“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” — Laozi
As I sit down to write this, tears fill in my eyes, not because I’m sad or offset by an empty page, but because that’s what love does. It raws and humbles us, leaving even the most gregarious of writers speechless. Other times, though we may struggle to find the proper words, it compels us to speak up.
Before I met Zoe, the deaf American bulldog who wriggled her way into my heart, I thought my life was pretty swell. After overcoming a severe eating disorder and a marriage I now hesitate to call one, I was fulfilling my dream of living and working as an actor in Los Angeles. I’d recently moved in with my then boyfriend (let’s call him Clyde), who seemed like beyond wonderful to most everyone who knew him. People perpetually called us the “perfect couple.” Little did they, or even I, know the truth.
The longer we were together, the more I found myself slipping into the depressive state I’d long been sporadically prone to—an unexplainable darkness that was beginning to take a toll on our relationship. Sure, there were issues: arguments we’d have, my apparent oversensitivity to emotional bumps, his feeling somewhat threatened by my obsession with my craft and career. Namely, I blamed myself.
What I hadn’t yet realized was how much insecurity remained since healing from my eating disorder, which the relationship seemed only to magnify. One of those issues was my difficulty feeling comfortable alone. I hadn’t lived alone since my time in Paris, when I gravely ill with anorexia. During nights alone during Clyde’s frequent work trips, I had flashbacks of the heart abnormalities I’d had in my tiny Parisian flat, when terror over where the flippity flop in my chest might lead kept me from sleeping.
“We should get a dog,” Clyde suggested one day, aware of my love for animals and hoping the companionship would help. He’d never had a pet, so we agreed on fostering first. I completed the proper paperwork and a week later drove to the West Hollywood shelter to retrieve Zoe.
Out of the dim darkness of the neighborhood street popped this huge, mostly white head, its wide eyes, one brown and one blue, absorbing me. She walked over and sniffed my feet while her handler briefed me on dog sign language and Zoe’s basic lifestyle needs. How a deaf dog would help me feel safe was beyond me, but I didn’t care. The connection I felt with her was instantaneous.
She hopped into the backseat of my clunky Ford Taurus as though doing so was customary. Sitting in the driver’s set, I caught her happy expression in the rearview mirror, which seemed to say, “Let’s go home!” I couldn’t wait for Clyde to meet her.
By the time he did three days later, Zoe and I were attached. She followed me everywhere, kept a paw on my foot whenever I sat and checked on me as often I peeked at her throughout the night. Taking care of her me gave me sense of purpose and fulfillment I’d never before experienced. Meanwhile, my heart ached. Dogs don’t live all that long, I knew, anticipating one of the toughest experiences I’d ever face when her time came to leave. But there was no going back, not that I wanted to. When you love another truly and deeply, all you can do is love them more.
Clyde saw things differently. As soon as he glimpsed Zoe, the light left his face and disgust took over. He shook his head, barely needing to say what came next: “You’re kidding, right? We can’t keep her.”
The rest of his words blurred together as tears streaked my cheeks, Zoe huddled close to my leg. As a physician, Clyde had seen one too many injuries caused by pitbulls, which he associated with Zoe’s breed (and I associated with cruel owners). Zoe reacted to his distaste by leaning harder against my leg, seeming nervous and protective.
Perhaps if I’d been stronger, I would have found a way to move out and keep her that day. It was Clyde’s house and I had no place to go that would ensure Zoe’s safety. As painful as the notion was, I knew I had to bring her back.
The shelter couldn’t take Zoe for another week, so for seven more days, I lived with the wondrous dog my heart had already broken for twice. Clyde tried to give her a chance, to no avail.
“I’m not ready to let you pay so much attention to someone else,” he said—words that would echo in my mind as one of soon-to-accumulate red flags. Then he left to stay with family until Zoe was gone. Returning her to the shelter was one of the most trying days of my life.
Over the following few months, my depression that had temporarily lifted near Zoe returned full force. I frequently cried myself to sleep, dreamed of her and woke up most mornings expecting to see her. I’d asked Keri, the owner of Ace of Hearts adoption company, to let me know if they ran out of options for Zoe, at which point I would do whatever I had to help. Since she hadn’t called, I figured Zoe was either safe at the shelter or in a loving home.
Meanwhile, my relationship with Clyde grew rockier and I began to wonder if our problems weren’t “all my fault,” but derived from insecurities we both had. They seemed to knock up against each other’s like ships in a hurricane while we clung to hope for the shore.
