My Big Brindle Heart: A Love Story

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” — Laozi

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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 beyond wonderful to most everyone who knew him. People perpetually called us the “perfect couple”—the artist and doctor pair, both passionate about life and our careers. Little did they, or even I, know the truth.

The longer Clyde and I were together, the more I found myself slipping into the depressive state I’d been sporadically prone to over the years. The seemingly 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. For most of these problems, I blamed myself.

What I hadn’t yet realized was how much insecurity remained since healing from my eating disorder, which our relationship seemed to magnify—including my difficulty feeling comfortable alone. I hadn’t lived alone since my time in Paris, where I’d become gravely ill with anorexia. Clyde traveled frequently for work, and during his absence, flashbacks of the seemingly endless nights in my Parisian flat haunted me. There, my only company were the erratic flippity-flop of my ill heart and thoughts of death, life as I knew it, fear and self-loathing.

Bittersweet Paree

Bittersweet Paree

“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 shaped like a pumpkin, 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.

Zoe pillow

“We should get a dog,” Clyde suggested one day, aware of my adoration 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 online and a week later drove to a West Hollywood shelter to retrieve the dog they’d paired me with.

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 and secure was beyond me, but I didn’t care. The connection I felt with her was instantaneous.

When it was time to leave, 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. 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. When 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 flooded my cheeks, Zoe huddled close to my leg. As a physician, Clyde felt that too many injuries were caused by pit bulls, which he associated with bulldog breeds and I associated with misconceptions and 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. But 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 return her to the shelter.

They couldn’t take her for another week, so for seven more days, I lived with the wondrous dog my heart had already broken for twice—my attempts to distance myself emotionally failing miserably. Clyde tried to do the opposite, to give her a chance, with equal success.

“I’m not ready to let you pay so much attention to someone else,” he said—words that would echo as red flags. 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 cried myself to sleep, dreamed of her and woke up most mornings expecting to see her. I’d asked Keri, the owner of adoption company, to let me know if they ran out of options for Zoe, at which point I would do whatever I had to 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 see that our problems weren’t “all my fault,” but culminations of insecurities we both had. They knocked up against each other like ships in a hurricane as we clung to hope for a distancing 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 hadn’t written about the desire for some hunky guy to whisk me away in cute shoes, but about a woman who’d lost sight of herself, settling for a life than was less-than. The cobwebs from my past could diminish, but only if I recognized my potential and rescued myself.

Strengthened by the revelation, I began booking acting and modeling jobs after a depression-induced dry-spell and searching for my own place. “I need to move out on my own for a while,” I told Clyde. “It’s just something I need to do.”

I assured him that doing so would be good for both of us. He staunchly disagreed and without actually saying the words, we broke up.

I wrote down my criteria for a new place—the amount of rent I could comfortably pay, allowance of dogs, a yard or nearby park and enough privacy to cultivate solitude. 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. It had a yard AND a park in proximity, allowed pets and matched my rent goal to the penny.

The landlord wasn’t home when I visited, so he arranged for a neighbor to show me around. The incredibly warm and 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.

The landlord’s wife returned during my visit—a beautifully buoyant woman who I learned rescues animals. Eunice, the senior beagle they’d rescued after being 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 many reasons to feel unsettled that holiday season; breakups are never easy and there were numerous significant unknowns in my life. My parents and siblings, surely expecting the teary typhoon I’d been during previous breakups, seemed concerned, but they were quickly assuaged. For the first time in a long time, all I felt was hopeful. Something inside assured me that everything was changing for the better and that the challenges in my life weren’t stress-worthy, but just right.

Unable to sleep Christmas Eve night, I headed to my parents’ living room where my dad handed me a dog magazine he thought I’d enjoy. At the sight of the cover, I nearly fell over. 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, by chance, available. Minutes later, she emailed me: 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 had 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 her in on a foster-to-adopt basis, thrilled 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 my neighbor, Mike, came to meet her, I cautioned him. 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 close and lock the door now – I swear!)

The following Valentine’s Day, I made the adoption official. As chance or fate would have it, 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, our wedding party all fur and feathers. In the over five years since, our “zoo” has remained a happy one. Our relationship is rich with mutual love and respect, commonalities and differences, and rather than feel like less of me within it, I feel authentic.

 

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The zoo gang

If not for Zoe, I’m not sure I would have moved fully past 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, Zoe was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of cancer during a routine medical exam. We were told that she had only a couple of more weeks to live. 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 us and the world beautiful. For all of that and who she is, I’ll be forever grateful.

