God, Dog, and the Ties That Bind: A Shenzi Farewell

“No matter when or where you go, I will follow.” Dogs never know, when you open that front door and give them the O.K. to accompany you, whether they’re headed only to the mailbox, a walk around the block, an epic car camp, or a trip to the airport for a flight across the continent.

Not that any of those matter one way or the other. The only true and important thing: They only want to be with you.

And so it was that in the last few minutes of her life, my beloved companion Shenzi, somewhere near 17 (stray rescue dog adopted 2008, birthday unknown), beset by kidney disease and long compromised by bouts of nausea, appetite loss, bad teeth and near deafness, trotted out ahead of me as we left the screen porch the other day, tail wagging, trailed by my partner Mary and a kindly veterinarian armed with the tools in hand to proceed with the somber and necessary task of bringing her life to a conclusion.

…Her not-to-be-contested vote is that you ARE God, and no long theological disputations of yours to the contrary are worth even a tiny bag of soggy kibble.

As we crossed the grass headed to the deck of our small home library where the euthanasia would take place, I couldn’t help but notice, through my already clouding vision, that the bounce that always characterized Shenzi’s walk (every happy dog’s, actually…), was evident once again, as it has been only periodically in these last months of her ever-encroaching illness.

She had three people in tow, after all, two of them much beloved, the other new person already having stooped to allow for smells and some light petting.

And now she was going outdoors with them all on a warm spring day, her stomach full and heart happy from the morning’s favorite treats and extended lounging around being loved on by her besties.

What could be better than this moment in time, every moment in time, really, in the life of what my pal Kevin calls the “love machine” that is a dog?

***

***

…thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up into
my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.

—From the Mary Oliver poem, “The Sweetness of Dogs”

***

My daughter and I first espied Shenzi at the county animal shelter, when we walked near her cage in the din of collective barking that is every shelter and noted that she was sitting primly on her haunches and staring up at us with huge brown eyes, the only mute dog, near as we could tell, in the place.

Curiously, her sign carried two words. One, her shelter-given name of Shenzi, after the Whoopi Goldberg character in “The Lion King,” which was a hyena. We guessed some humor-minded person in the shelter had noted a similarity.

The second word on its own sign: Barker.

It struck me at the time as cruel, about the worst marketing ploy ever devised for an entity trying to place an animal in a home. Or maybe they were no longer trying? (Shenzi had been there several weeks, and the facility did not have a no-kill policy in place.)

Adding insult to injury, as Dakota and I were discussing the oddity of that sign and its seeming contrast with Shenzi’s demeanor, a male staff member came up behind us and said, unbidden,“Oh, that dog? Barks all the time.”

I remember feeling a slight twinge of defiance about this, even as I laughed. Then they let Shenzi come out into a little meet-and-greet enclosure with a bench for homo sapiens and some grass and dirt for the canines. Shenzi popped in and was not afraid to approach us and take a sniff, but she didn’t stay long.

A (mostly) chihuahua and dachshund mix, she was a perpetual motion machine, her nose scouring every square inch of the enclosure, hopping effortlessly over the bench, into and out of our laps, back-and-forth, up-and-down, pausing but a nano-second for us to pet her before moving on.

We found out she’d been a mother at least once, had been living on the streets for what appeared to be an extended period, finally being picked up by animal control in poor condition, flea-and-tick-ravaged, skinny, with matted hair.

In other words, a survivor.

***

We liked the sound of all that, and she didn’t utter a peep in the 10 minutes or so we watched her bustle about. Still, we decided to sleep on it and come back for another visit the following day if we were so moved.

Which we did, noting Shenzi’s comparative quietude once more as we entered—along with those eyes. Since we had a cat at home, this time the shelter let us into an area ruled over by a large black cat who peered imperiously from a perch above the fray.

It added conviction to our deliberations when Shenzi paid it zero mind as she sniffed around the enclosure yet again. A few minutes later, we paid the $140 fee and took her home.

Whereupon Shenzi taught us over subsequent days (and years!) that the shelter had not been wholly inaccurate in labeling her as a barker. Thing was, she barked only as part of her solemn duty to protect her tribe, when people came to the door and for the first minute or two after, until she felt assured they were not ax murderers sent to do us harm.

