My beloved dog, Zoe, of 14.8 years died on July 2nd of this year. Since then, I’ve been trying in vain to swallow the jagged pill of her loss. Something embedded in my psyche, maybe some twisted cultural norm, keeps saying, “She was just a dog; you’ll get over it.” Something deeper, though, maybe my twisted, broken heart, keeps saying, “she was the closest friend I’ve ever had; I don’t know if I’ll ever really get over it.”
I was 22 and in college. A buddy of mine had a neighbor who bred Chocolate Labs and she was moving, so she needed to get rid of her newest litter in a hurry. I wasn’t looking for a dog at the time since my finances, living situation, and work/school schedule was in constant flux, but the puppies were free—and as with everything that was free back then, I took one home. I was renting a house with four other guys at the time and we were all a part of a rather large Christian college ministry, so there were always people, good people, in our house. This meant that there would always be someone around to help take care of the dog even if I wasn’t home. I quickly took suggestions on potential names for our new household mascot: Hershey, Coco, and a handful of others I’ve since forgotten. Instead, I settled on a name I found in a baby book: Zoe. In Greek, it means “life,” and since our household was so full of life and this dog’s disposition was so sweet and sociable, Zoe felt right.
Almost immediately I began introducing Zoe to the outdoors. I bought her a collar, leash, some dog treats, a hiking backpack, and we set off into the San Bernardino mountains at least once or twice a week. It didn’t take long before I could trust Zoe enough to allow her to be off-leash when we were out hiking. I’d still carry the leash in case there were other dogs around, but by and large, Zoe stayed within eye-shot of me wherever we went. All I ever had to do was simply call to her name, and she’d happily come running, place her snout in my hand as if to say, “I’m here,” and then turn back in the direction we were hiking. Even if I didn’t call her, she’d always keep an eye out for me. I think my presence made her feel safe. There were even a couple of times where I would intentionally hide behind a tree to see what she’d do in my absence. As soon as she realized I wasn’t behind her on the trail, she’d begin frantically sniffing the ground or the air to determine my location. The smells of the forest were suddenly irrelevant; it was my smell she was hunting for. I would never linger too long in hiding from her like this because I could see from her anxious motions and nervous sniffing that my absence truly bothered her. It was, however, always nice to know she pined for my partnership so.
I was in my mid-20s and my life continued to progress. I graduated with my bachelors degree, started working in education, dated, got married, and after entertaining the idea of going to the Sheriff’s academy, I started graduate school. All the while, Zoe saw me through it. We’d still go on hikes once or twice a week all over Southern California: the Angeles National Forest, Mount San Antonio, the San Gorgonio Mountains, the Santa Rosa and San Jancinto Mountain range, Box Springs Mountain, Deep Creek, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Gregory and more. By now, Zoe was well-traveled and a seasoned hiker. She’d often be the one to locate the best route through some thick brush or over some rocky cliff; she’d also gotten good at alerting me to potential danger up ahead (e.g. wild animals and sketchy characters along the way).
One time she even rescued me from certain injury, and quite possibly death. We were climbing through a steep canyon in Lytle Creek, California and the ground beneath my feet gave way. She bit my backpack and helped pull me up and over the edge. I almost didn’t believe it when it happened, but there was no doubt she rescued me that day. She was also quite good at fetching my fish as I reeled them in, and she was great at standing guard over the camp as I slept by a fire. When we were at home, she’d watch me get dressed, smell the pants I was putting on, and either turn in excitement because I was putting on my hiking gear, or she’d turn in disappointment, give a little snort, and go back to her bed because the pants I was putting on weren’t hiking pants. She lived to go on some adventure in the woods with me; she seemed born for it.
I was in my late-20s and life continued to change. I quit going to that church I was a part of for so many years, and people despised me because of it (at least it felt that way). I got divorced, and even more people despised me because of it (at least it felt that way). I finished graduate school and attended the weddings and funerals of many friends and family members. I started dating again. I eventually got a job with the US Navy and starting teaching and traveling overseas. Zoe had to stay with my mother in San Bernardino, California during this time because I was often away on some ship for 5-10 months out of the year. Every time I would return home, though, Zoe was always the first and the most fervent to greet me. It never mattered if I was gone for five minutes or five months; she would greet me by either jumping up in excitement to give me a hug, curling her rough paws around my hips, or with a somber low-crawl which invited me to my knees so I could give her a reassuring hug. Her ability to feel deeply often dictated her emotional response to my return. Whether I was coming or going, she was always the first to see me home and the last to see me off.