One day I sat down with my guitar and wrote a song called Cinderella: “Sweet Cinderella, you live and breathe alone. You sweep your secret circles, wondering how you missed your throne…” I didn’t realize until writing the last line, “the Cinderella’s me,” that indeed she was. I wasn’t writing about the desire for someone to rescue me, but about a woman who’d lost sight of herself and her dreams. It was time to rescue myself.
Strengthened by the revelation, I began booking acting and modeling jobs after somewhat of a depression-induced hiatus and searching for my own place. I told Clyde I wanted to live on my own for a while, that it would be good for both of us. He disagreed and without actually saying the words, we broke up.
My criteria for my new residency were simple: If I could afford it and have a pet, I’d take it. My options were limited, but just before heading to Minnesota to visit family for Christmas, a new ad appeared on Craig’s List. The guest house advertised fit my aspirations to a tee.
Tom, the landlord, wasn’t home when I visited, so he arranged for a neighbor to show me around. The incredibly warm, handsome man named Mike gave me a tour. We chatted with ease as I completed my lease agreement at his kitchen table, his pet bird clinging to my finger, as though he was helping me fill in the blanks. “He’s never done that before,” Mike said. We both laughed.
Tom’s wife returned during my visit. Not only is Heidi one of the most buoyant women I’ve ever met, she rescues animals and the pair had two cats and a beagle. Eunice, the senior beagle they’d rescued after she was found crippled in an alley, was sitting on their sofa wearing Rudolph ears. I squealed, rushing over to hug the festive pooch, certain I’d found my new home.
I had reason to feel unsettled that holiday season; breakups are never easy and there were numerous unknowns in my life. My parents and siblings, surely expecting the teary typhoon I’d been during previous breakups, seemed concerned. But all I felt was hopeful. Something inside me told me that everything was changing for the better and the challenges in my life weren’t stress-worthy.
Unable to sleep Christmas Eve night, I headed to my parents’ living room where my dad gave me a dog magazine he thought I’d enjoy. My heartbeat sped. The cover featured Keri, the owner of Ace of Hearts, with two American bulldogs. I took this as a sign. Why wait?
I raced to a computer and emailed her, asking whether Zoe was still available. Minutes later, she emailed me from a ski lodge in Aspen: We’d love for you to have Zoe! For the first time in months, my tears consisted of sheer joy.
When I retrieved Zoe for the second and last time, she pranced over and hopped into my car, seeming as though she’d been waiting forever: “It’s about dang time!” (If that wasn’t her thought, it surely was mine.) The incredible woman, Jill, who’d sheltered and taught Zoe sign language when no one would adopt her told me that she’d cried after I left—one of many commonalities between Zoe and me, I’d learn.
I took Zoe in on a foster-to-adopt basis, thrilled beyond measure to share the guesthouse with my new best pal. I’d been told that one reason she may not have taken to my ex-beau was her tendency not to trust men, so when Mike came to meet her, I warned him to take caution. Seconds later, Zoe rushed over to him and threw her front paws affectionately up on his shoulders—instant friends. As Mike and I developed a friendship of our own, Zoe spent many nights with her head out my front door, gazing at his house. (Sorry, Mom and Dad. I lock the door now—promise!)
The following Valentine’s Day, I made the adoption official. That same day marked the beginning of a romance between Mike and me, a plot we’re pretty sure Zoe and Wombley, his little green bird, had in mind all along. A year and a half later, we wed on the step we met on before loved ones. In the over five since, our “zoo” has remained a happy one.
The zoo gang
If not for my big brindle heart, I’m not sure I would have moved fully past remnants of the eating disorder and depression, left a harmful relationship, started writing full-time or met my wonderful husband. He often jokes that Zoe and I are cut from the same cloth, and not merely because we’re both so darn sensitive, passionate and stubborn. People either look at Zoe and say, “Wow! She’s so lovely and unique!” or shy away, perplexed or terrified. Truth be told, people have reacted similarly to me over the years.
Last November 1, Zoe was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of cancer during a routine medical exam. We were told that she’d likely only live a couple of more weeks. That was nearly three months ago. Against all odds, she has been thriving. We don’t know how much longer we’ll have her, but we do know that we will love her with all of our hearts throughout. Much because of her, I feel strong enough to take whatever hardship may come. She deserves that.
Even now, as we share this challenging part of Zoe’s journey, she’s teaching us the importance of savoring life, the power of unconditional love and that the very uniqueness that makes us stand out and feel solitary at times is precisely what makes the world beautiful. For all of that and who she is, I’ll be forever grateful.
Savoring the sunset
“…if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” — Mother Teresa