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