At home in New Hampshire
It’s at the close of the year that I think about ZuZu Moonbeam. She was a Christmas puppy, a golden retriever, given to my son, Justin, on his eleventh birthday. She was named for the little girl in It’s A Wonderful Life who asks her dad, Jimmy Stewart, to fix the flower she received at school. The Moonbeam part was my contribution. I had always wanted a dog named Moon, so somehow in compromise our puppy got the silly name of ZuZu Moonbeam. But it fit her, and it was fun to say rapidly, the words strung together: zuzumoonbeam.
She was all that a golden retriever puppy can be. My son, who knew dogs and knew what they needed to learn as puppies to become good dogs, worked with her diligently. Around and around that Christmas season, he worked with her on leash to sit, stay, heel, come. There may be better things to see in this life, but watching a boy take on maturity, and watching that same boy fall in love with the thing he had most wanted in the world, makes that Christmas stand out in memory beyond all others.
She was born around Thanksgiving, and we took her home just before the darkest day of the year. She went with us to Sunrise Mountain to help bring home a Christmas tree. We trudged off with a bow saw and tree tag; ZuZu hardly big enough to chest through the six or seven inches of snow we had that season, ran behind us, sprinting on the stubby legs that all puppies are given. When she tired, we snuggled her into our coats, and she rode like that, a baby joey, looking out at the winter world.
She grew. And Justin grew. And each day when he returned from school, they had their meeting on the large snow bank that formed outside our home. I can recall many days watching them play king-of-the-hill, each scrambling up the clods of plowed snow and jumping down. You can’t make up these moments. They’re too good and rich. Picture a small dog, a small boy and winter in its strongest moment. Picture lighted windows and a sure woodstove, the light reaching out to hold them in memory.
You can guess some of the rest. ZuZu died one spring morning when a friend took her for a walk beside the Baker River. The river was swollen. ZuZu, victim of her joy at being young and on a walk on a fine spring morning, slid into the water and was taken away. The pain of that moment, of fielding the friend’s call to tell us the news, the slow drive up to Dartmouth’s Ravine Lodge to retrieve her tender body made me think of the line from Romeo and Juliet: “Oh, lamentable day.”
We buried her in the back meadow. My son dug the hole. It is with pride that I tell you that he never blamed the friend who walked her. Never spoke a recrimination. He forgave the very act that broke his young heart. I have been proud of him many times in his young life, but never more than the kindness with which he handled the death of his childhood companion, the dog of his heart.
On some certain night of winter, I raise a toast to ZuZu Moonbeam. She was a bright, happy dog. I try to remember a day when my son played baseball and ZuZu, standing beside me, chased her tail in a circle. One by one the people in the stands noticed her antics, and for a moment or two, the entire crowd of spectators watched a pretty sight: a dear young dog chasing her tail on a spring morning. It was Justin’s dog, people said.
By the fire I drink a scotch and think of lost friends, and ZuZu is always there. My boy meets her in the meadow as he trudges home from school. Boy and dog. Littermates. Two small trails on a winter afternoon.