Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Goodbye, Zak

Last week was a very sad time in our household as we had to say goodbye to a very dear friend, our 13-year-old black labrador retriever, Zachary.

He was diagnosed in April with a defective heart valve after I took him to the vet with some breathing problems. There was nothing that could be done to correct the problem save an expensive surgery he would likely not survive. However, our vet said that with a limited activity schedule, he had seen dogs live for several years with this condition.

Happily, Zak did well for awhile with only short periods of exercise. Up until the day he died, he could still enjoy a quick game of catch and a short walk.

On the evening of July 21st, he suddenly had great difficulty breathing. Our vet met Cliff and Shannon at his office and gave us the bad news: Zak's lungs had filled with fluid and his oxygen levels were decreasing. He was in congestive heart failure. There was no more he could do for him. The decision was made at that time to put him to sleep.

The hardest part is that Sean and I--who were not home at the time--were not there to say goodbye. Our dog was suffering and there simply was no time to wait for us. I listened on my cell phone while our vet put my dog to sleep.

Sean has taken it particullarly hard--his dog has been his constant companion since he was a baby. We have photos of one-year-old Sean toddling through the house with his blanket and stuffed elephant, Blue, in his hands, his binky in his mouth, and his faithful dog close at his heels.

Zak was as loyal and devoted a dog as anyone could ask. He was far too friendly to be much of a guard dog--we used to joke that if anyone broke into the house he would make them a cup of tea and help them load up their van. But he was always up for catching a tennis ball, a walk to explore the neighborhood, or a ride in the car whether it was for a trip to our cabin or a visit to the vet or dog groomer.

Our constant companion for over thirteen years, the journey from the rambunctios six-week-old puppy to the old, mellow dog was far too quick. The memories with which he left us will last a lifetime.

As a labrador retriever, Zak would eat anything that would not eat him first. When he was a puppy, he would constantly get into my garden and eat the strawberries. I badgered Cliff to fence in this area, a job which he kept putting off. He was finally convinced to take on the project the day Zak ate about thirty red and green cherry tomatoes and threw them up all over the family room.

From that day on, the only thing he would not eat were tomatoes. One Thanksgiving holiday weekend, we were travelling back home from Pennsylvania and left an 18-inch turkey sub in the van with the dog while we stopped at a rest area. By the time we returned to the vehicle, the only thing left were the wrapper and the tomatoes.

He was such a gentle soul he would not even hurt another animal. He discovered a nest of baby rabbits in our yard once and did nothing but carry one in his mouth until I convinced him to drop it. He did the same thing to a very wet bird he found once during a rainstorm. His one passion was chasing squirrels and chimpmunks. He never had a prayer of catching them, but that did not stop him from enjoying the chase even in his final days.

The irony of his passing is that the Monday before he died, my book club met to discuss a book called "Good Dog. Stay" by Anna Quindlen. The book is about the life of her black labrador retriever named Beau and what she learned by watching him from his puppyhood until his passing at age 15.

Quindlen says that the life of a good dog is like the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed. From watching Beau grow up and grow old, she learned to take every day as it comes, live life to the fullest, and to simply roll with the punches. Sometimes, Quindlen says, and old dog can teach you new tricks.

Zak not only lived a full, happy life in his thirteen years, but added fullness to our lives as well. Through him, I have learned to find joy in every day, take time to enjoy the beauty of nature that surrounds you, nap and play whenever possible, and--every once in awhile--drop whatever you are doing and chase a squirrel.

Goodbye, dear friend. We miss you and will never forget you.

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