Last Friday, August 23rd 2019, Alex and I said goodbye to Zola.
I got her when I was 21 and in no position to care for such a dominant and willful dog. Honestly, I couldn’t really even care for myself. I remember doing the math. “If she lives 10-12 years then I’ll be 31 to 33 years old by then!” An impossible thing to imagine. A different me in a different life.
Who knew just how spot on that would be.
Anyone who knows me IRL knows I am a self-isolating Alone Person who must be hounded in order to show up for social engagements and who disappears for months or years at a time– but I’m not sure anyone ever truly knew the extent to which I kept myself apart from other people. For so many years, Zola was the only consistent presence in my life. With her around, I was never truly alone.
This loss is so strange because it’s more than just missing her physical presence– to talk to, head pat, over-treat– it’s missing the part of me that only ever existed for her. I’m not sure what to do with all this Zola-tailored love. If I transitioned it over to Alex then I’d be riding him piggy back, constantly caressing his neck, and slipping an endless supply of chocolate covered cashews into his mouth.
Believe me or don’t believe me, but I’m pretty sure Zola was a magical creature.
Anytime I took her for a walk, right up until the very end, other dogs would literally bow down in submission. I think, secretly, she was ZOLA QUEEN OF DOGS and I only ended up having her through some strange karmic juju. Because she came into my life when it was shite and she stayed with me until she knew I’d gotten through to the other side.
What a gift.
The evening before Goodbye, I lay on the floor next to her and told her her life story. I’m sure she was like ALL THE TIME WITH THE TALKING, HUMAN but it felt important to remember all the different houses we lived in and the people we lived with. Or that semester I took four Perspectives on the Environment courses and she ended up living on organic delivered-to-the-door-because-that-somehow-saved-the-planet dog food, only to transition to cheap ass Ol’ Roy when I remembered I was poor (Sorry, Earth).
Then Alex came along. We moved to Denver. On the long drive, she sat in the backseat on her bed and rested her head against the armrest the entire time. She didn’t seem phased by two days of driving, she just snored away and made everything easier because I didn’t feel like I was doing it on my own. She was with me.
(Meanwhile Alex was in the moving van, which is his own story of suffering to tell…)
Zola + Death = a running theme of the last twelve years. I can’t tell you how many times I thought she was going to die. She got heartworm when she was two. She had tumors. Cancer. Cancer again. Salmon poisoning. Pounds of stolen chocolate. Supposedly a bladder tumor. Each time I was preemptively devastated and each time she would be perfectly fine, smiling at me like GOTCHA!
But the first week of August, I knew. She began sleeping right next to my side of the bed. When I came home from work, she’d be curled up in the closet. I told Alex: “I think she knows she’s dying.” and Alex probably said something like WHY DO YOU SAY THESE THINGS.
I won’t go into the details, but things deteriorated quickly. What the vet first diagnosed as an ear infection soon began bleeding to such an extent the house looked like a Netflix-worthy crime scene. I’d have to help her in and out of the bathtub every other day or so. It was a mess. But also a privilege, to care for her.
She began having difficulties getting around. She couldn’t hear us. There was a fire alarm and I was pretty sure we were both going to be burned alive. She stopped eating her food– which I’d just setup on a recurring order. Touche, Zola. That last Monday she had surgery to try and address the problem but the problem was worse than we thought and the only treatment was so extensive there was no way we were going to put her through that.
Like any person obsessed with spreadsheets and Carpe Yolo-ing, I’d done my best to emotionally prepare. Over the last year I’ve honored all Zola’s experiences as possibly being the last. Her last birthday. Last Christmas. Last snow. Every night before bed I’d lay on the carpet next to her and tell her how important she was to my life and how much I loved her, because I needed to be sure she knew. Without even realizing it, I’d become so much gentler with my seemingly indestructible dog.
I’m going to tell you how it went down, so skip this next part if you’re not up for it. But I want to put this out there in case it’s helpful to anyone who has to go through the same.
We decided to have a vet come out to our apartment so we could avoid the stress of the vet and have everyone at home together. Caring Pathways has been around for 10 years in Denver. We scheduled a time later in the day and spent the entire morning just enjoying Zola. I lavished her with so many treats and canned dog food (which strangely smells good to me, whyyyy????) that she perked up and was more engaged and active than she’d been for over a week. We went out to our courtyard– a strict On Leash situation– and let her run free through all the hard to reach bushes and sniff all the things. Again, it was kind of a sign that our timing was right because she’d already lost so much interest in doing the kind of things she’d normally try and get away with.
