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June 6, 1992: Zita Sir Puppy
All three of us helped dig the grave, until it was 5 feet deep. Kees enlarged it on the second day, I deepened it again on the third, and Claudia broadened the base on the fourth day. Each of us had taken glances at Zita at various times, and taken his measure.
I was determined he would be buried with his toys and his bowl, with extra slices of bread wrapped in tin foil, a hard boiled egg too. I was amazed at how I found myself planning these neolithic rituals -- agnostic that I am -- yet it seemed wholly appropriate to plan like this. On the last day Claudia decided that he should be buried in the bedspread he currently slept on. We used the spread to lower him into the grave, and used it to cover his head and trunk. "Be careful of his head, John," she told me as we lowered him into the ground. We laid him on his side, facing West to face our house.
For a week afterwards we added more soil to the top of the grave as the surface subsided; ran water onto the patch to pack the ground. I built a small marker from six bricks. Later in the year a porch extension would be built over the grave, and the marker would be removed. But during the first weeks I would sit at times near the marker, and my chest would ache, and a pressing atmosphere would envelop me. I didn't cry again, although even now I cannot talk about him without causing a tension in my throat and about my eyes. When he died it had been so sudden that I was shocked. I left the vet and Claudia with Zita lying dead on the pavement in the back yard, to walk into the house and cry. I had been holding his head while the vet injected his left front leg. "It's alright," I had told him when he had turned to investigate. I had moved my free hand to the side of his chest to check his heartbeat -- but it was gone. It was over already.
I'm ashamed in a way, at my reaction to the loss of a dog. I might not grieve as much at the loss of a parent, but I think I would at the loss of a child. Zita had been like a child in that all we did involved him. We could not leave the house or move from one floor to another without explaining to him where we were going, and when we would be back. We had to listen to his low growls of displeasure when we did have to leave him at the house. But also we had the joy of always being greeted with great enthusiasm when we returned. We should have learned to greet each other like that, or learned his respect or patience with others.
It was, especially for me, an interdependent relationship. For eight years Zita almost never left my side, went with me everywhere, on foot or in the car, to run errands, visit a gallery, get groceries or get car parts, but also from room to room in the house. He would watch the car, wait outside of stores with his nose glued to the window, he could be set out to guard a child playing in the yard. He would walk ahead in our travels and size up every stranger, casually walking diagonal to their path to catch a whiff of their intentions. Neighbors would greet him and fail to say hello to me. We knew that even the last weeks and days, when he could hardly walk, he still took his guard duties with total seriousness, and would probably have defended us with his life.
I always talked to him in long complex sentences while he gave his full attention, taking in every word and sifting through it for recognition. He would also monitor all our casual conversation for key words like "go to," or "xerox," or "lumberyard," for he loved to go anywhere, and do useful things like carry the checkbook or packages or just be an imposing 110 pound presence.
He developed an immense vocabulary, we had counted some 150 words and phrases (and hand signals) by the time he was six months old. Each family member used separate sets of commands for dog walking, but he understood them all. He was carrying a bag of groceries ahead of me across a parking lot once, when I saw a car coming and feared he would be hit. Although I should have called out "Remain," which would normally stop him short, I called out, "Be careful, Zita." He came to an immediate stop.
For eight years we kept aware of the weather because of his particular dislike of rain and love of snow. We had a wading pool in the backyard for him to lie down in after walks on hot days. We toweled him off when he came in -- and he always growled when we dried his legs. We opened windows for him in the car, even on cold days, so he could take in whole neighborhoods with his nose. We rearranged furniture, provided a hundred varieties of bedding, allowed him on the couch, allowed him to beg in his modest manner at the dinner table -- a low growl issued after a few minutes, if we still had not noticed that he had been sitting in silent expectation for a small piece of bread. He loved bread. We let him sleep in the basement on hot days, we provided him with toys, let him take an occasional stick or rock into the house, although not without arguments.
He, in turn, developed elaborate games to play with us: "Tug of Rope," where he handicapped his strength to match his opponent exactly. This developed over the years into "You'll Never Get This Away From Me," and "Catch Me If You Can," usually played at the tail end of a walk, when it was time to go in again. Also there was "Flashlight," where he tried to capture a spot of light on a wall or the sidewalk, scratching, biting and barking at the spot, but stopping instantly if the light was accidentally beamed onto someone's foot. When the game was still new he would use his nose to locate the flashlight on a shelf and face it at full attention, awaiting another round. He had two bowling balls in the back yard which he would shove around and bark at incessantly, and pick up with his eye teeth. On walks he would at times rush at me from behind to hit me in the shoulder with his muzzle -- just for fun. Then he would turn and stand with his upper lip curled under in imitation of a human smile.
He developed eating and greeting rituals. His food had to be set down just so, stirred with a fork and the fork tapped twice against the bowl, before he would eat. He would back up and wait if one of the cats reached his bowl of food first. When he came back from a morning walk with Claudia he would stomp up and down and howl at the side of my bed until I let a hand or arm out from under the cover to receive a single lick. After that all was in order, and he would lie down too.
He came to me to get his ears cleaned. He would sit to face me with one ear up and one ear down, glancing every few seconds at the top of the refrigerator where we kept the baby oil and Q- Tips. He let me scrape the plaque off his teeth, but wouldn't turn over to have the other side of his mouth done. No one can turn a 110 pound Rottweiler if he doesn't want to be turned.
He would come to us with all his injuries, and we would make repairs or comfort him. He would growl to let us know the affected parts. His final injury was a swelling of his shoulder which turned out to be bone cancer. Against the recommendations of the vet, we kept him another four months rather than put him down immediately. We changed his diet to rice, oatmeal, and hamburger with a complex schedule of dietary supplements. For the first time in his life he started to eat with relish, and he gained back the weight he had already lost. But feeding him became a 45 minute chore twice a day. We took him in for acupuncture once a week to relieve his discomfort, but the last two times I had to help him into the car. In the end we could only comfort him. During the last two weeks I left out the vitamins and oatmeal from his meals, neither of which he cared for anyway. I think during the last weeks he only ate to please us. A new eating ritual had developed -- three times I would bring him a tidbit of hamburger from his bowl before he would get up to hop three-legged to his dish. At the last I also had to bring his dish to him.
Jno Cook is an artist living in Chicago. When it was time to get a dog, Jan Zita Grover recommended the breed. He received his name before he was born. He was affectionately called Puppy, asked to have Sir added at six months.
published November 92, Artpaper, Minneapolis MN