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The Dog Who Owned Us

Goodbye to a good girl

By Cynthia Adams

Paintings by Dana Holliday

Left: Zoe loved to wear a circus-like collar and do tricks 

Right: Kip was a take-charge (versus a take-commands) dog . . . who wore his authority seriously

A gray February fog clung to us as we walked. Our shoulders slumped in the slackened posture of sorrow. Clasping hot cups of coffee couldn’t ease the chill; the worst of the cold was soul deep. 

Our eyes flickered towards one another, then slid away to the marsh grasses our two dogs sniffed, then to the sea beyond. Zoe, a gentle-natured mutt, stumbled, stiffly hinged as if her body parts no longer worked together as a coherent whole. Once, she had moved with loose-limbed grace.

Kip, the younger, trailed slowly and I tugged at his leash, wondering. With a canine’s exquisite sixth sense, did he grasp the reason for our sad silence?

Zoe came from humble beginnings as a “pound puppy” 16 years earlier at the Guilford County animal shelter. She was a terrier mix, part Australian shepherd; the greater part was a sweet mystery. 

When we had first sought a pet, I produced a picture of a small terrier torn from a magazine long ago. My husband pocketed it, and so began frequent forays to the animal shelter. 

“I’ll find our dog,” he assured. “Just be patient. ” On weekly walks through the shelter, the picture in hand, he did.

The story of our charismatic Zoe’s adoption — how my husband got into a lottery with others who also wanted her, then lost out — only underscored the pleasant shock when Zoe was discovered there again, returned. (“She found us. It’s because she was meant to be ours all along,” Don explained.) 

Amazingly, Zoe was a look-alike to the dog in the now dog-eared picture.

Initially, she was so well behaved she wouldn’t even bark. Don coaxed her with pats, treats and constant assurances that she was “a good — no — a wonderful girl.” 

Zoe wanted nothing more than to please and be pleasing. In her, we discovered a clever dog quickly mastering David Letterman’s stupid pet tricks (she unfailingly chose the larger of two bills when asked!). Zoe also trained us well. 

What she loved most was to walk twice daily — even on several-mile-long treks. She also had endless reserves of gratitude, sweetly thanking us for small favors with devotion. Her bright eyes seemingly welled with gratitude. Initially healthy, Zoe battled with nerve sheath tumors in middle age. But inoperable retinal disease left her completely blind. By age 12, cognitive changes began as well, then deafness.

She had found her voice, and used it — now barking at nothing. Still, Zoe demanded twice-daily walks along routes so frequent they had names, so familiar she needed neither her sight nor hearing to follow them. The “Homer route” looped past the home of a corgi Zoe liked. The “Belle route” passed a sweet yellow lab’s home. The “Weaver” looped past a business park. In Zoe’s older age, a half-mile loop in front of the house could only be managed in a no-hurries gait. 

Our slightly younger terrier, Kip, had pancreatitis. Both geriatric dogs’ medical files grew thicker. Both required carrying up and down stairs. 

Left to Right: Zoe and Kip

We discovered Zoe was in renal failure while vacationing at the coast. The kindly emergency vet gently advised: “It is time.”

We determined to make those final days Zoe’s best. We took exceedingly slow walks, keeping to our routine. We gave her cheeseburgers. No matter what special wine we uncorked, nor what gorgeous, pink-tinged sunset played out that weekend, we soldiered on, miserable. Kip sniffed Zoe’s frail body knowingly. 

The appointed day arrived with impenetrable fog low over the Intracoastal Waterway. As Zoe sniffled and snuffled the marsh grasses, I snapped one last picture with my cell phone. Her eyes showed a ghostly blue-white, otherworldly iris.

Zoe had chosen us 16 years ago; now, it was our final gift to surrender her to the sweet hereafter. The vet stroked her, too, as Zoe’s eyes closed. She left us as she had come to us, in trusting innocence. 

A good — no — a wonderful girl.  OH

Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.