When I was six years old my parents broke the news to me that Tico, our faithful and ancient poodle, was being put to sleep the next day. I knew the meaning behind the euphemism even then. Horrified, I looked at my parents and knew that drastic action needed to be taken.

I put a pair of underpants, one can of tomato soup and a can of dog food into my autoharp case (I don't remember if I packed a can opener) and ran away from home with Tico. That whole day my mother watched us from her kitchen window, circling our block. I was not allowed to cross the street alone, you see. So, around and around we walked, Tico, me and the autoharp case. Fear set in as the sky darkened. I knew with absolute certainty that I was NOT allowed out after dark. My own fears confirmed the wisdom of this law. Eventually defeated, I turned into our driveway and trudged home.

The next day Tico passed away, painlessly. I was heartbroken, certain I had failed him.

But this is not a story about Tico. This is Sydney's story.

Sydney ZidarichIt was a beautiful Saturday in May of 2003. Jeff and I were recently married, still weaving the texture of our life together and adjusting to the normal routines such as running Saturday morning errands. I was in need of a haircut. Jeff and I couldn't stand to be separated long enough on a precious Saturday for me to go alone so we made a day of it. He dropped me off at the hair salon and then decided to bum around the Burnsville Mall, killing time. It wasn't long before he headed to the Pet Ranch to play with the puppies. According to Jeff, he was happily browsing when he noticed that he was being stared at by this little bundle of white with brown blotches with one blue and one green eye. The intensity of her gaze never faltered as she made her way from the back of her kennel to get a better look. Jeff later described the moment by saying that he was certain Sydney was sizing him up, making a decision. Jeff was intrigued by her and asked the clerk to take her out for a short play session. Jeff and I had done this frequently in the past, feeling that we were giving the pups a reprieve from their confinement. Our household already felt amply staffed with Randall, senior Sheltie, keeping guard and Ellie, spaz cat, maintaining mischief. We hadn't once entertained the notion of adding to our brood and that thought was certainly not in Jeff's mind on that sunny May morning.

However, 2003 was a year when Jeff was ruled by his heart. He laughingly says that a decade passed without one woman falling in love with him and then ~ whammie ~ two lookers fell for him in one year. First he met me and our whirlwind romance took everyone's breath away. Then Sydney spotted him and, even quicker than I, saw what a good heart resides in that man and chose him. They played together for the entire time I was getting my hair done. In about an hour, with a part of his heart still back at the Pet Ranch, he left the mall and picked me up. I got in the car, full of chatter about my newest shade of high lights. Jeff was unusually inattentive.

"What's up?" I asked. "Don't you like it?"

"No, it's not that," he replied. "It's just I saw the cutest little puppy. I can't stop thinking about her. It's like she chose me or something. Hon, you've just got to see her. She's really something special."

Truthfully, I'm not someone who needs a whole lot of convincing when it comes to going to see a puppy. We immediately headed back to the Pet Ranch. When I first saw Sydney I thought that she looked like a bowl of half melted caramel ice cream. Yummy. We had her taken out again and this time I was the one she lavished her attention on. I think she knew she already had Jeff sold. It didn't take long before that wiggly little butt captured my heart as well. The only problem was that we knew nothing about Australian Shepherds. We didn't know what their temperaments were like, how big they got, even what they looked like as adults. We decided to head to Barnes and Noble and do a bit of research. I think we realized that we were talking more and more concretely about the possibility of bringing this little girl home with us.

Barnes and Noble had many books about Aussies, as we learned they were called. Every picture of an Aussie, every description of their loving personalities and quirky intelligence got us more excited about her. Then our discussion about names started. Something in that conversation brought a new dynamic to our relationship. Jeff and I began to feel like new parents, and it felt wonderful. We'd talked about kids, but neither of us really wanted to make that commitment at the age of 36. But he and I discovered, as we held that Sydney, that we yearned for the experience of raising a living being from infancy. We just had so much love between us; there was an abundance, more than enough to share with that little girl.

I've always wanted to visit Australia, especially Sydney which is supposed to be a beautiful city. In a flash of certainty I suggested "Sydney."

"I like it," Jeff said smiling.

Hand in hand, we walked back to the Pet Ranch. "Randall's going to kill me." Jeff groaned.

