Releasing Zelda

By: Wanda Buckner

I clearly saw my wonderful, black and silver, miniature schnauzer Zelda sitting on the bank of the river as we sped away in the boat. I shouted, “We can’t leave her” and woke up.

Releasing Zelda
Photo by Pat Justis

Zelda came to Lloyd and me as a puppy twelve years ago. From the beginning, she was calm, loving and sensitive to the aches and pains of others. When she was four, I completed the three month training to volunteer with her at the Providence hospital in Olympia. We took the Delta Pet Partners® Skills and Aptitude test and passed on our first attempt.

We volunteered on Inpatient Rehabilitation for six years. If patients were in deep distress, Zelda would lie next them and mold her body to theirs. Sometimes patients held her tightly, sometimes they cried, sometimes they whispered softly. They were always deeply appreciative of her presence. Other times, when Zelda would sit on the lap of a patient who was having a particularly difficult time, she would lay her head on the person’s heart providing deep, silent comfort.

As Zelda aged, I knew she could not continue her work as a therapy dog for many more years, so I began training another puppy, Sophie, a Maltese/Lhasa-Apso cross, as a therapy dog with Zelda’s help. Sophie and I became a Delta Therapy Team when she was a year old. Zelda retired from her therapy work the following year.

For the last six months, I knew Zelda’s health was failing. I dreaded her death. When Lloyd was in the hospital for an extended period seven years ago, I left her with good friends so she wouldn’t be confined to the motor home in the hospital parking lot where I stayed so I could be with Lloyd throughout the day, every day. Lloyd had been in the hospital for eight weeks when Zelda saw me loading the car to leave our home once again. She threw herself into the trunk so she wouldn’t be left. After that she lived with me in the motor home. Three and a half months went by before Lloyd’s children and I carried out his wishes to turn off the respirator and allow him to die.

Zelda’s death was tied up for me with Lloyd’s death. I felt losing Zelda meant losing my last connection to my life with Lloyd. I experienced reverberations from Lloyd’s loss every time I thought of Zelda dying. I cried whenever I thought of Zelda’s inevitable end.

Zelda had arthritis, an enlarging liver, a painful spine and congestive heart failure. She was on Metacam and two heart medications plus pain medication and muscle relaxants as needed. Her breathing was increasingly shallow. When she became excited or exerted too much she would faint from lack of oxygen to her brain. Still, she was eating, going on walks and seemed to enjoy life. But lately I noticed her body sagged away from her backbone. She slept on her side, her belly distended, her legs stretched out, all the better to breathe.

The night before the dream, Zelda refused her medications although she seemed in pain. She slept where I placed her at the end of the bed. When the dream wakened me, I checked her. She had not moved from where I’d placed her the night before. I carried her downstairs and offered her medication. Again she refused.

I knew Zelda was done. I called the emergency veterinarian. The Vet Tech showed us into a small room furnished like a living room. Zelda was given a shot to make her sleepy, then the life-ending dose of anesthetic. She died instantly.

The moment Zelda’s breath stopped, I felt release and flight. She was not dead, but released like Lloyd was released. And I was released too—released from worry, from sadness, from fear. I saw Zelda and Lloyd happy together. Our connection wasn’t broken; it was strengthened.

John and I buried Zelda along the path of our daily walk. Sophie came and sniffed at the open grave, then stretched up toward me, balancing on her back feet. I leaned over toward her and she licked the tears that ran down my cheeks.

John and I immediately left on vacation for three days. When we returned, I wondered how I would feel coming home with Zelda gone. When I settled into my favorite chair, Sophie jumped up to lie next to me just like Zelda had for the last 12 years. When I went to bed, Sophie took Zelda’s spot next to me. I knew Zelda’s mission was complete. She had passed her healing torch and special place in my life to Sophie. Zelda’s place is with Lloyd now. She is at peace and so am I.

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