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Our veterinarian is a kind, thoughtful and all around wonderful person. Zero is terrified of her.
To be fair, it’s not just Dr. Baker. Last week, the trouble began the moment we left the house without Penny. Zero poked me then forcefully nudged the door to indicate I left his big sister behind. A mistake, surely?
I had to coax Zero down the stairs repeatedly, and he was reluctant to hop into the car. He triple-checked Quinn was in her car seat to ensure, at the very least, I was not so careless to have left his little sister behind as well.
Once he realized our destination, Zero melted. Worried peaks of wrinkles rippled across his mountainous head. My bold and fearless pup rendered an anxious and nervous wreck.
Though he’s never had anything more than a routine exam at the office, Zero still dreads the experience. He doesn’t run, fight or lash-out. He turns inward,shrinking into himself. His woeful condition leaves him too distressed to even sniff at the peanut butter bribe he would devour anywhere else.
I empathize with Zero because I know that feeling of quiet but desperate despair. The one where I feel overwhelmed by life and helpless to change my circumstances. The one where no amount of love I receive from others changes my perspective. The one where I’m unable to muster the spirit to even care about myself.
For years I’ve tried to help Zero find confidence and comfort during the experience. The treats and affection he normally craves are both rendered useless by his pathetic apathy. He simply gives up and cowers. The only emotion Zero shows is a woeful yelp whenever a needle is involved.
I accept the fact there is nothing I can do for Zero, and I understand why there’s nothing he can do for himself. Thankfully, the staff is accommodating about Zero’s distress. From check in through check out, we pre-arrange and pre-pay in order to get my poor pup in and out as quickly as possible. This is the best I can offer.
But last week we discovered someone else had a better offer. Quinn accompanied us to Zero’s annual vet visit strapped to my chest. A pair of chipmunk cheeks and inquisitive blue-gray eyes poking out from the carrier, Quinn watched the proceedings intently.
Meeker than ever, Zero buried himself in the corner of the room and shied from even the mildest examination. The assisting vet tech was understandably perplexed about how she could help hold a dog who had plastered himself to the wall, and who was also roughly her size.
“I have an idea,” I said. “I know it’s not in your job description, but why don’t you hold the little one and I’ll hold the big one?”
The tech graciously took Quinn in her arms and I kneeled down to nuzzle Zero. Then, the most wonderful thing happened. Zero peeled himself away from the wall, walked into my embrace, and rested his head over my shoulder.
“Wow,” Dr. Baker said. “That really worked.”
Were I not holding Zero, I think I would have fallen over from how eagerly I patted myself on the back.
Look at me, I thought. My love is all he needs. It is a lighthouse in the darkness, safe harbor in a storm, an anchor for a listless ship. I was in the middle of conjuring a few more self-congratulatory nautical metaphors when I heard Dr. Baker laugh.
“He won’t take his eyes off her!”
I turned and realized Zero rested his head on me not for comfort, but for a vantage point. If Quinn’s delinquent father was going to hand her to a stranger and then turn his back, Zero was certainly not going to let his charge out of his sight.
Zero, unmoved by my innumerable gifts, was immediately compelled by Quinn’s offer of purpose.
Zero stood stoically for the exam, his eyes locked on his girl the entire time. He didn’t make a sound during the blood draw and he didn’t flinch during the needle poke. I had to double check Dr. Baker had actually done them both.
Zero was quiet but resolute for the remainder of the exam. There was purpose in his stalwart posture. A message to Quinn which read — don’t worry, I’m okay. And so are you, because I’m here.
I saw myself in Zero in that moment. On days when food has no taste and I’m consumed by fear, I know the struggle to find motivation within myself or accept motivation from others. But when I hear my children cry or my dogs whine, my malaise is pushed aside. I am needed, and that need rouses my spirit in a way nothing else can.
I spent these last few years of vet visits asking, “What do I need to do for Zero?” and coming up empty. Quinn demonstrated the better question is, “What do I need Zero to do for me?”
As soon as Zero felt Quinn needed to be looked after, his concerns for himself were swept away. What he could not do for himself, no matter the encouragement, he could do a thousand times for Quinn. I know the feeling.
A few uneventful minutes later and the exam was over. I took Quinn in my lap while Dr. Baker finished paperwork. Zero carefully sniffed his pup to ensure she’d been returned in her original condition.
Normally, our exit procedure from the exam room looks indistinguishable from a prison break. But as we left last week Zero walked at my hip, looking up. Not because he was any less afraid of the office, but because that terrible fear is a pittance measured against his concern for Quinn.
Zero normally crashes for a recovery nap after a trip to the vet, but he stayed glued to Quinn even back at home. Only once I put Quinn down for a nap did Zero allow himself to collapse on the couch. I know that feeling too.
I stretched out alongside Zero, who draped his head across my chest, finally able to appreciate the affection he couldn’t accept before. Just before I rested my eyes, as a dad must do on the couch from time to time, I felt grateful for the serendipitous lesson. Love is not just a gift, it’s also a purpose. I always think to give the former, but from now on I’ll remember to offer the latter.
The other essential takeaway? Quinn will be getting a day off from school each March for the next decade whenever Zero is due at the vet!