It's true. Randall was never too keen on Sydney. I suppose at 12 years old it had already been enough of a stress for a dignified and somewhat rigid Sheltie to have to share his domain ~ and Dad's attention ~ with a woman, much less with her cat. But to have a boisterous, noisy, messy, and irritatingly persistent puppy invade was really too much. She ate HIS food when he wasn't looking. She drank out of HIS water bowl. Frequently! She played with HIS toys, even his precious Monkey Bones. She slept on HIS bed. She peed on HIS floor. She stole HIS table scraps that the muffin lady snuck when Dad wasn't looking. But sin of all sins, she sat on HIS Dad's lap and had the temerity to act as if she belonged there. The only good thing was that she seemed capable of putting that damn cat in his place, namely on top of the refrigerator where she couldn't reach him.

There were many moments when Jeff and I wondered if we'd made the right decision that May morning when we committed our lives to Sydney. We started calling our home the Zidarich Zoo. We contemplated charging admission tickets to help defray the cost of kibble! But the occasional feelings of frustration were overshadowed by so many other precious moments that in our hearts we always knew that Sydney had been meant to join our family. Even Randall seemed to mellow and a tenuous detente was declared.

We became a two leash household, and we loved it. Jeff with Randall and I with Sydney often headed to our nearby park. It felt right. Randall showed Syd all the best pee spots. She was unimpressed. She showed him where the squirrels were hiding and together they raised holy hell, deafening the majority of Belle Plaine's squirrel population, not to mention our neighbours. She grudgingly gave back Monkey Bones and he agreed to leave her bones alone. It seemed that peace had returned to our home, interrupted only by occasional moments of puppy mischief.

Sydney with JulieI'll never forget our first Christmas together. Jeff and I had decked a beautiful tree, opting for non-traditional blue lights accented with silver and crystal ornaments. By night it brought magic into our cozy living room. By day it was sealed off from one curious puppy, much to the dismay of Randall who was accustomed to standing watch in the front window. Weeks passed without incident. One evening, however, I noticed as we pulled into the drive way that I could see the kitchen through the front window. That meant only one thing ~ that the door separating the rooms was open ~ and that meant certain trouble. We found Sydney cowering at the end of the hallway. If she had had a tail, it would have been tucked firmly between her legs. Her ears, which dominated her face at that time, drooped with guilt. We found the living room floor covered by shattered glass and shards of broken balls; the tree had been assaulted. After a thorough inspection of paws and a frantic call to our vet, I eventually forgave her. Other such moments followed, like the day she ate a whole sleeve of Thin Mint cookies while I was showering. Or the day she peed on the duvet in the guest bedroom right before Granny came for a visit. Or the day she took Bob, our friend and painter, on a frantic chase through the neighbourhood because he had left the door to the garage open. The first year and a half of Sydney's life was filled with countless moments of hilarity and hysteria in equal portions. Jeff and I couldn't believe it when March 18th, 2004, arrived and our little girl turned one. We threw her a party complete with party hats (another sour moment for our Randall) and Frosty Paws. Life was good, for a brief while.

By May of 2004 Jeff and I noticed that Randall wasn't doing well. He'd been showing signs of his age recently, but we weren't overly concerned. We expected him to slow down. But that spring he developed a cough. Antibiotics weren't helping. He'd had surgery in December to remove two benign fatty tissue growths that caused him some difficulty in walking. When the cough persisted, followed by painful wheezing, our veterinarian speculated that he'd developed such a growth in his lungs. It was worse at night and for a week Jeff hardly slept as he stayed up with Randall, holding and comforting him. We prayed for a turn around which never came. We contemplated exploratory surgery. I waited and watched to see how Jeff was doing and how I could help him. Randall shared his home with me, but his heart belonged completely to Jeff. Any decision about Randall was Jeff's alone. One morning I woke up to find Jeff holding Randall on the couch, tears streaming down his face. "It's time. I can't put him through any more," Jeff said and asked me to make the call.

Randall passed away on May 17th, 2004. I knew Jeff and I would grieve. But I was surprised by how much Sydney was heartbroken. She had been tolerated, at best, by Randall and yet on the day we returned from the vet clinic without him, she went under the end table and refused to come out. For six days, I hand fed her underneath that table. I had to forcefully haul her outside. When she was done pottying, she would immediately go back under her table. The following Thursday she had a check up scheduled with the vet. I don't know what made me think to do it, but since we were there I asked if I could bring her into the room where Randall had passed away. Our vet agreed that it could be helpful for her so we took her into the room. Sydney stood still for a long time, sniffing the air. Then she went right over to the couch and pressed her face into the cushion, inhaling deeply. When she was done she walked out of the room. I took her home and she immediately ate her whole dinner and seemed at peace. She didn't go back under the table. I believe that Sydney caught a scent of something in that room that helped her to accept that Randall had passed away and wasn't coming home.