Then, if they were amenable, she’d curl up on their lap, and it was like this, every single time, till her very last day (when she barked at the vet until she got to know her 30 seconds later).

In truth, if the shelter had had enough time to really know Shenzi in something resembling a normal daily life, they would have hung a sign outside her cage that said: Lover.

Come to think of it, every dog who has ever been given half a chance in this life would have the exact same sign.

***

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
       that you know
almost nothing.

—From Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”

***

***

Much as I’ve critiqued various conceptions of God in this space over the years, I am the first to say I’m the last person who would ever want the job.

What sane entity would ever consent to ethical conundrums by the bushel, relentless appeals for mercy from both the deserving and the less-so, tortuous decisions on the finer technical points of universe construction and the mechanics of beetle reproduction?

None of that matters, though, in the calculations your dog makes regarding the power dynamics of your relationship. Reticent though you might be, her not-to-be-contested vote is that you ARE God, and no long theological disputations of yours to the contrary are worth even a tiny bag of soggy kibble.

Which is why dog owners come to find themselves thrust into ever more challenging circumstances as animal science and technology improve, more options for disease management present themselves, and stickier wickets come into play over how much to put both your dog and your family budget through in trying to get her well or just extend her life for a few precious months.

These deliberations, I will admit, rather exhausted me these past months. Oh, but if beloved pets could only tell us exactly what they want, how they feel, when they have had enough of this intervention or that!

Shenzi lost more than three pounds (nearly 25%) of her body weight last year before we got on top of her diagnosis, made radical changes to her diet, and began a regimen (the vet techs taught us how over several sessions, may God bless them) that had us tying an IV bag from the chin-up bar in the bathroom doorjamb, Mary holding her in a gentle-as-possible hammerlock on one side of a table while I got a needle into the scruff of her neck from the other side and dripped the thrice-weekly dose of life-sustaining hydration into her that basically took over the cleansing function of her failing kidneys.

Shenzi, being a conscious creature, had an intense distaste for the procedure. She usually whimpered through most of it, but submitted easily enough for us to accomplish the task in the five or so minutes it required.

At least for some six months, she did.

Then we began to occasionally encounter deep, guttural and unnerving yelps and an intensified struggle to keep her still enough for the needle to remain in place. We were shaken, but for a while, subsequent sessions returned to their relative submission and calm.

And then came the last several weeks, the yelps and writhing gaining both intensity and consistency, the last of them seeing her needle pop out twice and the yelps and cries so guttural they seemed to come from the very depths of hell.

That’s when I broke down and knew I had to give up the fight, because Shenzi herself had fought so hard for her own right to do so.

***

So, that deepest sting: sorrow. Still,
   is he gone from us entirely, or is he
a part of that other world, everywhere?

—From Mary Oliver, “Bazougey”

***

Does that mean Shenzi was ready to die?

The idea sounds tragi-romantic, but I have never been one to believe that animals think in self-conscious terms of their own finitude as humans do. (Lucky for them, I’d say!)

In my view, every living entity has but one program: to keep on keeping on, and to try to reproduce themselves in whatever form their genetic programming dictates.

Clearly, Shenzi was telling us: No. More. Of. This.

But the drive to live, to take in another breath, another meal, another day with her beloveds, doesn’t just up and leave one day. She still wanted to eat (when her stomach allowed), to be loved on, even to walk the ‘hood and sniff every bush and tree, provided it was 1-2 blocks rather than the 4-5 miles we had traversed daily in healthier, younger times.

Giving up the hydration, I tried one last regimen using diet and a daily prescription antacid to quiet her stomach and allow adequate nutrition, but after a few days the deep convulsive (though still intermittent) vomiting of her initial illness returned, and it was painfully evident a new decline had begun.

And that it was time for me to accept my most painful and unwanted role.

***

How strong was her dark body!
How apt is her grave place.

How beautiful is her unshakable sleep.

—From Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”

***

The vet had heartily endorsed as many treats as Shenzi would want on that final day. As it happened, Mary had baked a pie, the crust of which Shenzi took great fondness to, so we took little chunks of that and some favorite cheddar cheese bits (all verboten foods during her illness) out with her to the deck.