Savoring the sunset

Savoring the sunset

Update, June 10th, 2014:

This past Memorial Day weekend, after over 6 months of battling her disease, Zoe crossed the Rainbow Bridge. She had the most peaceful passing we could have asked for. Mike and I held her as her breathing slowed, and the moment I felt her heart stop, I literally felt mine expand. I could swear that mine is now shaped like her giant pumpkin head.

I’m happy to report that what I suspected was true: love for her has helped us through the difficulty. Though the pain and loss run deep, there is so much more love. I’ll feel her with me always—my big, brindle heart.

“…if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” — Mother Teresa

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78 Comments

  1. Waaaaaaa. Great story, GOTB.

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  2. Apparently I needed a good cry this morning. Thank you.

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  3. Oh, August, tears filled my eyes the minute your post popped into my email box. I cried as I read through the story of you and Zoe beginning with stops and starts. Like most great loves, yours only grew. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of your life with Zoe. The love you have for one another reminds each one of us of what is possible in us, of what we are capable. It is the kind of love that lives forever, as you know. Beautiful post, August.
    Karen

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  4. M.G. Miller

     /  February 5, 2014

    This could be a movie. Well said, and totally heartfelt. Sweet, sweet story.

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  5. August, that is such a wonderful story! Zoe is adorable–and so it your whole family!

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  6. This is gorgeous, lovely and true–the perfect portrait of the healing power of pets (and it works both ways!). Thank you for sharing. *sniff* This is the kind of story I would have chosen during my editor tenure on the “dog chicken soup” book.

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  7. August, your story is simply beautiful. Thank you so much for taking a chance on Zoe. She’s absolutely beautiful. Ambulls are my fav, as my Titan is part Ambull/Mastiff. They are the most intelligent, loyal, and loving creatures I’ve ever none. I pray that Zoe feels no pain when it’s her time to pass to Rainbow Bridge and hopefully you’ll find it in your heart, to save another. xoxo

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  8. This is really, really well done. Brava.

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  9. I had a Zoe in my life, but his name was Toubie. I miss him, a big lug of a golden lab. When I got him, my then boyfriend was at work. I tied him (the dog, not the BF, although it should have been the other way around) out the front door until he became more acclimated with my house. When my friend came to visit Toubie was all lovey-dovey with her, but when the BF came home Toubie turned Cujo on him.

    The dog was ALWAYS friendly to everybody… I learned to trust his instincts, when he got Cujo, I knew to tread with caution.

    Dogs make like life more bearable. I’m sorry to hear Zoe is sick, hopefully there’ll be room in your heart for a new adoptee.

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    • Their instincts are amazing, aren’t they? We can learn so much about others by how they feel about and treat animals.

      Troubie sounds wondrous. You were lucky to have each other, as you know. Thanks for the sweet words!

      Reply
  10. How beautiful, August! Thanks so much for sharing.

    Our British-American brindle bulldog – also deaf, amazingly – named Sophie died a year ago. We loved her deeply and she helped us through so much! She now writes a blog about books, dogs and sex at http://www.bookboner.com actually! Ha. It’s pretty crazy stuff! It reflects her spirit.

    Thanks again for your beautiful and moving post. ❤

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    • That is amazing, Lana! I’m so sorry you lost your sweet Sophie, though I know the aches have been worth it. I can’t wait to check her blog out. 😀 Thanks for the lovely support!

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  11. What a beautiful story. I also had a Zoe in my life. Her name was Bear. She saved my life and found my husband for me. We lost her on Feb. 24, 2001, and to this day, I cry when I think about her. I miss her all the time. I have loved and lost many pets, and each is so precious to me. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Big hugs for you and Zoe.

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  12. Beautiful post, August!

    When I moved to Barrow, Alaska, I got a kitten, Leo. He was the smartest, most loving, adoring cat ever to set foot on this planet. We’d been together for about a year when a new beau entered my life. Leo hated him. I should have listened to him. Three years later, I left that relationship scarred and bruised. Leo was the only thing that kept me alive. It’s amazing how animals wiggle their way into your heart and guide you through your darkest times. He passed three years ago. I know Zoe is fighting and I pray she is with you for a long time, but please take comfort in knowing that she’ll always be with you. Leo still guides me.

    Big hugs for you and Zoe.

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  13. Sorry to hear about Zoe. I have a lot of experience with so called viscious dogs, and every time it is a product animal neglect and abuse. Good owner, good dog–IMHO. The pictures of Zoe are great!

    Reply
  14. Reblogged this on Moon Says What? and commented:
    This article says a lot about human nature, love, and man’s best friend.

    Reply
  15. Cora

     /  February 5, 2014

    Beautiful august!