It was clear to both Jeff and me that the dynamic of our family was off. Walks to the park felt out of balance as we both took turns holding the one leash. Sydney was better, but still depressed, and we realized that she missed having a companion. We decided to start looking for another dog to add to our family. Matthew, my son, was moving in that spring and we thought it would be a great idea if he could learn about responsibility by taking care of a puppy. We also thought that a new puppy might help him with the transition. Jaxson, our tri-colored Sheltie, stole our hearts at first glance. The day we brought him home was so much fun. Sydney was such a gracious and loving older sister. She tolerated every one of Jaxson's antics, even letting him gnaw on her when his need to chew was overwhelming. Jaxson hero worshipped Sydney and the two quickly became inseparable. The balance of our family was restored.

The next two years were great. Jaxson grew . . . and grew . . . and grew until he stood shoulder to shoulder with Sydney. The lustre of his black coat next to her shining whiteness made them look like salt and pepper shakers. Matthew and Jaxson did indeed develop a special closeness that they continue to share to this day. Sydney remained closest to Jeff and me. We did notice that as 2004 progressed, turning into 2005 and then 2006 that Sydney was becoming more and more sedate compared to Jaxson who was only one year her junior. Jeff and I speculated that it was perhaps due to our quieter lifestyles. Jeff and I enjoy reading and spend many hours curled up with books in our living room. Jaxson's energy forbids him to relax with us and our concentration is often interrupted by his persistent dropping of toys in our laps. Sydney, however, was content to sit with us. She'd curl up on a free end of the sofa or on her hope chest in the bay window and contemplate life. Many times she'd drift off to sleep. Jeff and I would chuckle, watching her paws twitch as if she were chasing squirrels with Randall in the park again. Sydney had mellowed into the calmest, sweetest dog I've ever known. She was almost too calm. Jeff and I had read that Aussies are challenging as puppies, requiring lots of outlets for their energy. In book after book it stated that a bored Aussie puppy is a mischievous puppy. But at three Sydney was completely trustworthy. It seemed that she spent her whole days snoozing on the couch. In my gut, I worried. I had a sense that somehow Sydney wasn't feeling right and I worried about the few times she'd managed to binge on chocolate even though we'd always had the vet purge her stomach. I had nothing concrete to back up my concerns though, just a foreboding feeling. I'm sad to say that my gut was right.

SydneyAround the time of her third birthday in March, 2006, after a fun trip up north visiting family, Sydney started to limp. We speculated that perhaps she had taken too aggressive a leap off the back deck and kept a close eye on her. However, within days she had lost the use of her back legs. Hip dysplasia was initially diagnosed, though everyone was stumped by the sudden presentation of her symptoms. We took her to Interlachen Clinic where gold beads were inserted into the acupressure points around her hips to provide her relief. The procedure was extremely painful for her requiring injections from large needles which carried the gold beads to five points deep within the hip joint on each hip. However the procedure offered Sydney her best chance of avoiding hip replacement surgery down the road. During the procedure Sydney lay still. We couldn't believe how brave she was. She was also given a prescription for Rimadyl which we supplemented with Cosequin for her joints. We were told to expect a turn around within a week as the flare should subside. We were concerned for Sydney and talked about how this diagnosis would mean a more painful and arthritic future for her, but we were glad that she had been diagnosed early. We hoped that we could lessen her pain by careful monitoring of her activities so that her joints would be protected.

Sydney, however, worsened. She began spiking 104+ degree temperatures. She stopped eating. She was lethargic. One Friday afternoon I found her nearly unresponsive on the couch when I got home from work. I rushed her immediately into the clinic and more testing was done. A technician believed she spotted an Ehrlichiosis inclusion on a blood slide. At this point we were told that the Ehrlichiosis flare-up had caused the pain in her joints which had led us to discover the hip dysplasia. Jeff and I felt overwhelmed for our little girl. She seemed to have so much pain and we didn't know what to do for her. We began treating her with antibiotics and again were told to look for improvement within a week. We felt certain that we had the right diagnosis. The Ehrlichiosis explained the sudden presentation of her lameness, and we were relieved that she could be helped with antibiotics.