Shenzi was on my lap and avidly taking in each bit, Mary petting her from my side as the first sedative injection went in, virtually unnoticed. The vet said it would take a few minutes, but it seemed no time at all until Shenzi’s chowing down was interrupted by her head suddenly slumped in my lap, and she was out.

Then the second, heart-stopping injection, not a whimper or movement as we wept over her now lifeless, beautiful, and at-last peaceful body, her final experience only of being fed and loved on by those who had ultimately accepted the responsibility to capitulate on her behalf and see her through to her end.

We buried her along the fence of the garden next to her brother, the cat Rascal, who also had flown east with us when we moved to join Mary in North Carolina nearly three years ago.

Three aging west coast seniors starting anew, swept along together by mysterious, unforeseen destinies, two of them now gone, part of my own past, though near enough outside my backdoor and deep—oh, so deep—inside my heart that I will carry them with me always, with all the other losses one collects in this finite world, made all the more precious, sad and beautiful for the end it brings to us all.

***

She roved far ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back,
or wait for me, or be somewhere.

Now she is buried under the pines.

—From Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”

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18 comments to God, Dog, and the Ties That Bind: A Shenzi Farewell

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Lovely meditation Andrew, as all dog lovers can most certainly relate to…Shenzi was so fortunate that you and Dakota rescued her so many moons ago and provided a life (and a death) that was full of love and adventure. As a life long dog person myself I’ve always loved the quip; “I strive to be the person my dog thinks I already am!!” Love machine indeed! We are blessed with an amazing dog (Bailey) whom we refer to as “the Dali Lama of dogs” or simply “doggielama ” because she so clearly models unconditional love and kindness to all beings (possibly with the exception of squirrels). There’s not a day that goes by when I am not struck with the richness and depth of her loving attention (she also clearly models the “love the one you are with” attitude being an equal opportunity love machine!). While we’ve deeply loved all the menagerie of pets we’ve had over the years, I think being largely retired (kids out of the house etc) we have lots more discretionary time to invest in Bailey’s life (friends joke that she is our “grandpuppy” since no humanoid grandkids as yet), but whatever the reason I am more acutely aware of the emotional depth of human-canine love! Many thanks to you and Mary Oliver for this heartfelt post, our hearts go out to you and Mary and we will be sure to raise a glass to the memory of Ms Shenzi!

  • Mary  says:

    Oh, the one and only Shenz Lorenz….you were so loved and will be so missed.

  • Henry W Majestic  says:

    Beautiful, sending a big hug your way. Hope you can enjoy your time in California.

  • Julie Johnson  says:

    Thank you, Andrew. This resonated.

  • Marybeth  says:

    Rest in peace, Shenzi. You were a delightful neighbor for many years. My condolences, Andrew. Lovely essay.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Kevin, I’ll not soon forget (in this life season of forgetting) the lovely image of a “love machine,” though perhaps “machine” does not quite do justice to the intensely un-machine-like machinations of wild & unconstrained love that dogs demonstrate in such relentless fashion. Hard to imagine life without one!

    Mary, I so wanted to find a spot to list but some of the monikers we bestowed on Madam Shenz over the years, but just couldn’t find a spot for it (till now!):
    Shenzie McKenzie, Shenny, The Shenz, Shenzi Face, Shenzi Head, Shenzi Head-uh, The Shenzerola, Shenzi Shellebegenza. And, of course, multiple others perhaps uttered in a wee bit of pique and not suitable for a G-inclined audience…

    Henry, thank you. I am going to make the most of my time here in Shenzi’s longtime stomping grounds; she wouldn’t have it any other way. ..

    Julie, it always helps to know that, so thank you. And blessings upon you & the critter(s) it resonates with.

    Ahh, Marybeth, so good to hear from you, and looking forward to paying a visit. I remember the very first time, shortly after we brought her home, that she went racing out to shoo you out of your own garden but within eyesight of the property she was already sworn to protect—clearly, she needed some help with property boundaries!

    • David+Jolly  says:

      A beautiful tribute, Andrew. The few times I saw you and Shenzi together the love was palpable, and though I’m sure that love was worth the pain of her inevitable loss, I doubt it lessened the pain. Quite the contrary. My condolences, Andrew.

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        Yes, it is the deal we make, David, and I will make it every time. Thank you.

  • Michael C  says:

    The love of (and from) a dog has no bounds. Beautiful words, Andrew.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, Michael, much appreciated.

