walks. He loved the snowy late nights when it was just him and me on the streets going down to Lake Harriet, silently moving through the big billowy snowflakes and quiet city. Our favorite hang was at the Lyndale Park Rose Garden near Lake Harriet, which we paid our last visit to last Tuesday, on a glorious fall afternoon that brought him all sorts of smells, sniffs and sunshine. He went downhill fast over the next couple days. His paw stains are still on the seats of my car.
There’s a lesson in dying, one that we learn from the dearly departed over and over again, and anew. From Z in life as in death I learned about presence, gratitude, unconditional love and the value of simple joys and cheap thrills. Part of my wisdom was inspired by the conversation I had with my friend that sunny day long ago, when I was so care-freely headed to the river with my beast.
“I hope I did him right,” she said, of her recently departed companion. “I hope he had a good life because of me.”
Meaning, of course: Did she fulfill the contract, the one we all make with our pets? We take care of their needs and in return they give us love, laughter, warmth, cuddles and in short order become, yes my son, our confessors, confidantes, best friends, partners in crime. We are the stewards to our dogs’ life experience, masters of their universe and gateway to the world — not to mention playmate, partner-in-goof-offery and always-game running buddy.
I kept the spirit of Judith’s words in mind all these years, and I made sure Zero knew how much I loved being with him, that I wasn’t simply doing my dog-sitting duty. I made sure I always appreciated him and all our times together because deep down I knew that one day I’d have to say goodbye.
Friday was that day. As he laid there on the living room floor, with all our hands touching him and our friend, Dr. Christa Williams of Caravan Vet, having administered the merciful barbiturate, I was happy to be with my loved ones and to have ZZ’s life flash before me, and happier still to say that I know we did him right. He had a good life, filled with love and adventure, and he brought us closer and pulled us through so many good and bad times, and his memory and the gratitude that we shared for being all together to send him off was a gift that will live on. “Always keep a diamond in your mind,” as the great soul singer Solomon Burke put it, and as such I’ve squirreled away my Zero diamonds for safekeeping, and most are already bearing sweet nostalgic fruit.
So faithful column readers, here is my advice after a weekend of writing, reading, listening to sad music and crying, beyond all the usual carpe diem and gratitude/presence jive. What I’ve come to know firsthand in the last few days applies to all sorts of loss, but this one goes out especially to the dog lovers.
Take it from me and Z: Do your dog right and do it now, because the day will come when you won’t have the chance to, and on that day you will feel the loss deeply in your bones, so much so that you’d give just about anything to have that little guy put his snout in your lap and beg for one more lap around the lake together.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.