Six weeks later Sydney was sicker than ever. She needed to be lifted up and down off the floor and carried outside to potty. Her legs shook afterward from the effort of standing up. Morphine was finally prescribed to help ease her pain. Her temperatures were out of control. Her mouth had broken out with ulcers that seemed to cause her a great deal of discomfort. She only ate a bland mixture of boiled hamburger and rice that I hand fed her. She lost nearly 10 lbs. Jeff and I were desperate. Sydney was in so much pain. Nothing was helping her. We bought her an orthopaedic dog bed to support her hips. My friend, Melissa, who is a massage therapist, came down and gave Sydney a long massage. She seemed to enjoy that. At Easter we met a friend of my mother's, Shelley, whose knowledge of medicine and love of her own puppies, led us to a discussion about Sydney. Shelley said it sounded like an auto-immune disease to her. The next Monday Sydney went in for a check-up with Dr. Kelso, our veterinarian. I asked her about auto-immune diseases and what they are like. She said that some forms of Ehrlichiosis can cause auto-immune types of symptoms and said that it was possible Sydney was dealing with a rare form of the disease. She said the only treatment for auto-immune disorders is steroids and not antibiotics, but that she was hesitant to use them since the side effects are so traumatic. She suggested we take Sydney to see a specialist at the University of Minnesota Small Animal Clinic.

It took about a week and a half to get Sydney into the University. At this point Jeff and I didn't know if we were doing the right thing. Her care had already been so expensive and we had been warned about the exorbitant costs at the U of M. However, we felt in our hearts that we had to make certain that we had the right diagnosis and that she was receiving the correct care, money be damned. At the University we met Dr. Jennifer Grannick. We instantly were impressed with her knowledge and obvious love of animals. I loved that she got right down on Sydney's level and explained directly to Sydney what she was going to be doing to her. She conducted a thorough examination, blood work including tick titres and joint taps. She could feel that many of Sydney's joints were swollen and sensitive. She told us that she was suspicious of two auto-immune diseases: Immune Mediated Polyarthropothy (IMPA) and Lupus, both of which required she be put on a steroid therapy. She went on to explain that for unknown reasons Sydney's body was attacking itself, focusing specifically on her joints. The joints taps did indeed reveal that the fluid cushioning her knees was watery, causing each step to be excruciating for her. Blood work indicated that Sydney had never had Ehrlichiosis and that the antibiotics had done nothing for her at all, except destroy the natural flora of her stomach causing her digestive system to be so upset. However, her kidney enzymes were good, the cultures of her mouth ulcers were inconclusive, and she was only slightly anaemic. That was encouraging and led Dr. Grannick to feel that we were dealing with IMPA and not Lupus.

Sydney responded well to the steroid Prednisone initially. In fact, for a few months we felt that we had our puppy back. She yodelled us awake in the morning and was able to take short walks with us in the evening. She was able to eat kibble on her own again, in fact, was eager to do so. In time, however, we discovered that the benefits of steroids come with a high price tag. Within months we noticed that the bones on Sydney's face were protruding. Dr. Grannick explained that Sydney's muscles were wasting away. We also saw her legs shaking more frequently. She started to take the steps in our home gingerly again. Her belly swelled as the supportive medication, Azothioprine, began to attack her liver.

Our hearts grew heavier as we realized that the only medication which appeared to help Sydney was potentially even more destructive than her illness. We began the difficult job of weaning her off the steroids, hoping that we would be able to find a balance. We succeeded in getting her down from 40 to 20 mgs. However, Sydney's muscle wasting, enlarged liver and laboured breathing continued to compromise her quality of life and sap what strength she had left. I began to believe that Sydney wasn't dealing with IMPA at all and that she was fighting a much bigger battle with Lupus.

