I’m not a religious person, nor am I overly spiritual. I believe in people; in love; kindness; dignity and respect, so I suppose you could say I’m sensitive: I love wholly and, vicariously by default, the losses are painful.
I like science; evidence; facts and at school was that – with hindsight, utterly irritating – child who always asked: “why?”. Exasperated teaching staff would have to shut down the endless pushing with: “it just is, okay?!”. I had a suspicion then that they might not have known the answer to my interrogation.
Despite all this, Friday was a day I can’t help but keep coming back to in my mind, and one I’m certain my memory of will never leave me. Almost one month to the day on what would have been his 13th birthday, I had to say the final goodbye to my beloved dog, Zeus. He was truly my best friend; my wingman – my buddy. For many years he was the only reason I returned home. Growing up I’d had dogs all my life, but there was something deeply special about Zeus. Everyone who met him commented on his personality, and wanted to take him home with them. He had a mighty presence; a captivating sensitivity about him, and an uncanny ability to know when something wasn’t right. He’d slowly approach to sit closely beside you, offering his awesome amber eyes and, if needed, a gentle lick. I spoke to him daily; sought him out regularly to be with him, and felt his ready reassurance.
His goodbye had been planned for some time. I wanted to say goodbye, where at all possible, in the summer, while the weather was still good, so he could enjoy his most favourite of activities: laying outside in the sun, sniffing scent rafts bound to the gently moving summer air. That planning, under the gentle guidance of our vet, Mark Westwood (Mark the Home Vet), and his wife the equally remarkable vet nurse, Rebecca, allowed the creation of some consciously memorable and truly special moments. The time was right for Zeus; his failing back legs were deteriorating rapidly and seeing him struggle to walk and stand was becoming distressing for everyone – the majesty of this wonderful dog slowly being stripped away. No longer could he manage the stairs to spend time with me in the office as he so often did; nor climb onto the bed for a Sunday morning special cuddle – a treat we all looked forward to and one he’d often push to make happen throughout the week as well. He once loved to run and chase, but could no longer do that. His happiness came from sniffing, gentle short walks, careful play and simply being with each other: the blinking into each others’ eyes, and the super soft cuddles. Coupled with his ageing muscles was an advancing renal failure, and blood tests revealing his heart was under considerable stress, too. His time was now.
His passing, at home, in the garden, with close family and Mark, possibly the most remarkable vet I’ve ever had the utter pleasure to meet (and I’ve met and worked with many), and welcome into our family, was a privilege. It was heartbreaking to let him go, but absolutely the right thing to do – and as life teaches us time and time again: doing the right thing often takes more courage, conviction, energy, and effort. Zeus’s passing was soul destroying for me. I cannot begin to explain the connection I felt to him, nor describe the power he had.
Earlier in the day I had looked up “Zeus”, to remind me of the meaning. I’ve no idea how I landed on the name Zeus when choosing a name for my then new puppy, but the mythical Greek God Zeus, according to theoi.com, was: “King of the Gods and the god of the sky, weather, law and order, destiny and fate, and kingship… depicted as a regal, mature man with a sturdy figure.” I wasn’t to know who Zeus was to become when he was afforded the name as an eight week old puppy, but you could not have better described the regal “King Zeus” as we often referred to him; his somewhat pious character; strong, regal form and occasional stoic independence.
And so, to the point of my writing today. Feeling like doing absolutely nothing but letting the earth consume me following our emotional and heartbreaking final goodbye, I suggested taking Marley for a short walk. The weather had been scorching; one of the three hottest days ever recorded in the UK, and it was beginning to cool. I didn’t want to walk. I had the Mother of all headaches. I’d kept everything together and quietly grieved in small doses when I couldn’t hold the tears back any longer since confirming the appointment with the vet earlier in the week – and actually for several months prior as I watched my big dog’s body slowly beginning to fail. The emotional rollercoaster of seeing Zeus’s deterioration over several months had an impact on everyone who knew him. It had deeply affected me because I knew the time was coming to say my final goodbye. An hour of grieving in the sun had probably given me heat stroke, too. It was like being hit full force, twice, by a sledgehammer. Once to the head; once to the heart. I don’t know why we went for a walk with Marley that evening, and I honestly don’t know how. I had no energy. But on that walk something astonishing happened that will live with me forever.
