Zoe, my erstwhile canine companion, died today. My husband called at 2:30am (my time) to tell me. I know he woke me up because it’s hard to be alone with the blank space of loss. The world has changed in some immeasurable, ineffable way. A little cameo has been erased and yet the tableau of life remains largely the same, unaffected. Needless to say, it’s now 7:30am and I have not gone back to sleep.
I use the possessive adjective “my” with Zoe very loosely. First, because I have always been a tad uncomfortable subscribing to the notion of owning any living being. Sure, I had responsibility for feeding, sheltering, and caring for Zoe – but the same was true of my daughter and I couldn’t pretend to own her (not even when she was two!) But mostly it doesn’t feel right using ‘my’ with Zoe because she was not a dog that ceded to a relationship of that sort. My husband and I used to joke that Zoe might have thought she was a cat since she was raised with them in the absence of other dogs for the first two years of her life. Her temperament was certainly more feline than canine. She never saw the point of chasing balls or sticks. She liked to sit, paws tucked beneath her, on the back of the couch in front of our big picture window in Irvine, watching the world go buy. She did not tolerate being picked up or held with much grace, but she would stretch beside you on her own terms to nap. She was definitely not a lap dog and thank god she didn’t yap.
One hears, with a trickle of tears usually, tales of dogs that have lost their owners traveling hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles searching for them, prostrating themselves on a grave, showing up at 5 each day to meet a train, curling up with a coat or scarf, refusing to eat, or move, or play again. Wow! What loyalty and unconditional love, we think. What a wonderful companion. How lucky that person was to have that animal’s unwavering affection! Well, that wasn’t Zoe. Loyalty was not an integral aspect of her character.
Throughout the entire eighteen months prior to my leaving for the Peace Corps, Zoe and I were together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I wasn’t working. My only form of recreation was walking, which I did, day in and day out, sometimes six or seven miles a day, Zoe by my side. We took a four month road trip during that time, visiting twenty-three states, camping the entire way. She went places most suburban dogs will never have the opportunity to visit. She was a finicky eater and I spent many hours (and way too much money) searching for the perfect dog food to entice her. She accompanied me in the car whenever I ran errands (much to the chagrin of Irvine Animal Control – but we won’t go there.) When I said goodbye to her in June of 2012, she didn’t acknowledge in any way my impending disappearance from her world. As I cried, she cocked her head and looked at me quizzically (while I’m thinking “NOTE THE SUITCASES, DUMB DOG!!!! This is it – you’re supposed to KNOW AND BE SAD!) My husband reported that she actually began eating better in my absence.
When I returned for a visit home in May 2013, my daughter had her iPhone cocked, finger on the trigger, ready to record the emotional reunion. (We had watched too many YouTube videos of Iraqi veterans on kitchen floors under a dog pile.) I crept up to the front door, then opened it quickly, arms outspread, ready for Zoe to leap up in joy. She gazed up at me myopically, sniffed my feet and trotted right past, to greet my husband with middling enthusiasm, instead. I guess that sealed the deal: Zoe did not ‘belong’ to me. Though neither did she belong to him, it turned out.
When Mike moved back to Kentucky a couple of months ago, he was not able to keep Zoe at his brother’s house where he was staying. So his sister Kim offered to take her until Mike could find a place of his own. She had a beagle-mix who was hungering for a companion and Jackson and Zoe soon became inseparable. And whenever Mike would come by for a visit, sure enough, it was Kim who held her attention. Mike had become just another humanoid temporarily inhabiting a peripheral space. Zoe always knew who buttered her bread. You could say she was an eminently practical beast. Or, perhaps, just a little bit more enlightened than most of us creatures.
I’ve been immersing myself in studies of Buddhist philosophy again, this time approaching it from a novel angle through a MOOC on Buddhism & Evolutionary Psychology. Turns out these two disciplines have a host of similarities in explaining the mechanisms which form our sense of self, including the notions of attraction and preferences that usually predicate feelings of love and the way that our neurobiology is set up to negate the reality of impermanence.
Although it is enormously gratifying to our ego (our sense of self) to have a dog slavishly adore us, is it really the best strategy for the dog? Or us? Of course, we pride ourselves in the self-aggrandizing notion that their doggy brains (and hearts?) have overcome thousands of years of evolution to devote themselves single-mindedly to one human being out of billions, but when the consequences of that sort of devotion are an unremitting anguish and perhaps starving itself to death, one becomes a little mortified at the exacting toll our own sense of self-importance sometimes expects. (We tend to do the same thing with our romantic partners and BFF’s too, but at least they have the capacity to find food and shelter on their own.)
One of the ever-present catch-22s of Peace Corps service in this day and age is the ubiquitous of home and everyone else’s events and activities plastered all over social media. It can be very debilitating for some of us to witness life going on blithely in our absence, like a GOT character being killed off in the middle of the third season. No one much cares. Life goes on. You really weren’t that crucial to the plot after all.
Zoe’s graceful detachment always brought to my mind that Stephen Stills song Love the one you’re with. Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had. Face forward and be here now. Make more good. It was actually a very freeing experience for me to learn that Zoe was not moping around missing me. On some basic level, I felt released to move on. I appreciated her companionship while we were together and I felt it was reciprocated. But, as I have learned only too well in my two years away from home, it is not healthy to predicate one’s happiness on the presence or proximity of something external. You take nothing with you. So look around you and find the good times where you’re at.
I know you’re loving the one you’re with Zoe. Good for you girl. Run in peace….