  • Karen Malin  says:

    I was so incredibly moved by this piece. The idea that they follow where we lead! And the question of “is this the right time?”: having lived an almost parallel experience with our cherished Boomer! He definitely lived up to his name, a centerfold, funny, active curious loving pup! Adopted because he was the only one of 11 pups crawling into my lap to cuddle! And cuddle he did for 13 1/2 years. I had to smile at the idea you’d pay anything you could afford to keep this piece of your heart. Operations in the last couple years of Boomer’s time with us cost as much as a new car! A small one, but a car none the less! Last few days in so much pain. Huge tumor in his belly. We had had to euthanize a few dogs in our 50: years together but I had always assigned that task to Jim, not wanting to endure the emotional pain. But with Boomer I wanted to be there to hold him and cuddle til the last second. I’m not sure to this day if I made the right choice! The sorrow of saying good bye that reminds you what a joy it was to have them in your life! What an amazingly beautiful tribute you wrote for Shenzi! Connected me to my own with Boomer. Or Boomerang if I’m being formal! Thanks Andy!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks very much Karen; not hard to fathom why this spoke to you. I’m going to say that I think you did make the right choice in being with the Boomer when his time came. My assumption is that few living things would choose to die alone if they have had beloveds in their life. In the case of a family dog, it’s pretty obvious how fiercely attached they are to their pack, so all the more soothing for them, I think, just as it is for humans—to be loved on by their people as they exit this world. For us, painful, to be sure, but seems to me the least we can do to repay a small portion of all the devotion they have shown us. Thanks again for sharing your story.

  • jsrboxJay Rogers  says:

    Have just been trough the same with our cat, so very much appreciated this. Very lovingly written!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thank you, Jay. It was our cat about a year and a half ago. Came to NC with both him and Shenzi stuffed under the seats in front of us on the red eye from SFO. House will be eerily quiet; we had better crank up the music, I think…

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Andrew, and Mary, this piece touched my heart, as it did many others’. The love is palpable, as was said above, and I can only imagine the real, in-person love. But I don’t have to imagine, I guess – my two doggies give and get the same love, the pure unconditional kind. My own term for dogs is ‘hearts on 4 legs (or 3)’ and that arose from my own good luck of being loved, and by loving, wonderful dogs.

    I’m sorry you are going through this sadness, which would not be sad but for the love you have. And, you know. Our hearts on 4 legs count on us to accompany them across the threshold, and to know (or try hard to know) when the time has come. The house is quiet, but the love remains. JM

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Ah me, yes, Jeanette: “The house is quiet, but the love remains.” And love being love, it also sustains, and wants to be shared. Thank you.

  • Marianne Sonntag  says:

    Andrew,…Big ouch. Hugs to you, Mary and Dakota for the loss of a loving family member. As you ponder all that has brought you to this finality, I can relate, having travelled that road multiple times with my cat-children. Though there is an ache in the heart, a sense in the home of an entity lost,…indeed the love remains. And, I continue to hold the thought of a reunion at Rainbow Bridge.
    I cried plenty, relating to your loss. Reading your post late finds me already primed for bouts of sobbing as our country suffers again another senseless tragedy.
    Love to you Andrew,
    Marianne

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thank you, Marianne. Did a lot of thinking about this seeming juxtaposition—though it strikes me as more of a melding—of grieving the end of a beloved pet put down in mercy and the senseless, evil slaughter of innocent children. The quality and longitude of the grief so obviously different, along with its associated emotions. At one level, grief is grief and comparisons are generally ill-advised, each form of it needing no defense or explanation. Couldn’t help noticing, though, how the grief over these school shootings is accompanied so quickly by intense anger, because we all know something could be done about these events to at least reduce their occurrence, but for the craven self-interest of heartless politicians who are uncannily well-practiced at explaining away the most abhorrent evils in which they are utterly complicit though unapologetic. And underneath the anger at that, the great sadness of loss, compounded by how unnecessary it is in these cases of wanton destruction. Makes one want to bury one’s head under pillows, which may be necessary for a while, but exactly the wrong long-term response. We get “used to” all this at our great peril—and the peril of millions of children we are still charged to protect, to the extend we can. Love back to you in these trying times…

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