Most people don’t know this, but the first time I met Zoe was in the very house I call my own now.
But it wasn’t mine then. Tim was married--to a different Laura. I had given him a ride home from our All Saints’ Enquirers’ Class Retreat, and as he immediately recognized a fellow dog lover in me, he invited me inside to meet his three dogs--Wynnie, Talley, and of course, my beautiful Zoe. We chatted as they played with their frisbees and balls and other backyard toys. We hugged, and I took my leave, having no idea that that encounter was the beginning of falling in love--with Zoe, and with Tim.
Ironically, I had gone to All Saints and the Enquirers’ Class to find a way to connect with my now ex-husband. The Episcopal Church seemed a perfect compromise for a diehard Long Island Catholic (him) and a lifelong Southern United Methodist (me). But we were already drifting apart, and not because of religion. I had recently been let go from a job and had found some joy and success in freelancing, which he actively discouraged. I had started training for my first half marathon with Team in Training and made friends outside of our network for the first time in our seven plus year relationship--another wedge. And finally, the class retreat. He wouldn’t go, but shockingly enough, given how controlling he was at the time, he encouraged me to attend.
It was a retreat in every sense of the word--in spite of my social anxiety and open distaste for strangers, the country, unfamiliar food, and early mornings. But being in a supportive environment for the first time in a long time, free from my husband, able to speak my mind and share my dreams, and be nurtured and encouraged by people who had only known me for a few short weeks was life-changing.
Tim was a huge part of that.
We talked one night well past midnight. Knowing him now, I realize what a gift that was. He saw something in me--in my thoughts and dreams and deepest soul--that no one else did. I thought “wow, this is one hell of a guy. We have to stay friends.”
That we did. And more.
Though neither of us shared at the time, both of our marriages were in shambles and had been for some time. I went home from that November retreat, stewed for two weeks, and then finally did what I should have done before I even got married--I left.
The first time, I packed my things, drove around the corner, sobbed for an hour, and then drove right back home.
I eventually left on November 30, 2007. The day before I turned 32. That last night in the house was agony. I didn’t sleep. Mostly because I knew I was leaving behind part of my heart--my two dogs, Bismarck and Buster. The former, a bright-eyed, goofy border collie/lab mix who never met a stranger; the latter, a burly boxer/pit bull mix who showed up on our doorstep barking one night and refused to leave. Those two goofballs were my life. Buster slept on top of me nightly, all 84 pounds of him. He would jump into my lap as if he were a mere kitten. Both of them would steal pots from the kitchen sink and try to get the other in trouble. Leaving them behind was harder than leaving the person I had pledged to love for better or for worse.
After I left my ex, I spent a few weeks sleeping on my sister’s sofa until I rented my own space-- a condo in Brookwood, on Alden Ave. Tim, who had by that time also split from his spouse, rented an apartment literally around the corner from me, on 26th Street. We moved in within days of each other--broken, battered, dark, and grieving.
He also knew the heartbreak of leaving two dogs behind. But Zoe came with him.
Almost immediately upon moving in, Tim started traveling again for work. He asked me to dog sit. Eager to bond with another dog, I instantly agreed. And she immediately stole my heart.
She soon started spending nights at my place, in spite of her dislike of my cat (something she never quite got over). I distinctly remember one night during a nasty thunderstorm, she abandoned her middle of the night perch by the front door, ran into the bedroom, and leaped up onto my bed into my arms--cat be damned. I knew in that instant I was her mommy.
She waited for me on the porch of Tim’s house every morning. He later told me he told her the “pretty lady” was coming to take her for her walk. We ran or walked together daily. She saved me. She saved him. She saved us. She brought us together.
That was more than seven years ago. Tim and I have been married for more than six years. We moved backed into her house. Our house.
I remember the earlier days. The three to four miles runs every other day. The jumping on and off the bed playing with her ball and comfort. The incessant barking with Jack-Jack, her boyfriend next door. Finishing up our runs at Holeman & Finch Bakery with her favorite treat--pretzel bread bites. Runs at Memorial Park. Long sessions of Frisbee. Scaring the shit out of delivery trucks from her perch on the balcony.
Always vigilant. Always alert. Always “working.” Ever the border collie.
Even as the runs grew shorter and eventually became walks, even if comfort or ball time became a few throws and rest, even as the stairs became harder, she adapted. Never once complained. Rarely stumbled. Always protecting her pack.
In the last few weeks of her life, she spent her time guarding over my sister and my ten month-old niece who had moved in with us. She slept next to the baby’s crib in the downstairs bedroom. She let the baby pet her. She only bared her teeth once. We know now how much pain she was in. How much work her “work” was. But she did it, with gusto and joy. The ultimate irony being that she was given up by her first family because she wasn’t good with babies. She proved them wrong--her last project and our last gift. She worked and protected and loved and guarded and lived until she couldn’t any more.
The last 16 hours with her were agony. To know she was alert and intuitive and empathetic until the end, but her body had betrayed her. She wanted to “supervise” my sister’s moving out. She wanted to get up and go out. She wanted to go on the balcony and police the neighborhood, as she had every night since she moved in. She wanted to ride in the car to Alabama with her granddaddy.
But she did get her last car ride. To a place from which she would never return, not in the physical sense, at least.
But her eyes sparkled a bit. She stood up on her front paws. She took it all in. She herded cars as usual, though more with her mind than her body.
In the end, she looked at us one last time with those dark brown eyes, bright and serious and intense and earnest and brave, even with the fear.
And then she relaxed for good. For the first time ever in her thirteen years on this earth.