One day while shopping I ran into Chris, an acquaintance who shared my love of Aussies. He asked how Sydney was doing and I told him, with tears in my eyes, about her struggles. Chris had a friend, Barb, whose dog had been diagnosed with Lupus a number of years ago. In the process of caring for her dog Barb had become somewhat of an expert about the disease. He offered to connect us via e-mail and I was so thankful to have someone who might be able to answer some of my questions. I gave Chris my e-mail address and within days heard from Barb. Barb became a tremendous source of strength to me in the months that followed. She did indeed know tons about Lupus. But even more importantly, she knew about the inner struggle a person goes through who is caring for a sick dog. Regardless of what I was feeling ~ exhaustion, frustration, sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, fear, guilt, confusion ~ I could and did pour it out to Barb. Her e-mails were so important to me. They provided a link to someone who knew and understood exactly what I was going through. One day, during a time when Sydney wasn't doing well and I had begun to voice my fear that we would soon face the decision to end her suffering, I was especially touched by one of Barbís e-mails. She wrote on July 26th, 2006:

I'm so sorry to hear. And, no it's not too hard to hear about. I've been there and I get it. I appreciate your trust in reaching out to me. It's a damn painful decision...no matter what you do...there's pain so being unsure is natural!!!!

We dog folks, who truly believe a dog is NO different than any other family member, are not always understood by others. But, there are plenty of folks like us; you are truly not alone in your struggles and indecision.

I have experienced everything you have...from just being unsure what the hell to do and knowing no one else knows either, to fearing the decision I'm afraid I have made at some level, to just being tired of the pain of watching a loved one suffer, to fear of not being able to bear the pain of putting them down and not having them in my life, to fear I've waited too long, or not long enough...

My beliefs are that when some people suffer, we ought to be able to put them out of their misery if they so desire (and I know not everyone agrees--so be it). The difference with dogs, of course, is they can't communicate as we do so itís harder to tell what they want...so of course our decision is so damn important and difficult.

Whatever you decide, know that those that love you most and understand/love dogs the way you do, will understand and support you- You and your husband are the people who love that dog and would NEVER do anything wrong by her. Trust your heart and have as much courage as you can. Here is a poem I read and cried a lot when I read...I want to be clear I'm not trying to decide for you...I trust you and your husband will make the right decision...but I believe in the perspective of this poem...

Take care, Barb

If It Should Be
If it should be that I grow weak,
And the pain should keep me from my sleep,
Then you must do what must be done,
For this last battle cannot be won.
You will be sad, I understand,
Donít let your grief then stay your hand,
For this day more than all the rest,
Your love for me must stand the test.
Weíve had so many happy years,
What is to come can hold no fears,
Youíd not want me to suffer so,
The time has come to let me go.

Take me where my need theyíll tend,
And please stay with me until the end,
I know in time that you will see,
The kindness that you have done for me,
Although my tail its last has waved,
From pain and suffering Iíve been saved.
Please do not grieve, it must be you,
Who had this painful thing to do,
Weíve been so close, we two, these years,
Donít let your heart hold back its tears.
~Author Unknown

Jeff and I just could not accept that it was time to end Sydney's suffering. We thought that there MUST be something else we could try, someone else out there who might have a perspective that could help Sydney. We continued to struggle to reduce her Prednisone; however each time we did her symptoms flared out of control. Barb had taken her dog, Astro, to AltaVets and been very pleased with their ability to support Astro with nutritional supplements during the reduction of his steroid dosage. Another acquaintance had talked highly about Dr. Pomeroy, a holistic veterinarian, and I decided to seek out his opinion about Sydney.

Dr. Pomeroy examined Sydney and stated that he'd rarely dealt with a dog in such bad shape. He made the analogy that her body was like a car with the brakes pressed to the floor, but the steroids were flooding the gas. There was no way she could function that way and he warned us that if we didn't do something immediately we'd lose her within months. He also warned us that given her condition he didn't know if we'd be able to turn things around in time. He put Sydney on nine different nutritionals. He severely limited her treats and had us give her only fresh carrots or broccoli. Sydney was none too happy about having her bones taken away, I can tell you that. He told us that we might see her go through a healing crisis and that we should be prepared for her to worsen before she got better.

Jeff and I did everything he asked. Dr. Grannick seemed willing to work with Dr. Pomeroy, but could not sanction eliminating the Azothioprine which was helping us to reduce Sydney's Prednisone. Dr. Pomeroy and Dr. Grannick were on such different ends of the same spectrum. It was difficult knowing whose advice to listen to. I was watching Sydney grow weaker and weaker each day, trying to find the answer while the experts argued. Finally I called Dr. Grannick and asked her to please come up with a treatment course that could incorporate Dr. Pomeroy's theories. Dr. Grannick's approach of yo-yoing Sydney's steroid doses, trying to find the ever elusive balance that would keep her disease in check while not destroying her body, was exhausting Sydney. She needed something more and I believed that Dr. Pomeroy might be able to help her. Eventually they did talk and were able to formulate a treatment plan.

