Wednesday, November 8, 2017

☸️ Zele

White Labrador Retriever stand in snow, looking back over shoulder

Before I share much more about our life with Bodhi, I want to write about the Lab who came before him. She’s the reason, after her passing, that I wanted another Labrador Retriever. She was my sweet baby girl, and the first dog I dearly loved in life and mourned in passing. Zele was the dog I’d always wanted, beginning to end, and that was the last thing I whispered into her ear.

We’d been living in Virginia for a few years when our old Golden Retriever, Maggie, began showing her age. A friend suggested adopting a puppy before Maggie was done, and let the pup learn from her.

I was skeptical. My mind went to training, the kind an owner does. Kelly liked the idea. She was more in the mind of a puppy learning where and how to ask to go potty, how to stay in the yard together, and generally how to behave (in a doggish sort of way). We sat on the idea for a while, until Maggie began slowing down.

I don’t know what led me to the breed. We enjoy watching the dog shows every winter, so maybe I’d taken a liking to the Lab’s friendly, yet noble features. There’s a sturdiness to them, right up until one jumps into your lap, or rolls over for a belly rub.

We found Zele at a back-yard breeder in a Falls Church neighborhood. She was one of two remaining pups. I’d never picked a pup from the litter, so I just climbed into the pen, sat down on the concrete floor of the garage and played with the puppies. Zele was the one who, when she sniffed around me, laid in my lap, rolled over and let me rub her belly, found her way into my heart.

Her name came along a more convoluted path. We’d taken a Southwest driving trip beginning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and ending in Las Vegas a month before. We’d stopped in Santa Fe, Taos, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, and drove through the Painted Desert, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. Our trip was shortened by a day as a hurricane approached the Virginia coast, but it was foremost something we both enjoy – a long drive with plenty of time to talk and enjoy the scenery.

Coffee mug with the name Zele printed on it

After waking in Santa Fe one morning, Kelly suggested we look for a coffee place to grab breakfast. I opened a map on my laptop and, among a handful of local places, found Zele Coffee & Cafe. No doubt it’s pronounced zay’-lay, but being me, I pronounced it zelly. Off we went.

Over a cup of good coffee and an egg sandwich I later opined, “Zele (as zelly) would be a good dog name.” Kelly replied, “yes, it would.”

A month later she joined our family.

Zele was a challenge during her first six months. A friend nicknamed her “Zele-No.” This was before we learned that a dog crate is a comfort, not a prison, and that the best way to stop a dog from teething on everything is to provide a dozen or more chew toys, both soft and hard, strewn around the house. We lost a wall-to-wall carpet and some wood trim, but nothing that couldn’t be replaced.

I learned something with Zele that I’ve used with Stella and Bodhi since. Dogs like training, and I do, too. Working with a dog forms a bond and lasting memories. It makes her your dog. The day I began training Zele, which closely followed buying and employing a wire crate kennel, was the day she became a good dog. One sharp correction established the relationship. After that she was a quick study and a joy to work with.

From Zele I also learned to never wrestle with a Labrador. They’re one muscle from nose to tail. She was fierce, in a playful sort of way. She was a happy dog, too. I’d often tell her, “I have you. I’ll always have you. I’ll have you for the rest of your life” when I’d get my arms around her. It meant more to me than simply getting ahold of her.

We took Zele to Atlantic Beach during a trip to visit family in North Carolina. She loved the water. I tossed a bright orange tennis ball into the surf and she darted out after it, paddling back to shore for more. Each throw went further, until I tossed the ball beyond the breakers. She dutifully swam out and, seeing a wave crest over her head pulled down her ears and shut her eyes. The wave broke over her, submerging her head for a few seconds. Then she was in air again, pausing until she realized she was ok, and swam on. She charged the waves without hesitation after that.

Zele was fearless. A close-by thunderstorm would bring her into the room with us, but she’d just lay down and relax. She took everything else with a mildly curious gaze or a sniff. She welcomed strangers with barks and a tail wag, reserving her greatest alertness for a thrown tennis ball and food. I don’t believe I ever saw her cower until the end.

A red Golden Retriever and a white Labrador retriever lie together on grass

Our (now) old Golden, Stella, barks at passing cyclists, cars, and people out front of our home.

Zele would lay looking out the door, see them passing, and watch them go. If she barked at something out front it was worth getting up for.