I was well into my thirties and I continued to teach and travel. Zoe and I had been walking in the woods together for over a decade and logged, literally, hundreds if not thousands of miles together. Whether it was on some mountain top or in some river bottom, neither one of us lost the will to explore the world together. Unfortunately, alongside the call of wild comes the call of everyday life, so I was forced to answer both. I got a teaching job in Southern California so I cold stop all the lonely international travel, won a teaching award, dated some more, partied away much of my money, met my soon-to-be-wife, and finally began to settle down. While I was dating Natalie, however, and while she was working, patrolling the roads of Inyo County as a Deputy Sheriff, I was off hiking the Inyo National Forest, the foothills of Mount Whitney, and the Eastern Sierras. Often I would even bring Zoe’s new little step-brother, Rico, along. He’s a Chihuahua, but he’s got an adventurer’s heart, just like Zoe and I, and that’s all it takes to get outdoors, so he’d tag along. It became clear Rico really started to enjoy having a big sister to help protect and pester him. Once when we were all out hiking together in Big Pine, California, Zoe located and saved a lost, little calf on some BLM ranch land. She had gotten really good over the years at helping to save those who needed saving. Eventually, Natalie and I got married, blended our little fur-baby families, and life continued to change. I got a new teaching position, moved to Reno, Nevada for it, had our son, Jameson, and after a few years of apartment living, bought our first house. Naturally, Zoe was there every step of the way.
I’m 37 now and living the American Dream. The only difference is that Zoe is gone. Three weeks into living in our new home, we were awakened by Zoe making some loud licking, slurping, and gurgling sounds. She was notoriously a loud licker/ drinker, so we initially thought she was just grooming herself after a midnight drink. After I grabbed my cellphone light, though, I could see that there was blood everywhere. It was pouring out of her right nostril and she was having a hard time breathing since it was all running into her mouth and down her throat. I took her to the emergency hospital, bleeding the whole way there. I thought it might have been a foxtail that she inhaled and was lodged in her nose. I had picked thousands of those things out of her fur over the years, so the doctor initially thought the same when I told her Zoe and I were avid hikers. Unfortunately, there was no foxtail. Furthermore, her blood work all came back with positive readings for her kidneys, liver, and stomach; by all accounts, she was a healthy 14 year old Labrador. The only other explanation was a tumor.
We went home so I could monitor her bleeding. If it stopped, she was healing and would likely be okay. If it didn’t stop, it was a tumor. That first day back home, she appeared to be getting better, and I wasn’t too worried. After all, when Zoe was a puppy, back when I lived in that rented house with those four guys, Zoe chewed up some pink roofing insulation that some workers had left in the yard. The fiberglass had gotten into her eyes and she required surgery. She made a full recovery then. Then there was the time Zoe was swept over the edge of a 20-foot waterfall while we were out hiking in Crestline, California. She recovered pretty quickly from that, too, so I thought she’d make a full recovery now. Unfortunately, she just kept bleeding. For five days I laid on the floor next to her, holding her paw, trying to get her to eat, shooting epinephrine up her nose to stop the blood, praying it would stop, cleaning it up when it didn’t, and crying because I knew what it all meant.
Natalie was the one to contact Heart’s Companion, a local pet care/ memorial center in Reno. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. We had scheduled an in-home appointment for a doctor to come and administer the euthanizing shot on July 1st. Foolish hope got the better of me, and I had Natalie cancel it. We were scheduled to go camping the next day, and I wanted to take Zoe on one last adventure in the woods before she was gone from us. I didn’t care if she bled in the car for the entire 3-hour drive to our campsite. As July 2nd came around, it was clear Zoe was too weak to make such a trip. Her eyes had only ever been bright, and kind, and so full of life. On that morning, however, she looked tired— too tired to carry on anymore. We called the doctor back and told her we would be needing her services after all.
I cleared a spot beneath the maple tree in our back yard and placed Zoe’s memory foam dog bed in the shade. It was a gift from Natalie to Zoe and had laid at the foot of our bed for years, so it looked a little out of place in the yard. I brought out her food and water bowls; this in spite of the fact that Natalie had cooked her a big bacon-and-egg breakfast that morning. I knew she wouldn’t eat, but I wanted her to feel like she was surrounded not only by her people but her belongings as well. I retreated to the bedroom to put on my hiking gear on; they were they clothes that made her the happiest, and I wanted her to know that we were just going on one more adventure, and we’d to it together. I laid in the dirt besides her in my yard, reminiscing about all the miles we’d walked together in the woods. I told her I was sorry for all the times I had to go overseas, but that I was grateful for all the times she saw me home. I told her I was sorry I never got to take her back to home to Missouri with me, but that I was happy she got to roam free all over the West Coast. I told her I was sorry she never got to go to the top of the Peterson Mountain that overlooks our new home, but I would go up there for her when she was gone. I told her she was my best friend, and I was so glad that I got to live so many good years with her.