In the last month of Sydney's life when her pain grew daily, Jeff and I began to seriously talk about ending her suffering. Nothing either Dr. Grannick or Dr. Pomeroy tried seemed to be working. We couldn't imagine our life or our home without Sydney, and yet we didn't want to hold onto her selfishly and cause her more suffering. Also, I worried about Jaxson. He and Sydney were so bonded, I couldn't begin to fathom how he would grieve. In July Jeff and I met and fell in love with little Sebastian, a feisty and charismatic long haired miniature dachshund puppy. Bringing Sebastian home, however, was unlike the days when we brought home Sydney and then Jaxson. It was bitter sweet, for we welcomed him into our family knowing that Sydney's time with us was almost over. We hoped that Sebastian could be a friend to Jaxson in the times that would follow Sydney's death and that he would not mourn as deeply as Sydney had when Randall had passed away. Most of all, during that time, Jeff and I wondered about every decision we made. We questioned everything. Had we made the right decisions for Sydney medically? Were we reading the progression of her disease correctly? Did she want her suffering to end? We even wondered whether or not we had been correct in getting Sebastian. The last thing we wanted to do was take attention away from Sydney when she needed us most. Yet during those dark times of indecision and anticipatory grief, Sebastian brought laughter and relief into our home. He even seemed able to make our Sydney, despite all her pain, smile once in awhile. Sydney had always been the alpha dog and, with her warm welcome, Jaxson had to accept Sebastian. I believe that it was Sydney who made it possible for the two of them to become friends.

As I had done so many times before, I wrote and asked Barb about how she knew that the time had come to end Astro's suffering. It was one of the hardest e-mails I've ever had to write because with the writing came the realization that we were nearing the time when we would have to make that decision. In her response Barb told me about Marilyn, a pet communicator, who had helped her during the difficult day of Astro's death. Barb and her husband had felt, as Jeff and I did, the tremendous strain of making such a decision. I was so conflicted in my spirit: wanting to spare Sydney from a painful crashing death and not wanting to deprive her of even one good moment with us. I don't know what I felt or believed about pet communication, but I needed more than I disbelieved to know what Sydney wanted. Barb's story about how Marilyn had helped her encouraged me to seek Marilyn out.

We talked with Marilyn on two occasions, the last time on the day that Sydney passed away. She said that Sydney was an old soul who was not afraid of death and that she was only sad because she would miss us and our touch. It hurt her heart to see how distraught we were. There were many other details during those conversations that were startlingly specific, about her disease and the areas where Sydney was most hurting. I don't know how Marilyn does what she does. I don't even know entirely what I feel about what Marilyn does. But I do know that during the conversations I felt Sydney's consciousness and perceived her spirit, not Marilyn's. Yet still, I wondered if I had climbed out on that limb with Shirley McClain and if I had become truly that nutty dog person whose reason had been swallowed by her grief. I was willing to accept myself in that light if it meant finding some peace about this excruciating decision.

Meanwhile, Sydney continued to struggle and lose ground. Both of our veterinarians wanted us to reduce the Prednisone even further, down to 10 mg. On Tuesday, August 8th, we complied and within three days saw a drastic change for the worse. Ulcers broke out all over her muzzle. Wherever they appeared, her fur disappeared. White mucous wept from her eyes. Walking and breathing were tremendous efforts. Her heart was strained.

Dr. Grannick had long held out hope that we were dealing with Immune Mediated Polyarthropothy and not systemic Lupus; however, the last episode was conclusive. The months of steroid therapy had only succeeded in making her symptoms of systemic Lupus invisible, masking the truth that the disease had marched on all the while under the surface. Our choices were limited: increase the Prednisone and have her body destroyed as a result, let the Lupus take its course, or begin to experiment with other medications.

