We didn’t have a dog in my house growing up. Allergies kept me away from other people’s dogs, too. The dogs I saw on the street were always pulling at their owners, or going for my teenage crotch. And so, by the time I hit my late teens, I had formed an impression of the entire canine kingdom as a population of barely-domesticated beasts, each pet an uncontrollable burden constantly on the verge of snarling, slobbering attack.
But Zellie, a pure-bred Jack Russell Terrier who we acquired in our first few years of marriage from a breeder who let her own pups run wild in the woods, wasn’t so much a dog as our first child: raised from a tiny pup, held close through her formative year, and ultimately the calmest, sweetest Jack, the very exception that proved the rule for the breed.
I don’t like dogs. But I loved Zellie, named for the Dutch word gezellig, a descriptive term that describes the lazy, laissez-faire attitude of waiters and shopkeepers, after my wife vetoed my first choice (drempels, which is Dutch for “speedbumps”). I loved her for 16 years, ever since the day of our first encounter, when she crawled from her litter to settle in the palm of my hand, and my heart broke open. My children loved her. And my wife, who is in many ways at her best with an infant in her hands, had a loving, grateful baby that spent her days and nights snuggled up against her.
And then, one morning in June, I let her out for her usual morning walk-about, and she didn’t come back. We looked for her for days – first her, and then her body.
And then one day, we stopped looking.
It was already the summer of fleas and flood. The famine of Crohn’s disease had been ravaging our family for two years. We were tired to begin with; tired, and sick, and struggling.
The slow, subsequent understanding that she was gone broke our already fragile hearts.
I wrote this.
It’s been four days since you didn’t come back.
Already I’m forgetting the sweetness
of your breath; your soft belly under
my fingertips; the present tense of you.
The girls miss you terribly. We hold them close
and lose ourselves in holding them close.
Our cars become embassies of heartbreak,
safe houses from a nation of sorrow.
Yesterday we walked for hours. The girls looked
for you everywhere. I looked for your body
small in the underbrush, white against brown leaves.
I looked for your body in my heart
where nothing is ever finished or resolved:
the chaos that builds inside our bedroom;
the children’s illnesses that do not fade;
the broken things we patch or work around
because we cannot afford to fix them.
I still look for your body, driving slow
each time I come back to the street where we live:
the street that swallows us, and you, and my heart.
It takes time to move on past the greatest loves of our lives. I still look into the underbrush as I turn onto our street, on warm days when the snow has melted.
But last weekend, after a couple of false starts, with beating hearts and nervous cheer we drove up to the shelter and let a dog pick us out. We named him Chick, because he looks like a miniature version of my in-law’s lab-mix Rooster, all the way down to the frosted paws and white chest blaze, and because when we pick him up, he settles into our body heat like a freshly laid hatchling.
I wasn’t sure I was ready. It turns out I was overdue.
Losing a first pet is a terrible, necessary teachable moment, one all of us need as we move towards maturity. But if I’ve learned anything from our adventures with dogs over the last seven months, it’s that as much as it is a new beginning, finding the second pet is the second movement of loss: its capstone, and its transformation.
It was time, long past time, to move on to acceptance. And so the wee one, still an empath at ten years old, was a bit teary-eyed that first night with Chick, her growing love for our tiny black beast distracted by the thought of she-who-came-before, confronted newly with the raw truth that moving on can feel like disgracing a memory. And so all of us cried a bit, that first week, as we came to terms with the knowledge that one day, this dog, too, will move on without us.
And so we made the choice to love him more fiercely for it, instead of holding back, the better to make the most of the time we have.
As I remind my children in these past weeks, we will always love the parts of us that our own loves bring to us, and be grateful for their acceptance, care, love and grace. And we are better, much better, for the experience. For no longer will we take love for granted; no longer will we forget that every moment shared is precious, even as we learn to accept the shortness of time itself.
Thank you, Chick and Zellie, for teaching us that who we are is always greater when we share our hearts and homes. May you both find rest and love, eternal and amen.
- David Grisman, John Hartford, Mike Seeger: Hound Dawg (orig. Big Mama Thornton) 
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