When doctor Brockus finally came, she very delicately and respectfully treated Zoe like she was an integral member of our family. For that is exactly what she was. Zoe watched as I grew from a 22-year old child into a nearly 40-year old man. More than watch, however, she helped me in that growth. She saw me through death, divorce, separation, anxiety, fear, and loss. She saw me through graduations, and marriages, and birth. She saw me through it all. How often I cried with my face in her fur, and how often I laughed with her tongue on my cheek. I questioned God, the world, and my purpose in this life all the while she just sat there and listened with her head in my lap. No other audience has ever been so captivated, and no other set of feet have been so willing to walk alongside mine than that of hers.
When the first shot was administered to put her to sleep, I held her head and looked into her eyes. I told her she was simply going on one more adventure and it was okay to “go on” up ahead. Zoe always jogged up ahead when we were out hiking, but she always asked for permission to do it by looking at me inquisitively first. As soon as I un-clipped her leash and told her to “go on,” she’d eagerly jog up ahead on the trail, sniffing out all that she wanted to in this world. As the sedative took affect, the weight of her head pulled it down upon her bed, pulled her eyes closed, and almost immediately sent her snoring. The doctor gave me a moment more to feel her warmth, allow the sedative to take her deeper into sleep, and waited for me to signal to her when she was to administer the euthanizing agent. I knelt in close, closed my eyes, gave the doctor a nod, and listened as Zoe slowly exhaled her last breath. I had spent the better part of my adult life with this dog, and she was now gone.
I write all of this at length because I do not know how to cope with Zoe’s death other than this. I have dealt with much death in my life: my father, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even my best friend in high school committed suicide, so death is nothing new to my doorstep. This one, however, feels different. People have flaws and hurt and hangups; dogs like Zoe have none. They are shining examples of who we want to be: loyal, faithful, optimistic, good-natured, pure-hearted, and eternally happy. Zoe was not just my dog; she was my hiking partner, my history, my sounding board, my confidant, counselor, and safe haven. She guarded not only my person but also my heart. People often only take one or two roles in the lives of others. Dogs like Zoe take them all. They help us carry the weight of our world, and they love us in spite of it. Dogs like Zoe remind us of the good in everyone, including ourselves—especially ourselves. Dogs like Zoe keep us happy, and sane, and human. I don’t quite know how to let that go.
I know now that dogs are called Man’s Best Friend because a man’s best friend is the friend that helps him feel understood. Man’s best friend is the friend that helps a man be his best. Dogs help us do that because they listen— to everything: our whining, our crying, our victory, our shame. They look at us through rose-colored glasses, and in spite of all of it, and maybe even because of all of it, they teach us to look at ourselves with the same rose-colored optimism. Zoe did all of that to me; she did all of that for me. She and I weren’t simply walking in the woods together all those years, we were walking through the sunshine and shadows of life together. This is why I’ll never be able to walk in the woods in the same way again. I’ll still go venturing into the wild, that is certain, but I will venture carrying a hole in my heart along the way.
She was called by many names: Zo, Pretty Girl, Zoe-rella (a name given to her by my mother and a play on the name Cinderella), GirlFriend (a name my wife gave her), Zo-Bear, and Zoezzy. But she started in this word as simply Zoe. In Greek, it means “life.” It was the perfect name, for she brought so much life to so many, especially me. In truth, she helped this man to be the best version of himself. I going to miss her immensely. She was the closest friend I ever had, and I don’t know if I’ll ever really get over it.
If anyone else is going through (or will go through) the same kind of loss and is in need of end-of-life services for their pet, I’d highly recommend Heart’s Companion: Pet Memorial Center. They treated Zoe and our family’s emotions concerning her death with the same dignity, respect, and care afforded to humans.
They offer in-home euthanasia and pet cremation, both of which we made use of for Zoe. After she breathed her last, I had the option of taking Zoe to the crematorium myself, but I didn’t want to remember Zoe that way, so Dr. Susan L. Brockus, DVM (who came to our house) also took her to the crematorium where she was finally cremated. I’ll eventually, and have already started to, spread Zoe’s ashes in various locations in the woods, places I know she would have enjoyed. Until then, she rests in a little pine box with her name carefully engraved on the top.
Heart’s Companion also offers hospice/ end-of-life care, equine memorialization services, custom ceramic paw prints (which we also made use of), and even a pet loss support group that meets every third Monday of the month from 6:00-7:00pm (which I still may make use of in the future). When the time comes again for us to say goodbye to another beloved pet, I won’t hesitate to turn to this organization again, for their tender approach towards such an emotional time was helpful. Dr. Brockus and Krista George, one of the Customer Care Specialists, even sent a couple hand written cards expressing their sympathy after I had picked Zoe up and brought her back home— a small touch that can (and did) go a long way.
Their phone number is (775) 323-PETS (7387), and they are located at 119 Bell Street, Reno, Nevada 89503.