We spent the rest of our time just hanging out with her on the floor in our living room. I wanted it to be a high vibe situation so I put on some music I’ve loved for years. Later, we streamed The Office. Alex, who is a genius, picked the Stress Relief episodes, where Dwight makes the entire office think they’re going to die in a fire. It was so nice to just sit on the floor with incense burning and a handful of treats while we pet our dog and laughed despite everything.
When it was time, the vet arrived. She sat on the floor with us and asked about Zola’s life. She cried. I think I even glimpsed her praying at one point, her hand on Zola’s little paw. She told us the first injection would take up to 10 minutes to make Zola fall asleep. Alex unwrapped a disgusting/delicious bone for her. She’d kind of lost interest in that kind of thing, but I guess an entire morning of unrestrained treats had wet her appetite because she WENT TO TOWN. We sat right next to her, petting her and loving her and crying but also laughing because HOLY SHIT she was so happy about that bone. It was like this last resurgence of the Zola we had known and loved for so long.
After about ten minutes, she peacefully rested her head on top of the bone. It sounds terribly sad, but it wasn’t. She was our sweet dog and she looked so happy, so at peace.
Then something happened.
After minutes of calm and stillness, she suddenly pushed herself up with her front paws, lifted her head from the bone, twisted the top half of her body, and dropped her head right in my lap. I couldn’t believe it. This was some straight up Marley and Me/Hallmark Movie emotional climax.
Because even in her final moments, she was pure magic.
Everything about this decision was terrifying. I’d recite a list of her ailments like a mantra. I’d sit at work with 28 tabs open, trying to assess Zola’s quality of life, then start crying as soon as someone walked into my office, because I am an idiot and this is not something you should be googling at work.
But nobody knows how to read the first three pages of Google results in order to confirm what they already know quite like this girl.
Afterwards, it was hard not to worry that I’d made the call too soon. But, as Zola would say (don’t question this) “that’s bullships.” Helping Zola at the end of her life is one of the most important things I’ve ever done. Her dog life was a series of linked Now Moments made out of pure happiness and wild adventure. I didn’t want there to be too many moments at the end that didn’t fit with the rest.
If that day, week, or this or next month was the inevitable time in which Zola’s allotted number of days ran out, then this was the best possible way for it to have happened. I cannot tell you how thankful I am for that fact. But it’s still so hard.
I keep having to remind myself that all the memories we have of Zola were Now Moments that hadn’t existed for a long time. They were already long gone. But that didn’t change how important/hilarious/happy-making they continued to be when we remembered them. So it’s not like we lost those twelve years of moments all in one day. What happened was, she ran out of new Now Moments to share with us.
Like every pet-owning weirdo, I had a voice I used for Zola because obviously she had a lot of opinions and judgments to share. She even had her own unique syntax: “Nothing is matters if there is snacks!” Though she was a bit of a tyrant: “You humans need to prove your worth!” And a failed profaner. “This is bullships!”
The day after she was gone, suddenly my 900 house plants were commenting on our lives in Zola’s voice. Maybe that’s where her dog magic went.
We’re working on grieving. I’ve spent enough of my life shoving down my thoughts and emotions so it’s important to me that I get up in my feelings when the need arises. I don’t want sadness to pool inside of me like poison. I don’t want the thought of Zola to make me sad. Every single day for almost twelve years she made me happy. Why stop now?
I took three days off of work. When I went back, a male coworker said “so, what’s the deal? Are you dying or leaving?” I said “my dog died. Don’t you feel like an asshole now?”
Because yeah I’m that bitch.
The day after, we had to get out of the house. We decided to visit and make a donation to The Wild Animal Sanctuary here in Colorado, where over 450 rescued animals live in massive enclosures with new packs and family units. It was nice to see lions and tigers and bears (…) who previously lived pretty terrible lives just chillin’ in Colorado, living their/my best life of snoozing, snacking, and splishing about.
Lions will always make me think of Zola because Rhodesian Ridgebacks come from Africa and are also called African Lion Hounds, and chubby tigers fast asleep in a sunbeam will also make me think of her because the resemblance is uncanny.
I cry all the time. The tiniest things set me off. Like the realization we can no longer pinch off pieces of our food and throw them across the room. One night, when yet another thing had set me sobbing, Alex was like “You know what’s cool, though? You can always know you had the best dog ever.”
He’s so right.
Zola. The best dog ever.
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