My best friend is going to die on Friday. She’s not going to die as the result of the many ailments she’s suffered from, the ones that led to three separate death sentences over the years. No, she’s going to die because my wife and I will gather her in our arms and allow her to be put to sleep. After countless operations, pills, shots, and prayers in our desperate 12-year struggle to keep her alive, we’ve been told we have to let her go.
We’ve been a mess for weeks leading up to this, my wife and I refusing to say out loud what we both knew to be true: Doubling up on the medications wasn’t working anymore. The delicate balance of medical cocktails that helped keep ZuZu’s heart beating — even as they ruined her kidneys — could no longer be maintained. We didn’t talk about the way we now carried her everywhere, holding her up when she had to urinate because she couldn’t stand on her atrophied legs. Talking about it made it real, and ZuZu always found a way to defy reality.
ZuZu has always been my favorite, even though parents are never supposed to admit we play favorites with our children (even when they have four legs and a tail). She came into our lives in a weak moment after we entered a pet store to buy a leash. The sight of that tiny Cocker Spaniel with the big green eyes following me around the store was too much; I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her there.
The cost of her parole that day would soon pale in comparison to the parade of veterinary bills that would follow. A Porsche would have been less expensive.
In her prime, ZuZu ruled the dog park. Twenty-three pounds and 31 inches of ball-obsessed entitlement, she looked at other dogs carrying tennis balls the way a lion looks at a wounded zebra. We named her ZuZu after Jimmy Stewart’s little girl in It’s A Wonderful Life, but naming her after one of the Manson Family would have been more appropriate. Whether she was standing on top of the dinner table inhaling the birthday cake or swallowing two pounds of chocolate chips one cold Thanksgiving night, ZuZu had a knack for carnage.
While a blessing to our family, ZuZu was a veterinary black hole that also managed to tap-dance around Death like Ginger Rogers. Unsure of her age or her breed (mostly Cocker Spaniel-ish), our first visit to the vet revealed her horrible ear problems. Then came the crippling skin rash that necessitated an extensive drug regimen after a blood sample yielded no fewer than three typed pages of things to which she was deathly allergic. At 2 she began biting mercilessly at her paws, forcing us to order special booties to keep her from nibbling them into bloody stumps. At 6, ZuZu broke her back, apparently as she engaged in the dangerous activity of … wait for it … lying down. The pain required immediate surgery, but she came through like a champ. As for us, we learned how stupid we could feel for passing up pet insurance.
At 7, a visit to the bone specialist revealed that her jaw was locking up. Down to only 30% of her normal range of motion, the prognosis was grim. We were scraping together money for a jaw procedure when she suffered her first heart attack. She was given six months to live. The drugs for her heart would seriously compromise what turned out to be an already damaged liver. When an abscessed tooth threatened to send the infection into her brain, the resulting procedure required anesthesia that our vet told us she’d probably never wake from. Sure enough, I was able to pick ZuZu up the next day. Like Tupac Shakur, she’d dodged another bullet.
Also like Tupac, there were more in store for her.
Bone removed from her jaw was possibly cancerous, and a hole formed just under her eye from which an infection ran for months despite aggressive medication. For the last few years, all the ligaments around her joints completely atrophied until she could bend her paws all the way back to her forelegs in defiance of God and physics.
She was reduced to waddling around on her ankles and elbows, the world’s first Cocker Spaniel turtle.
Through it all, ZuZu was the happiest dog in the world. Despite being dealt the worst possible hand in the genetic poker game, she always acted as if she’d won the lottery. She charmed everyone by endlessly sniffing their eyes as a greeting, a habit I am sure was her way of looking into our souls. She barked like a Great Dane and peed like one, too — sometimes in places I don’t care to name.
But the best thing about her was her heart, and she shared it without reservation with everyone she came across. She would literally tremble with excitement whenever anyone came near, bouncing up and down in excitement no matter how many times she’d seen you before. She was a fluffy brown ball of affirmation that never failed to put a smile on every face in the room. The only thing bigger than her heart was her desire to share it. How odd that something so strong, something that had such a powerful effect on those around her, could finally give out.
However, as my wife and I laugh and cry our way through the final preparations, we realize her heart won’t ever truly give out. It took her 12 years to give us all that love she had inside her, and that love will echo every time we remember how bravely she fought and how happily she overcame her challenges. As crushed as we are the prospect of letting her go, we know she has even more to give on the next leg of her journey.
Thank you for sharing yourself with us, ZuZu. We’ll leave a bowl out for you.