Remember; I’m not a spiritual person. I don’t “believe”. I followed and practiced the core fundamentals of Buddhism for about six years or so, but gently let it go because of the reincarnation element (a fundamental part of Buddhism). My science brain just couldn’t accept that. A short while after our vet had driven Zeus away, and as we walked Marley out of the farm gates and up the road, the weather began to turn. The wind picked up and blew a warm, comforting breeze with strength, and a few almost imperceptible drops of storm rain were felt. I looked over my shoulder and up into the sky and there, among the light grey clouds, which obscured the brilliant, bright, cloudless sky of the day so far, was a gap. A crack in the sky and the brightest orange rays of the setting sun shone with such power and almost ethereal majesty. As I looked at wept, two flashes of lightning worked their way from the sky down to the earth. It was as though he, or his spirit, was there. The God of the sky, weather, destiny and fate. Comforting us. Of course, the reality for me and my logic, is that it was an utter coincidence. Ten minutes earlier or later on the walk and there would have been nothing like it – it wouldn’t have been missed, nor considered. But that coincidence just wrapped up Zeus’s life so perfectly. His life; his passing; his spirit. What a joyous moment. We turned back with Marley, letting him lead the pace and length of the walk and I noticed how he kept stopping and staring at a fixed point in the distance, gently sniffing. Marley is a working dog and will often spot or scent wildlife like hares or deer through the fields. But the fields are cut; the crop harvested and there’s an unobstructed view of literally nothing but flat field. The wind was gentle but with a force that you could feel the swell; the changing direction, so any scent he picked up would have moved direction. His eyes and posture were fixed. He walked a few paces, and kept returning to fixing his eyes on the same spot in the distance. We’ve walked this road hundreds of times in the past few years of living here and never before has Marley behaved that way. It was then that I realised he was looking dead-straight at the pet crematorium at the end of the road, nestled into a small lake nature reserve. I’ve never visited, and it’s far away enough that we’ve never even walked near it; the small sign being the only indication of its existence. That is where Mark, our wonderful vet, had taken Zeus to be cremated. No one saw Mark drive there. But it was as if Marley knew. There were no telling signs that Zeus was there, but it was as if Marley knew his friend of 11 years was there.
Even when he was alive I was conscious that Zeus had taught me so many things. But perhaps the most endearing is the power of presence. Presence is a remarkable thing. To be present with someone; to truly listen to them, to seek to understand – or to simply be with them; it’s a gift and one that humans seem to need to tune into, or develop, or learn. It is absent more than it is observed.
Yet looking around the garden, and sitting inside the house, I am struck by an emptiness. A silence. A definite and palpable change in the energy in the house. It is striking. Is that real? Do we give off an energy? Of course some will say “yes!”, but to my logical science brain I err and doubt. Or at least I did. Even if Zeus was in the house; if I was in the garden he was “around”. It’s difficult to explain but I knew he was there somewhere: on the sofa; in one of his favourite garden spots, or on warm days when the door was open, laying with his head rested on the threshold. Do we project that spirit; that presence into spaces, which comforts us? Do we hold the presence of others and carry it within us? It’s not like when I was away working I’d feel Zeus’s presence in a room, or any other space. He definitely was always at home, where he physically was. But his absence and the associated silence perceived now, is as deafening as it is heart wrenching.
Nature heals; it teaches, and it offers both guidance and support. But only if we listen. For centuries – millennia even – the dynamic relationship between humans and nature (including animals) has been intrinsic. As our species evolved and more aggressively explored our intelligence, we drew closer to our own technological and intellectual advancements, while moving further away from those ties we had with nature, and in many cases severing them entirely. To the detriment of our mental health; physical health; wellbeing – our children’s social and educational development, and our ability to live harmoniously with nature. Whether there was anything in that magical, moving, perfect moment on Friday evening or not, it was undoubtedly a reminder that if we listen, nature has many of the answers we are looking for.
The following day, Saturday, the warm wind continued. It soothed the tears that flowed with mourning, and the sharp pangs reality brought in random waves. Mark visited with Zeus’s ashes, but I couldn’t do anything with them, nor accept them – it was too painful, and too soon. But today, Sunday, the weather has shifted. What I can only describe and identify as a spiritual presence, has moved. Perhaps gone. A balance is restored, and today we opened up the box from the crematorium, sprinkling and stroking Zeus’s ashes by hand into the large terracotta pot planted into which is a tree, in his memory. We topped his ashes with compost and gently dug in the beautifully fragrant, tactile and vibrant evergreen apple-scented chamomile lawn. The tree, a weeping pear, was staked and watered. The sun bore down so strongly, with a warmth that comforted. Zeus is here. Where is here, though? In my heart, certainly. My memories – of course. But he’s here in a gentle, almost imperceptible presence, too. It’s something I just cannot explain, and something that has surprised me more than I can begin to describe, or understand.
There’s a lesson for all of us in what I’ve experienced in Zeus’s passing, and I’m touched beyond measure – and grateful eternally – for the opportunities to learn, which Zeus, and nature continue to provide. I feel blessed to be one of those who listens.
Mark the Home Vet (comprising services offered by both Mark and Rebecca) comes with my fullest, sincerest, heartfelt recommendation – I simply can’t endorse them enough.
The photograph of Zeus is by my friend Adam Smith, who, yes, you can commission to take photographs that speak to you. Adam has an eye for light and depth. The more I stare at these images, the more I feel touched by Zeus.