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  16. I’m all teary, August. A beautiful story. Savor life, indeed. 🙂

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  17. Having met the Sweet Zoe, August, I can tell you my first impression was of that same big beautiful heart and aura of love that surrounds you. You’ve definitely got a soulmate in that dog. 🙂

    This article makes me miss my Hoshi-Moshi!

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  18. As always, a beautifully written piece. Remarkable, the kind that your friends have come to expect. Your brave explanation of a bad relationship was touching; it’s always hard to admit things like that, to relive the pain before everyone. Of course, in August McLaughlin style, you bounded up with your Zoe tale, the little one who helped bail you out when things got bad. We are all glad now that you are so happy, in a marriage you enjoy, and with the love of a beautiful little being. I, too, LOVE dogs, and completely identifiy with the joy Zoe gives you. God bless.

    Reply
    • All so lovely of you to say, Rob. I’m endlessly grateful for the circle of friends and readers I’m blessed to share with (and vice versa) — so glad you’re one of them!

      Reply
  19. Oh, August, I already knew that I loved you for your great heart and mind, and now I love your whole family. Hugs and as many blessings as you can fit in for all of you. *hugs*

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  20. I took zoology as part of my undergrad courses & studied animals scientifically including animal behavior. Your unconditional affection for human’s best friend is simply out of this world. Enjoyed reading your compassionate side.

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  21. Raani York

     /  February 5, 2014

    This is such a wonderful and heartfelt story… part of yours and Zoe’s life. You both are amazing together and I admire you and your companion for being the loving friends you are!! I very often think about you both and hope you’re fine!!

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  22. *hugs* I am so, so sorry you’re having to go through this with a pet. I recently went through a very similar journey with the cat I’d had since I was 15, and I had to say goodbye to him at the beginning of December, though with him it was kidney failure rather than cancer.

    Spend as much time with Zoe as you can. Get as many pictures as you can, especially on good days when she’s energetic and (nearly) her old self.

    I hope that the end is delayed as long as possible without Zoe suffering, and I’ll be praying for strength for all of you.

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    • I really appreciate the support, Rebekah, and am so sorry for your loss. Great point on taking photos. It’s amazing how snapping pics can help us seek out and savor special moments.

      Reply
  23. Catherine Johnson

     /  February 5, 2014

    What an adorable story, August x

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  24. lynnkelleyauthor

     /  February 5, 2014

    This is so poignant, so beautiful, August. I’m so sorry Zoe has been diagnosed with cancer, but how wonderful that she’s thriving. I hope she continues to. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

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  25. So poignant, August. Zoe looks wonderful. Zoos are family, too! So glad she’s thriving and making to most of life.

    Cheers 🙂

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  26. *wiping tears* – a love story indeed, on a whole lot of levels. Thanks, August.

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  27. My heart goes out to you and Zoe and this incredible journey you’ve been sharing together. Dogs are such sweet, sensitive souls…and boy do they have a way of enriching our lives. *Hugs*

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  28. Beautiful story. I’m so glad Zoe found you because it sounds like you’ve more than made up for any unhappiness she experienced before. And good for you for getting a pitbull. My Jack is predominantly a pit and is the sweetest, most loving dog I’ve ever known. He’s huge and likes to sit on your lap (I think he thinks he’s a poodle). When you said, “…which he associated with Zoe’s breed (and I associated with cruel owners),” I couldn’t agree more. Any dog can be a sweetheart, and any dog can be mean – and some of the meanest I’ve seen are little ankle biters. It just depends on how they’re raised.

    Hopefully Zoe will shock the doctors and be around for a long time to come. They don’t know everything.

    By the way…nice to ‘meet’ your husband. You’re a cute couple. 🙂

    Reply
  29. Awwwwww. This is the best love story. The best. I loved every bit of it. The ups and downs, the finding yourself, the starting anew – with a new furry friend, the romance, and the family – all four of you. What a fabulous and wonderful love story. I already told you I feel Zoe is part of the WANA family. I love the faces of pitbulls and bulldogs and boxers. Count me in as one of those “how beautiful” people because I would totally stop you on the street, and ask to meet her. 😀 Hugs to you, and a nuzzle for Zoe!

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  30. I love when things are meant to be. Yes, this is a love story. Zoe has brought so many good things into your life August. Savor the memories my dear friend. Zoe is one special dog. She loves you like no other. And that’s what’s keeping her going. I don’t blame you for not wanting to leave her side. {{Hugs!}}

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  31. Oh, such a beautiful story, August. I always love seeing your Zoe in my FB feed. Now I’ll love it even more. 🙂

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  32. LATE, late, late to the comment party, August.

    What a beautiful love story. I hope Zoe beats those odds for a long time.

