I have not eaten in three days. In spite of your mother's best efforts, you should know- I do not want there to be any silly "blame-game" when the time finally comes. She did what she could, but no one lives forever; especially not a dog. A dog always knows when his time has come. Unlike cats, who boast about this "nine lives" nonsense and squander the one that's been given to them, we dogs have a sense of dignity when it comes to life and death. Yes, I can see that my number's up. But, just for now, I'm waiting.
I have slept by the front door every night since you left. That way, when you come back, I will be the first thing you see.
"Jenna?" From the other room, I hear that your mother's voice is dripping with
trepidation, as though she is approaching a wild animal she fears might run away.
"Oh, no, it's nothing like that. It's...it's Zeus."
My eyesight may be failing, but at the very least my hearing seems untouched by age. The sound of your voice, even through the crackle and static of a cell-phone, is enough to set my tail to wagging rustily of its own accord.
Your mother steps into the entryway, regarding my thin frame with a baleful eye.
"Jenna, honey... I think it's time."
My muzzle is whiter than the last time I saw you. It reminds me of a time when you were very small, bent on adorning me with white acrylic spots. I loved the way you wrinkled your forehead in concentration, your tiny fingers still too clumsy for your grand imagination. I always knew you'd be an artist, Jenna.
Your mom and dad called it a "mess", but I knew what those spots really were: art. A badge of honor for your trusty companion. I was already proud.
I wonder what you'll think of me now, with white-flecked paws and aching joints and dull fur. You were always so concerned with appearances.
If there was one gift I could give you, Jenna, I'd let you see yourself through my eyes- I am sure that you are still the most beautiful girl in the world.
"Come on, Zeus. Time to go, boy!"
Your mother's forced enthusiasm is disconcerting. Go? Go now? Perhaps if she sees that I can't go... I struggle upwards for a moment and see her face fall when my hips refuse to follow me. I curl up again, offering the tiniest of tail wags in apology.
"Alright, up we go." Suddenly, there are large arms around me, your father's scent as rich and leathery as his voice. It takes me a moment to realize what is happening- German Shepherds, as a rule, are not generally picked up.
"No!" I bark. They can't understand me, but I do my best to ensure that the message is clear. I thrash as much as I can, even adding a small growl for emphasis.
"I am waiting for Jenna," I want to explain. "What if she comes back when I'm gone?"
Don't they realize how precious my time is?
I was there on your first day of Kindergarten. Your parents, awash with worry and at war with their emotions, did little to ease your quiet fears.
"What if no one likes me, Zeus?" Your question was posed with perfect seriousness, but I didn't have an answer. I just wagged my tail and smiled.
"I like you, Jenna."
Your new school was close (just a few blocks away) so your mother and father decided that the four of us could walk there together.
"Don't worry," I said, though of course you couldn't hear me. "You don't have to go alone."
I hadn't grown into my paws yet, so I had to take extra care not to step on you or trip. Your chubby fingers clutched too tightly at my collar, but still, I did not stumble.
I hate car rides. The noisy truck seems to rattle all around me. Your parents sit in grave silence, side by side in the front seats. I wish, desperately, for a way to make them understand-
"I was waiting for Jenna. I am not ready yet."
You used to talk to me about heaven all the time.
"It's only for people who believe in Jesus. Grandpa's there, and I'll get to go when I die." You said once, a solemn-faced child fresh from Sunday School and full of certainty.
I remember, too, the hard times. I remember the tears and the angry shouts to a ceiling that never spoke back. I remember late-night apologies and conversations with an invisible friend you called "Father".
As you grew, so did heaven.
"What if heaven's not a place at all?" You mused, twirling a strand of your hair. "What if heaven is EVERYTHING that's good and everyone we miss is still here, as a cloud or a dandelion or a breeze?" I felt suddenly guilty for all of the dandelions I had dug up in my life.
Still, you continued to grow. I have never forgotten that night when you were 17. You crept back into our bedroom with admirable stealth, but I was already awake. I sat and stared at you in silence, longing for your mother's capacity for reproach.
"Where were you, Jenna?" I wondered.
Without a word, you crumpled to the floor beside me and buried your face in my fur. There were bruises on your arms, and you smelled like strangers and alcohol and violence.
"I-I'm so stupid, Zeus." You sobbed. You talked a lot about pressure and loneliness and fear- for once, I was not sure what to do. I pressed closer to you, and though you didn't see it, I cried too.
That's why I first started sleeping by the front door- not because I was mad at you, like you thought for so long, but because I knew then that the world outside was vicious. I would guard the door, and never again let it hurt you.
The sound of the car door opening jerks me awake with an involuntary yelp. This is old age, I think, as your father carries me through the veterinary clinic's doors. I am not your worthy protector anymore.
As your parents sign a stack of papers and carry me through yet another set of doors, I feel a last stab of guilt.
"I waited as long as I could, Jenna."
When I die, I will come back as a breeze on a cool fall day. I will ruffle your hair and nip at your nose, and you will do that special thing of yours where you crinkle your eyes and snuggle deep inside your coat. Perhaps, for a moment, you will remember snuggling close to my warm fur as the threat of winter stirred around us, and, maybe, something inside you will know that there is heaven in everything beautiful, and you will know that I never left you.
"ZEUS!" You burst through the door in a flurry of overcoat and panic and long, unbrushed hair. Jenna. My Jenna.
The cold, hard counter is torture on my bony joints, but I try not to let you see. I throw myself, body and soul, into the most enthusiastic wiggle I can muster. You throw your arms around me, clinging too tightly to my collar. I don't mind.
"I waited, Jenna."
You hoist yourself onto the table and let me lean on you, just as I used to do for you so many years ago.
You stroke my fur, and you tell me about art school and your apartment and how much you've missed me. You talk about the games we used to play in the backyard, when I was a heroic sidekick or a trusty steed or a partner-in-crime. You talk about walks and fetch and love that never changes. You talk about how, in your adolescence, you traded our playtimes for boys and mall trips and makeup and you talk about wasted time and loneliness. You cry and cry and cry.
I lick the tears from your face, wishing more than ever for a voice. "It's okay," I try to tell you with my eyes and wagging tail. "It's really okay, Jenna. I'm so sorry I couldn't protect you."
Then, before we are properly done, there is a man in a white coat approaching us. You leave the table, but not my side, your hand never lifting from my shoulder.
"It's okay, Zeus," you say. I drink in your voice and your scent and your comforting touch. "It's really okay."
I feel a sharp prick, and then a creeping heaviness. First, I feel the pain go out of my hips. Now the cold, only a moment ago so biting, is yielding to a tingling warmth that feels so much like sleep. Jenna. I fight to keep my eyes open, to keep you in focus-
"Don't worry," you say, your voice as strong as it is kind. "Don't worry. You don't have to go alone."
Then, finally, I am as light as a breeze on a cool fall day.