It came home as ashes. In a black can with red roses. A strand of hair, a piece of fur. A paw print pressed into clay.
Here was our Zelda, parts packed in a gift bag. Her smile with the missing front teeth was not captured. Or the way she jumped through a room and pushed you over, Elaine Benes style, with all 12 pounds of her starting off. It was a nice feeling, but something essential was missing – the story of her. Our history.
Zelda was my dog after the divorce, my single dog. It was on my bucket list, along with other things my ex wasn’t interested in like owning a house. I bought a house and lived in it by myself for four months before putting it in, fitting in the palm of my hand. She screamed the entire drive and then she vomited and then fell asleep. She would never like the car when it was moving, but she would always insist on driving with me. As a fan of the Fitzgeralds, I called her Zelda.
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There’s something about bonding with an animal when it’s just the two of you. There is more than camaraderie and a constant presence. I called her my favorite friend because I have a human best friend, but let’s face it – she was my best friend, my roommate, my soul mate. It was my longest and strongest relationship. First face in the morning and last at night, door opener, therapist. When a restaurant wasn’t dog friendly, I often wouldn’t go. When a road trip was worth it, she was by my side. When a nap was appropriate, it would go the length of my body to rest with her head on my shoulder.
We were a team for four years. I went back to school. I changed jobs (twice). A champagne colored mini Labradoodle and a 40 year old. It was there, but more than there. She was my confidante. She witnessed my frustrations. She heard my jokes before anyone else. I like to think that she was laughing inside.
Does it speak to itself when your dog listens? Does it sleep alone when your dog is snuggled against your back? Does it cook for you when your dog is enjoying the meal too? Maybe we were dependent on each other. I choose to believe we stayed afloat.
When I decided to become foster parents, the agency asked me to write an essay about our family. The intention was to give the essay to a future foster child so that they can feel for you before they move in. The agency emphasized that I should include Zelda; They recognized their role in my life. I included a photo in my essay – it was a vacation picture and we were wearing matching red sweaters. I figured that any child who came to us might as well know in advance what they were going to get.
Enter Rose. She had just turned 12, all elbows and stallion legs. In care all your life and now here with us. Zelda was skeptical – how long did this child stay? There were outbursts, voices raised. This was a child with unregulated feelings, a child who had seen violence up close. Zelda was annoyed around Rose; she barked in a way she never had before. She became protective of me.
Something clicked, something shifted. I would find Zelda in Rose’s room, sitting among the stuffed bears, floating near this whirling dervish of a girl. This girl who was quiet now, stroking Zelda’s back and pouring out her heart. “You’re my best friend,” I heard Rose tell her once. “Thank you very much.” That girl who screamed was calm and comforted now. They had routines, traditions, inside jokes. Zelda helped make Rose well.
We were family. We were family for another four years.
When Zelda was diagnosed with aggressive cancer, some were surprised that I opted for chemotherapy treatments three times a week. It was expensive, it was only palliative, it was a dog. My only regret is that it wasn’t enough, that it would just prolong the inevitable. I wanted to keep her with us as long as possible, and I did everything I had to do without a second thought. She was young, in dog years. And I was selfish. Rose needed her. We needed them both.
We marked every milestone – she sat with Santa Claus for Christmas and received a basket of goodies at Easter. She lived six months, then two more. It was June, a month of summer celebrations. It was five o’clock on a Monday morning. Something wrong, something very wrong. At eight o’clock she was gone. Her birthday was the next day, followed by Rose’s sweet 16th on Wednesday.
It wasn’t the farewell I planned. Not the death I wanted for her, if there was such a thing. You hear of decisions made beforehand and peaceful endings. We use euphemisms like “falling asleep”. But when the end comes suddenly there is pain and confusion. In those moments Zelda looked at me – her human – for help, and all I could do was hold her tight. Luckily I had the presence of mind to wake Rose, and so the three of us were together one last time.
It seems that I am surrounded by friends and colleagues who have lost parents and lovers and others of importance. People matter. What gives me the right to feel so sad Who should I mourn? She was an animal. I can always get another.
Some people said that afterwards. Are you going to have a dog When do you get a dog You have to get a dog. In order not to replace them, they quickly added. But to fill the silence.
Still I need the silence. It’s a punishment for how impatient I was with her last night when chemotherapy made her sick. It is retaliation for being able to imagine my life without her.
I hear them in the silence. I actually hear them honestly.
I thought I was crazy until the pet grief counselor dragged me to explain that auditory hallucinations are common after death. We hear laughter or voices or (in this case) barking that our brain has not yet caught up with reality.
And yes, that’s right. There are pet grief groups hosted by veterinary clinics and rescue workers. If you had told me eight years ago that I would be attending one, I would have rolled my eyes. How stupid, I would have thought, to be so tied to a dog that you mourn it like a person; that you need advice, therapy or support after death. You grieve, you move on. You put the ashes on the mantelpiece and walk away. After all, this wasn’t a child. No spouse, no sibling. It feels strange to care so much about it. And yet.
And yet I do. The cynic in me says – there is a group for everything. The heart of me says – my feelings are valid. I’m not all alone. There are others who feel the pain and the emptiness. I think about the woman I met once who told our class that she was recently widowed. She said she wished women were still dressed in black for the time of mourning. She said she wanted to wear a black veil. She wasn’t overbearing or fussy. She explained that then anyone could immediately identify her as a widow, that she would assign her this role without having to explain her loss and justify her pain again and again.
I also wish there was a marker. Just a little sign to tell people that I’ve lost someone and that I cared about someone. And you may not understand it, but that’s just because you weren’t lucky enough to know such a connection.
I look at those people who own dogs, who just are – dogs. They run and play and drink from the bathroom and sleep on the floor. They are in good hands, come when called and greet people at the door when they return home. These are dogs that are one step away from the wolves, lucky enough I suppose.
Then there are the dogs with personality who wear tutus and travel with strollers. Those in backpacks in the mountains or on the subway who accompany their people to work and play. My great-grandfather’s dog was sitting in a high chair at the dining table, but our childhood dog was not allowed on the furniture. I ask myself: does the dog create its role in a family or does the personification of a dog lead to it taking on that role? Was Zelda funny and precocious and neurotic because she was actually all of these things, or because that’s how I made her?
In the end, nature versus care doesn’t matter. Wouldn’t I have loved her less if she hadn’t taken on such human qualities? The truth is, I wouldn’t go back to when she was a puppy and treat her differently just so it wouldn’t hurt so much now.
I felt a dog’s paw on my forearm, which quietly calmed me as I raised my voice to my child. I saw this dog lick away the child’s tears. I saw her wait by the bathroom door on the day she died for her child to come out and hold her one last time.
We poured some of Zelda’s ashes into small decorative urns that we wear around our necks. Rose made a video of her cutest photos, set to music. We laugh all the time, remembering things she did, moments we shared. We started working with a rescue and took care of dogs in their honor. We keep mourning and trying to put our love and loss into words. But maybe that’s not necessary. After all, Zelda had no words. Her love exceeded her.