I got the call while I was on the Amtrak Acela, headed from New York City back home to Providence: Zuzu, our nine-year-old Bichon, had gotten into a bag of leftover Halloween candy, passing up the Dots and Smarties and eating just the chocolate. She was sick, our babysitter Amanda told me. Shivering and panting.
I knew chocolate could be toxic to dogs. But how much would it take? I Googled dog eating chocolate. An ounce per pound was okay. That meant Zuzu could tolerate nine ounces. Visions of Milky Ways and Kit Kats, Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups danced through my head. How much chocolate was in that stuff? When I called the vet, she told me to watch for shallow breathing. Was panting the same as shallow breathing? The train paused in New Haven. I texted Amanda for an update. Still shivering. Still panting. Silently, I added, Still alive. Then I started to cry.
For all kinds of reasons, we love our dogs. Unconditional love. Companionship. Their warm bodies and cold noses. The funny things they do. The way they become part of our families. But it wasn’t until that call that I realized how important Zuzu was to me. Or maybe I should say that I admitted how important she was.
Like all kids, my two — Sam and Grace — wanted a dog. They entertained themselves by looking at pictures of Cockadoodles on the computer and playing with puppies in the pet store. Five-year-old Grace, however, really wanted a dog. She told us how she would train it and feed it and comb it. She told us how she would love it. That Valentine’s Day, my husband wanted to surprise her with a puppy. We’d all somehow landed on a Bichon, and we found a breeder in Oklahoma who asked us: “Do you want the one that dances?” Of course we did. Our dancing puppy had to wait for warmer weather to fly across the country to us, so Valentine’s Day came in March that year.
I wanted to name the dog Zelda. But the kids weren’t sold. As we waited for the puppy’s arrival, they spent all of their time discussing names. Then one day, they came to me. “We’ve picked the name,” Sam announced. “Zuzu!” Grace shouted. It was the perfect name. Every year I sat them down at Christmas and forced them to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with me. I didn’t care how corny the movie was or how many times I’d seen it, Christmas wasn’t Christmas if we didn’t watch it together, a bowl of popcorn passed between us and me crying when Jimmy Stewart runs inside his house calling for Donna Reed. “Zuzu it is,” I said.
Three weeks after Zuzu came to us, Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. In the last picture taken of Grace, she wears a lopsided smile as she holds that white ball of fluff, the dog she’d dreamed of. In the terrible months that followed, Zuzu took on a strange role. She was one more living thing who had known Grace. She had licked her face voraciously and slept in her lap. Such a tenuous link, but when you lose a child, those connections take on an importance that is hard to describe. That year, we did not watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Life seemed anything but wonderful.
Over these eight years, my family has realigned itself. We have added another child, Annabelle, and a menagerie of other pets: a bunny, two frogs and a rotating cast of goldfish. Last Christmas, for the first time since Grace died, I put on It’s a Wonderful Life again. Sam, now 17, rolled his eyes and groaned at the idea of watching it. Annabelle slept through the whole movie, and my husband spent more time checking his email than looking at the television. When I got that call from Amanda, I remembered the importance of Zuzu in the movie. She is the daughter who gives her father a flower that he sticks in his pocket. It is those petals that, when he finds them at the end, tell him that he is still alive and send him running back home to Donna Reed. Zuzu’s petals.
Our Zuzu gives us that, too, a reminder that our Grace was once here with us, that the rest of us are still alive and meant to seize our lives, even with her gone. Crying as the train left New Haven, I thought of the beautiful daughter I lost, how she literally jumped for joy the day I showed up at her school with Zuzu on a pink leash. “That’s my dog!” Grace shouted for the class, the world, to hear.
A text popped up on my phone: Zuzu lives!