To anyone who only casually knew her, Sydney probably didn't look much different. More tired, perhaps. But Jeff and I, her human parents, felt with hearts that loved her so much the subtle shift as Sydney's body reached the end of her strength. We read her understanding in her eyes along with another message, a request that I could not ignore and felt certain I could not grant . . . release. Our battle seemed so long, so difficult and yet I couldn't believe it could be over. I wanted to keep fighting, keep looking for something that would restore our Sydney to health. The agony that existed between recognition and acceptance of that request cannot be described.

Hearing Dr. Grannick finally confirm the diagnosis of Lupus did nothing to soften the hurt or soothe the guilt I felt at making the decision to end Sydney's life and thus, her suffering. I still felt small, six years old, helpless and lost in my inability to save this beautiful dog I loved so much. Thirty-four years of my life vanished . . . I wanted only to gather her into my arms and run far, far away, crossing all streets, to some magical place in my imaginings where we could sit together in a meadow by a still lake under the shade of a graceful old oak tree and watch butterflies play. In such a place, surely, there would be no Lupus, no Prednisone, no doctors, no pain.

But running away doesn't work. It is a truth I learned early in life, and have by necessity relearned many times since. In the end it was our love for her that prevailed. To hold on was to condemn our beautiful little girl to a future of certain suffering, and that was a thing we just could not do.

Sydney Sydney passed away on August 15, 2006. We had only 3 ½ years together and yet; it was her incredible life and not her horrible illness that defined her. It was her ability to rise above the pain each step and breath caused her and remain true to her giving, loving spirit that I remember most about her. Was that the purpose in Sydney's life? To teach by example how to bear incredible suffering and still embody unconditional love? Did she choose Jeff and me so that we would join her on her amazing and difficult journey in part to make it bearable, but also so that we could be transformed? For transformed, we are.

In the final days and never more clearly than on the day she passed away when Sydney was more spirit than form, she revealed herself to Jeff and me. On the couch at the veterinary clinic, Sydney leaned into me, rested her head on my shoulder, looked into my eyes and with speechless innocence spoke of love and gratitude and said goodbye. Then she did the same exact thing to Jeff. I had loved Sydney, the dog, who endeared herself in countless wiggly and wonderful Aussie ways. But I had not truly appreciated or perceived the majestic, eternal spirit that resided within her, though there had been moments in the quiet when I had felt her whispers, like gentle butterfly wings, brush against my soul. There are so many questions to which I do not have answers: Lupus: why Sydney? Time: why so little? Pain: why so much? Life: how without Sydney?

Then there are the questions to which I am only beginning to perceive answers: Did she Comprehend? Choose? Communicate? And, if so, what does that mean? How does that change the charge we are given when we join our lives with an animal? Pet owner? Or Animal care-taker? The difference is vast, as is the responsibility each one of us embraces when we join our lives with another living being. I knew that when I committed to loving and caring for Sydney throughout her life. However, I don't believe I really knew what that meant and what it would require. Loving Sydney throughout her battle with Lupus stretched me. In the process I discovered more about my capacity to love with determination, to hold on in the midst of the storm, to seek and keep seeking answers in even the most unlikeliest of places, to become open to things previously unseen and only perceived, and sadly . . . to let go when the time required, releasing my Sydney, trusting that the love we share is eternal and will bring us together again in time.

Years before on a sunny Saturday morning in May, Sydney chose us, a fact which never fails to fill me with humility. Together we lived and loved each day of her life, celebrating or bearing whatever that day brought. When she became ill, we faced that together too. Her illness became our journey and its path took us in search of many truths, both diagnostic and spiritual. What I learned about life by witnessing Sydney live hers in the face of such pain has changed me. What I learned about the dual nature of her spirit has enlightened me.

I see her there, lying beneath the oak tree in the meadow of my imaginings. The cloudless sky and its sun warm her beautiful and perfect body. The nearby lake lays down the rhythm to the song the Spirit sings to her. On the wind her Maker carries the butterflies to her like a child's mobile, a gift to make her smile. Occasionally she even joins them and flies on invisible wings. She is both natures in one: playful and peaceful. I watch her from this distance with my broken heart that is slowly healing. After my spasm quiets I know the truth that my heart, once healed, will have grown stronger for having loved her in life, throughout the long journey of her illness and even in death.

Dear sweet Sydney, of me and yet separate, I know that this place is where you existed before you came to me. It is right that to this place you return. I know that you are in the hands of One who loves you even better than I. I know that you are exactly where your spirit belongs. And yet, I miss you.

~Mom, August 29, 2006

By Julie Zidarich