One of my fondest memories of Zele is how she’d come right over and lay next to me when I’d stretch out on the floor for TV. She’d spend fifteen minutes or a half-hour with me, then roll away. She didn’t like heat, but she did like to snuggle. Sometimes she’d be lying under foot near a chair, and scoot herself toward me a few inches at a time after I’d moved to the floor, until I received a wet kiss on my bald head.

I can still remember the scent of her as I’d get down on the floor at the end of each day – she’d sleep on a bed at the foot of our stairs – and tell her what a good dog she was, and that I loved her, and kissed her forehead. I’d receive a lick up the side of my face before she flopped over and shut her eyes. She was a sweet girl.

Zele suffered arthritis in her right hind leg from age one. We think it was exacerbated by a bout of Lyme disease, for which she was successfully treated. Later in life she suffered a torn CCL on the other side, and successfully recovered from remedial surgery. The arthritis, however, grew worse in her later years, and she began hobbling. It didn’t slow her down, but we knew she was suffering. Pain and anti-inflammation meds go only so far.

For the final year and a half of her life we met our friend Dr. Betty for an acupuncture session every two weeks. I’d read about the benefits of acupuncture, and now I saw them. There was noticeable improvement by the end of the day each time.

We got to know well the people at Clevenger’s Corner Veterinary Care. Everyone seemed to know Zele. I guess we’d become regulars. I always have a good feeling bringing our pets to them, though we’ve left a couple there the hard way. Good people, good care.

In her last three months Zele began spending less time with us, choosing to snooze the evening away alone in our dining room. Eventually she’d just walk through the living room, look at us, and keep moving. We’d walk around a corner and inadvertently surprise her, and she’d tremble, afraid. Toward the end I think she’d forget who we were until we spoke.

Canine dementia has a more formal name, canine cognitive dysfunction. Zele was not diagnosed with it, but she demonstrated the symptoms I see in my mom, who has had a similar diagnosis. We lose these patients in bits and pieces, and it’s heartbreaking.

Zele's first day home

Zele’s last day was set to include an acupuncture session. She loved car rides. Kelly had loaded her into the back of her car, but when I came out to the garage to join them she told me Zele was uncomfortable. She was afraid and cowering, so I rode with her in the back where she hid her head under one of my legs the entire way.

It was clear that although something had gradually been changing, now we’d lost her. She could still get around, but on that last day I have my doubts she knew where she was or with who. If she did, it was fleeting.

Dr. Betty greeted us with her usual, upbeat “hello, how are you guys?,” to which I replied, “not good.” She was down on the floor with Zele and us immediately. We discussed what was going on, what we’d been experiencing, treatment options. We’d been over this before; nothing new, just worse. No treatment involved a way to help cognition. I knew Zele was among familiar strangers, and that it would only worsen. This was more than I could ask of my beloved friend, so I asked Kelly if she could let Zele go that day. When she said yes, I asked Dr. Betty if we could switch the purpose of the appointment. She understood, and nodded.

The rest still brings me to tears. She was with us, and then she was gone. In hindsight I believe we got every last day out of that sweet girl, and not a moment more. It’s hard to know when the time is right, and so painfully easy to second-guess the decision. Our good fortune was suffering neither with Zele.

We had her ashes, a paw print impression, and her collar to remember her by not long after. The collar and paw print, along with a couple of photos, are in a shadow box Kelly put together. Much of her ashes were buried by Kelly among flowering plants that attract butterflies. Zele used to sit and watch the butterflies in our yard. Another portion were scattered by me, alone, upon moving waters in a place I can visit with a long walk.


Old white Labrador Retriever laying, looking at the camera

I noticed something the last time I visited Zele. She’s moving away from me. My grief is gone, the sadness has ebbed, and I recall (mostly) only good memories of our time with her. We again have a beautiful young Labrador Retriever, who I love as I did Zele. Balance has been restored: old, red Golden Retriever and young, white Lab.

Kelly says that no matter how many dogs you’ve had in your life, there’s always that one that stays in your heart. I grew up with dogs, adopted one by marriage, and have adopted three more. Zele is the only one who’s ever appeared in my dreams.

Zele was the dog I’d always wanted. Lucky me, we had each other for thirteen and a half years.

(Final photo courtesy Kathy Kirkpatrick, who’s known a beloved dog or two.)

#Zele #LabradorRetriever #LifeOfADog #BooBooGirl