What My First Pet Taught Me About Death

My parents bought my first dog on the spur of the moment and named her after a license plate.

Her name was Zoe, like the last three letters of our license plate, Z-O-E, not Zoey or Zöe as I corrected teachers who circled my spelling with red circles through school.

I loved Zoe. We were almost exactly the same age, both of us spur-of-the-moment additions to the Morin crew that lived in a little brown house with a weeping willow tree in the yard. Oh–and there was my sister too–but nobody loved that dog like I did.

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This isn’t a story about Zoe’s life, about the holes she dug in the yard or the grass she wore away around the edge of the pool, running endless laps as I splashed at her. This isn’t a story about the way her ears felt warm and soft as we laid in the sun and her tolerance for dress up games. This isn’t even a story about the bite she gave me on the thigh when I played just a little too rough.

This is a story about Zoe’s death.

When Zoe and I were six she developed a limp. That same year she almost died. My mother walked into the kitchen of our little brown house with the weeping willow out front and came across a pool of blood. The blood spread across the floor. All the blood once contained within a body, now spilled on the floor. The vet diagnosed Zoe with Lyme’s Disease and later cancer. Zoe went through several expensive experimental treatments and lived, but she was never quite the same. Neither was I.

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I was three or four when I understood what death meant. A dog floated out to sea on an iceberg at the end of a movie, presumably to die. I cried on the stairs all night. It suddenly clicked in my head that I too was a finite being. As Zoe got older I developed anxiety about her increasing age and my own. I subtracted my age from 100 and hers from 15 to gauge how much time each of us had left in the best case scenario. I developed nervous tics and habits I thought would increase our odds of immortality.

When Zoe and I were seven, I held my breath for as long as possible between lamp posts in the car. If I only breathed in and out as the post passed, Zoe would make it to 15 and I would make it to 100. If I balanced my scooter on the curb as I rode without falling off, I would survive today and so would Zoe. I fell asleep at night chanting, “Make dog years the same as people years, make dog years the same as people years,” to get her through the night. Life without my dog felt dark and impossible.

When Zoe and I were eight, I stopped stepping on ants in the driveway. My stomach hurt constantly. The hurt chewed away at my insides. The hurt said this: My time spent alive is nothing to the time I will spend being dead. There was an infinite amount of time that passed before I existed and there will be an infinite amount of time to pass after I have finished existing. I was not and will never be a religious person. To me, religion is a fairy tale people tell themselves to fall asleep at night. I called it a lie. Sort of how I bit the inside of my mouth three times on each cheek then checked if my dog was breathing before I could fall asleep, I knew it didn’t make a difference. Death was coming either way. It no longer seemed fair to step on ants in the driveway. They had barely begun their short, pointless lives before I killed them. They were animals, just like Zoe, and just like me. I stopped eating meat.

When Zoe and I were ten, my fears and anxiety over death alongside my lack of friends (probably from the odd behavior) catapulted me into full blown depression. I avoided odd numbers. I screamed good thoughts as loud as I could in my head to drown out my thoughts on death. I counted my steps to 100. I could hardly look at Zoe without a sad darkness blooming in my chest. I was concerned with her whereabouts at all times. I became agitated and spiraled into explosive episodes when I couldn’t find her.

My dog and I had good times too, but at the time these good times were entirely contingent on my ritualistic behavior. As she got older Zoe developed cancer which led to a series of sudden declines and recoveries that did nothing but added fuel to my rituals. Zoe began to wander from home at night, especially during one long winter before her death. She would slink off in the snow toward the woods without turning to look at me as I shouted after her. I scrambled, often barefoot through the ice to pick her up and bring her back. I earned a triangular scar on my angle and several shallow scars on my fingertips from this winter.

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Zoe reached an age where she had more bad days than good. I too had more bad days than good. Zoe developed a mass that pushed into her stomach. She stopped eating. She shit long lines of bloody feces in the house. I cleaned her up and scrubbed the floors after school so my mother wouldn’t know and wouldn’t take her to the vet to kill her.

What little Zoe ate she ate from my hands as I laid next to her on a warm patch of floor feeding her little bits of food with my fingers. I gave her ice cubes and brushed her fur. I saved the fur in a little box I kept under my bed. I slept next to her at night with the buckle of my sleeping bag under my stomach to gauge how much her tumor hurt. If it only hurt this much, she should be okay. If I did these rituals, had these thoughts over and over, she should be okay.

Zoe ran away from home to die when we were twelve. Zoe slunk out of the open back door one winter morning and vanished. When we realized she was gone, I tore out of the house barefoot and ran up and down the streets calling her name. It began to snow. I ignored the cold, clad only in thin pajamas. It snowed hard all day. My mother forced shoes on my feet. I hardly noticed. I had spent so much time trying to prevent this very thing from happening. I had invested so much energy in my thoughts, behaviors, and rituals to keep her safe. I mentally cracked. My mother and I drove all over town jingling her leash looking for her. My father put up an ad online. I alternated between violent outbursts of hysteria and silently rocking back and forth.