    Sadly, I may look back on this post in the next six months to a year. Our oldest lab, Sydney, has been diagnosed with the canine equivalent of Lou Gehrig’s disease. She will not suffer pain, but it’s an irreversible & untreatable deterioration of the spine.

    I try not to let her know I’m aching when I hug and pet her. Her back legs will give out first. We’re already seeing those signs in her legs. But, from that debilitated rear forward — to her big heart and brown eyes — she’s a healthy dog. It’s so hard to look at that face and contemplate what we might have to do when she can no longer ambulate or take care of doggy business outside.

    She’s eleven, so — yes — in doggie years she’s had a good life for a Yellow Lab. It’s been a blink of an eye for us.

    My heart aches for anyone faced with decisions best for their family member, but so wretchedly painful for us. We are never, EVER ready for when that time comes.

    Hugs to you and Zoe!

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  33. Kourtney Heintz

     /  February 9, 2014

    What a beautiful post August. It was so honest and moved me to tears. I’m so happy you found Zoe and I hope you have as many more moments together as you can. She came into your life exactly when you needed her. I love your zoo family. 🙂

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  34. Absolutely beautiful August 🙂 I too have had such amazing connections with dogs in my life. My current girl, Edie, is my angel. And has been the one constant through all the ups and downs of the past several years. Having her there has been such an enormous comfort. Thank you for sharing your love for Zoe and I wish her many many more months of happiness with you and the gang 🙂

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  35. Oh August. I didn’t know she had gone. I’m so sorry that Zoe has left this world. I’m glad to have met her, even if only through your words.

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  36. If I had gone to Voices of the Year, I would have been bawling my eyes out, instead of privately tearing up in the comfort of being behind the screen.

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  37. Thanks to Ashley Garrett for sharing this piece on her blog. I didn’t need to get all snotty and teary this morning but it was worth the read.
    I am glad you found peace.

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  38. I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your Zoe, but so glad that you had such a wonderful experience in getting to know her. I think she would be so very proud to know that her love meant so much to you and that thanks to her boundless love for you, you not only survived her temporary loss,but have been able to thrive even without her. Knowing how much our four-footed loves care for us can cure the deepest wounds and being able to give that love back to them is the best feeling in the world. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful love story!

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  39. STM

     /  December 11, 2014

    Hi August,
    Fabulous and touching piece on Zoe – heartwarming and heart-rending at the same time. I, too, have a deaf American bulldog who was returned to the pet rescue place after four months with us following a marriage break-up as my ex-wife reluctantly realised she couldn’t look after three dogs, let alone one with some special puppy needs.

    I then had to “rescue” him from the pet rescue people with whom he’d likely have remained for some considerable time because, as you’d know, people are reluctant to take on deaf dogs – especially big, scary-looking ones. Luckily, they’d already taught him sign language before he came to us, so we had that nailed, which was good.

    At that time I was relying on the generosity of friends for a roof and a bed, so my little big fella spent seven weeks at an RSPCA boarding shelter while I looked for a place – but I drove an hour each way every day to see him before starting work in the afternoon.

    By the time he finally came back to me last March, he was as happy as a pig in poop. However, he was totally confused as it was his sixth home in his short 10 months of life – but we’ve made some big strides since. His name is Storm, he’s a big bouncy, beach-lovin’ Aussie boy, and despite being on the other side of the world, he looks a lot like Zoe.

    I think he’s beautiful, too, but not everyone does, and yes, some people do shy away. But love’s in the eye of the beholder, and I’m a sucker for a pretty face.

    The paperwork says I rescued him . . . but really, I think it might have been the other way around.

    Good on you August; truly loved your retelling of this great story. Keep Zoe in your memory because if you do, she’s never gone, and all the best for the future to you and yours.

    Reply
    • I can’t tell you how touched I am by your note. What remarkable parallels! I really do feel Zoe with me every day–and am happy to report that she led is to another rescue pup we adopted over the summer.

      Thank you for loving your dog as you do. Every example of the love they can be and bring helps change those damaging stereotypes. Wishing you wonderful holidays!

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  40. STM

     /  December 18, 2014

    Thanks so much August,

    Yes, that’s one reason I was moved by the story. I was struck too by the parallels … perhaps it’s the locations (or maybe it’s just that we’ve loved our beautiful deaf doggies).

    But, Australia and America are certainly the closest thing you’ll get to parallel universes on this planet – almost identical . . . almost.

    However, everything’s just a hair different – and that’s a nice thing.

    That’s even down to you guys driving on the wrong side of the road and speaking with funny accents.

    Hope you and your man and your family have a great Christmas . . . and I know you’ll be enjoying the company of the new pup.

    Cheers

    Reply
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