Grief’s layaway plan begins the moment one commits themselves to the proposition of love. It’s a tsunami of emotion. An equal opportunity employer that does not discriminate between person or pet. A loss is a loss. Experts who warn us away from the application of human attributes to furry friends have it wrong. The consequence of pretending no crossover exists between human and animal emotion is to deprive one’s self of the sanctity and benevolence those relationships provide.
Warning: Here Come The Human Attributes
Zoey was a Golden Doodle. Her personality stitched together the genetic sweetness of a Retriever and the savvy mindset of a Poodle. Canine royalty. Smart as she was lovely.
Her soft-eyed requests for food, water, to be walked, or to be left alone, were exhibitions of humble integrity. We were at her service. But while second nature to us, taking care of Zoey and her sometimes special needs could be a challenge to others. Anyone hired to child-sit, knew they had toppled into a deep river of care. For us, it was less a problem of can they do what’s needed? than a problem of would they do what’s needed? A partial list of chores included:
- Adherence to precise proportions for customized food prep. (Nothing either poured from a bag or spooned from a tin allowed)
- A how-to on hand-feeding vitamins and supplements supporting elder dog issues like arthritis, and hip dysplasia. (Capsules needed to be slipped into the mouth at a certain velocity and trajectory, less they be spit out onto the floor)
- A list of command words Zoey recognized and would respond to when outside of the house. (In case of a chance scuff-up with, shall we say, a less civilized species)
- The Vet’s personal cell phone number
- The location of a 24-hour emergency clinic
- Our text numbers for questions or concerns
- Receipt of one obligatory feel-good Zoey photo each day.
We had a small stable of loving, empathic sitters. Reliable sitters are rare, which can present scheduling problems. Sometimes we had to dive into shallow waters. Not always with great results. One disturbed and disturbing fill-in, (You know who you are!), sent a photo of herself lying on a rug in front of our fireplace, glass of wine in hand, empty bottle on the floor next to her. Zoey stood in the background, head at a tilt, eyes rolling, looking directly into the lens with an expression meant to convey one word to us: seriously?
Okay. Zoey Had Issues
Like children born with certain predilections, so, too, was Zoey.
- Anyone entering the house wearing a tool belt was followed from room to room. Zoey’s version of a theft prevention program. Though the threat of a Doodle attack strains imagination.
- If we entered a room carrying anything larger than a book, she would don a look of disdain, then leave for an undisclosed location.
- Any room that appeared tampered with – perhaps the repositioning of a chair or table – would cause great resistance to occupying her normal space within it.
- If the direction of her daily walk was altered, even by a few steps, she would dig her heels into the ground and become immobile.
- Cat or rabbit within smelling distance? She’d pull us to a bush under which the perp was hiding. A tense stare-down between the two animals would ensue. Zoey v. Angry Cat, or Zoey v. Bewildered Rabbit. As none of them, including Zoey, understood Doodle hunter prey protocols, a silent, negotiated stand-down would result. Zoey had a strict Catch and Release program.
Our Doodle grew up in two distinct types of environments: a quarter acre garden setting at our Northern California home, and a pristine golf course in the southern California desert. A peaceful life in both kingdoms. Eight blissful years into her life, this changed. The Doodle\ who despised anything different from the normal order of things, became, along with us, a relocation expert. Mark and I took advantage of a booming southern California real estate market, setting in motion three moves in as many years. We bought low. Refurbished. Sold high. Like Will and Grace, we considered ourselves The Flippers Who Cared.
An unhappy, Zoey, however, considered us to be The Flippers Who Dared. But it did prepare her for one move yet to come. And it was a whopper.
Zoey in Oz
We had a four year master plan to move to Spain. As our expat objectives solidified, there was a legion of transactional issues to focus on: the sale of our home; obtaining visas; working with financial planners, attorneys, and health care experts, to set in place protections.
Finding an uber-humane way to transport our twelve year old girl across the Atlantic was a sticking point. Putting Zoey in a cargo hold beneath the passenger compartment of a jet, was not an option. After months of searching for an alternate method, we co-leased a small private aircraft along with ten other dog and cat devotees, departing from an airport in New Jersey. This necessitated a week long, cross-country drive. Southern route. Winter storms. Bad motels. But well worth it.
When we touched down in Spain, Zoey was lit! It was a metaphorical transformation, much like the transition from black and white to color when Dorothy and Toto land in Oz.
Morning walks began with a run toward Rafael, the Concierge at a nearby building. While we would attempt to communicate with him, she would love him up in exchange for a few small treats. His sweetness with her, and his patience with our stuttering capacity to speak Spanish became a point of fortification for our forays into the neighborhood each day.
Zoey found virtue in the hustle of a city. Traffic speeding by her at busy intersections left her wide-eyed in amazement. While walking through the ancient narrow streets near our apartment, she would stop in front of shop windows to peer inside. In the park surrounding the city’s center she sought play dates with other dogs.
Once reticent around strangers, she became an artful friend magnet. A number of the people she enchanted have become important to us. Her sudden lack of inhibition began to create an A-list of diverse friendships. Mark and I may have been nascent Spanish speakers, but Zoey spoke an international language.
The Heart and Soul of It
Mark met Zoey a year into her life. It was not an easy relationship to unpack. A host of embedded, trauma-induced fears had traveled with her from her former home in Ohio to California. Mark persevered. Built trust. Became her rock. The strong bond and instant communication between them could often be startling.
I entered their lives, when Zoey was three. Though I never tried to compete for her equal affection, I’ll admit to more than a few bouts of jealousy. Zoey – ever the inclusive Doodle – helped us become a strong family.
She’s been gone two months now. Returning home from an outing, we still expect a tail-wagging reunion at the front door. If we spend more than a few hours away from the apartment, an internal alarm goes off, reminding us that she’s been alone too long. Time once devoted to her care and maintenance have not yet been absorbed into other productive activities. Specific sounds ghost us with her memory. Shadows and plays of light as we move through the hallway are eerie. But her legacy is more than one of longing.
The sweetness she engendered in us made us sweeter people. The patience required to best parent her, transformed us into better custodians of ourselves and each other. We are more conscious of our own longevity after traveling with her through her swift decline. The lens through which we view our own existence is less refracted because of the clarity she provided. There were lessons to be learned from observing her late life renaissance.
Grief can be a great teacher. Changing longing into bittersweet. Bittersweet into appreciation. We thank Zoey for what she taught us. We will miss her.