We found her late at night curled in the snow under the shed. She was still alive but it was clear that she had slipped out of the house to die. My father explained that dogs did this sometimes when they knew they were close to death. Wolves had the same behavior, apparently. I knew then that I wouldn’t let Zoe die alone. I would be there when it happened. I would witness it. I would have a sense of closure that comes from watching her slip away. If she wasn’t afraid, then I shouldn’t be either.

I was not there when it happened.

In March 2008, my father lifted Zoe outside on a red blanket to sit on the porch before I left for school. I sat there, petting her for a little while, memorizing her face. I told her I loved her. I promised her she would be okay. I promised her I would be okay. I knew I was lying. My mother drove me to the bus stop, which she never did. I got in the backseat to a sinking feeling in my gut that today was the day. I wanted to get out of the car and run to Zoe, to spend the day with her, to hug her one more time.

I did not. The car started and drove away. I kept my eyes locked on the black lump on the porch. I watched her chest move up and down. I touched the fabric of her bandana in my pocket.

The last time I saw Zoe was through my dirty school bus window, through a sheen of tears in my eyes. I caught a glimpse of her through the skeleton trees lining our backyard, laying on her red blanket on our porch. I knew that would be the last time I saw her.

My mother picked me up from middle school, which she never did. I knew what happened. When she looked at me she knew I knew too. We picked up my sister from elementary school, which she never did either. My sister seemed surprised to see us and more surprised to see me crying. She had no idea what had happened. She cried too.

When we arrived home, the house was empty. Zoe was not there. Zoe’s bed was not in the living room. Zoe’s bowl was not in the kitchen. Zoe’s fur was not on the floor. Zoe’s collar was on the counter and ZOE was written on my mother’s license plate but all other signs of Zoe had been scrubbed from existence. We were twelve-and-a-half, Zoe and I. We had worked hard for that twelve-and-a-half, but that “we” was now “I” and she was never coming back. I wrestled with the guilt of my absence in her last moments. I felt powerless. I felt like I betrayed her.

My father, who drove Zoe to the vet to be euthanized as soon as we left for school, was standing in the backyard. I punched him as hard as I could and as many times as I could. I kicked at him. I called him a murderer before he grabbed my arms to make me stop.

“Why wasn’t I there!” I screamed at him.

He told me he cried like a baby as she died. He told me the nurse gave her two shots, one to make her sleepy and one to stop her heart. He told me she didn’t feel any pain.

Hearing about it second hand did not make me feel better. He didn’t understand how I felt. I needed to be a part of her death to accept it. Only then I could stop the rituals and stop feeling so terrible. I talked about my years of anxiety and dread to no one. Death wasn’t a natural part of life. It was a horrible inevitability that we ticked irreversibly toward every moment. Zoe was gone, suddenly and all at once, and all I had was the crushing vacuum of darkness in her wake. I couldn’t vocalize these thoughts because to talk about death made it real. It made me face the fact that I would someday die. It made me question if life is worth living if you spend it in fear.

I promised myself I would never love anything ever again. It was too risky. Everything ends in heartbreak one way or another. I closed myself off. I wore black. I did not let myself enjoy living. Teachers confronted me about my depression, but their accusatory approach made me feel more isolated. I had never known a life without Zoe. Where did I go from here?

We got another dog a few months later. To my disappointment, I loved her immediately. We named her Roxy after a sweatshirt logo we saw a girl wearing at my sister’s softball game. Roxy was also a black lab but she was shorter and stockier than Zoe had been. Roxy’s face was square where Zoe’s was slim and pointed. Over time it became harder to draw a mental image of Zoe in my mind. Eventually, it became impossible to picture her but my guilt still lingered.

I held Zoe’s ashes the other day for the first time in almost ten years. Her ashes are in a little box near the spot she used to sleep. I looked at them. I touched them. They looked and felt nothing like her. That made me feel better. I let the guilt go.

It feels a little crazy to me to have a baby and a puppy grow up together only to soon say goodbye. It also feels natural. Pets teach us how to love and live and grieve honestly. Our bond with pets teaches us lessons about our capacity for love and the inevitable hardships of life. It’s important to be present for all of it, even the hardships, even the endings. In the aftermath of Zoe’s death, my mother gave me a card that said, “In the ups and downs of life, you’re one of the ups!” It had two dogs on a seesaw on the front. I still have it. Life is a series of arrivals and departures. Some people, some experiences and some animals are in our life for a short while and some linger much longer. Zoe opened up a conversation about death to me that spurred fear, obsession, education and ultimately acceptance. I carry Zoe in my heart everywhere I go.


Read more here: Strange Interests

…and here: What frightens you?

…and here: Dying to Be Pretty about my personal brush with death.


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Zoe and I at 11.
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