Last Thanksgiving my family gathered in Chicago and we lifted our glasses to the memory of Eko – the dog who meant everything to me. That same evening, at the top of a winding dirt driveway in Michigan, a dog who meant nothing to me was born.
For five transformative years I spent nearly every moment with Eko. He shepherded me through one of the most uncertain and tumultuous times of my life. I hammered and tempered and reforged my soul under the guidance of my puppy.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without Eko. More importantly, I wouldn’t be who I am. So without Eko, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. I lost my compass when I lost Eko, but this aching emptiness will be my guide, I wrote.
After years of speaking with a full heart I had to learn to listen with an empty one. I spent each day trying to replace what I lost, but when I lay my head down to sleep and tapped my heart it still rang hollow.
Those empty reverberations led me up a dirt driveway in Michigan one wintry January afternoon. I didn’t want to be there but I had nowhere else left to go. I needed help to find my way again.
Sorrow can withstand many things, but eleven Rhodesian Ridgeback puppies is not one of them. A wave of Lilliputian pups pinned me down like Gulliver and I couldn’t help but revel in their exuberance. Here were eleven new beginnings. Eleven stories ready to be told. Eleven lifetimes of adventure and love in need of only someone brave enough to start the journey with them.
Next to me, a round-headed puppy with an orange collar nestled himself in Emily’s lap, cozying up against our unborn son. A puppy and a baby? That’s a journey requiring a brand of bravery many would call madness. But as we drove through the snow back to Chicago I couldn’t have been more certain I needed to start a new story. For myself, and for my son.
A story cannot begin before naming the characters. We name our dogs after things we love. We name them after heroes, myths and the ideas closest to our heart. Mr. Eko got his name from a character on the TV show LOST. Eko was a loyal and powerful presence in the show, and so too was Eko the dog in my life.
When I carried the orange-collared boy to my car for the first time I knew this story must start a different way. I would not name him after something I loved the most, but instead I would name him after something I feared the most – losing everything.
“Losing Everything,” doesn’t quite have a good ring to it, so I shortened the name to Zero.
It is easy to live each day with the people and things we love. But after losing Eko I was reminded of how impossibly difficult it can be to live with the things we fear. I lost Eko in an instant. I knew I could lose Penny or Emily or our future child in the same fashion. How do you cope with that stark reality without letting it cripple you?
On his first day home Zero was a ridiculously cute puppy, but he still didn’t mean anything to me. Selfishly, I knew in my heart I would trade Zero for Eko in an instant if I could. How could a dog who meant nothing to me ever compare to a dog who meant everything to me? It seemed like an impossible challenge, but to refuse to meet it would be to refuse the lessons Eko taught me about love.
I began at zero. With Zero.
You cannot explain grief to a puppy. You cannot tell them you are broken and lost. Well, you can, and I did, but a puppy doesn’t care. Because no matter the question, a dog’s answer is always the same: “Okay.”
There is no sin, no crime, no confession from which a dog cannot absolve you. Tell a dog your darkest secrets or your deepest fears – even name them that fear – and they will happily lick your face in return. Are any of us worthy of such unconditional love? It doesn’t matter because our dogs offer it regardless.
So it was with Zero. Because where I met Eko with an open heart, I came to Zero with a broken one. Each time I looked at Zero I was reminded of all that I lost in Eko and all that I might lose each time I give a piece of my heart away. With so much on the line, and still in such pain, how could this puppy expect me to also give myself to him?
He didn’t. He simply licked my tears, comforted Emily when she was sick, revived Penny’s sagging spirits, and infused every moment of our lives with a relentless vitality.
Without the weight of expectation I slowly began to share my heart with Zero. But where I gave Eko my love with unencumbered naiveté, I gave Zero my scarred love with the full knowledge of what it will cost me. Someday this love will make me hurt and suffer in ways in which language has not yet crafted words for, but if Eko taught me only one thing it is that indescribable suffering is a small price to pay for love.
By the time we brought Lincoln home from the hospital Zero had helped me renew my courage to love unconditionally no matter the cost. But once again I wavered. This was not how it was supposed to be. Because I do not know how to teach a boy how to be a man. That was Eko’s job.
When I crossed the threshold to our apartment with Lincoln for the first time, I steeled my heart for disappointment. Eko wasn’t there and I was on my own. Zero disagreed. My massive puppy whose primary mode of locomotion is crashing, daintily licked my son and nestled against him once again.
From that day to this one Zero has been Lincoln’s doting nanny, bathing him in kisses and carefully curling up next to him for naps. Zero is Lincoln’s shadow, his protector, his guide. His Eko.
This morning I’m headed to the beach with Penny, Zero and Lincoln. There, in my heart, we’ll meet Eko and that selfish part of myself who would do anything to have him back. That greedy denizen will again ask, “Would you give up Zero for Eko? Would you give up nothing for everything?”
I will hug my son, watch my dogs play and finally be able to say “No. I wouldn’t trade Zero for the world.” And with that thought honor Eko’s love more fully than ever before.
Serendipitously born on a day of gratitude, Zero truly is my thanksgiving. My constant reminder gratitude is not acceptance, it’s action. It’s loving and losing and suffering and wallowing and finding the courage to do it all again, even if you may need a puppy’s help to do so. It’s struggling and failing and striving in audacious defiance of death.
Death. That’s where it ends. For a puppy and for all of us. But what a sad thing it would be to let a little detail like that stop us from loving unequivocally along the way.
Tonight, my family will raise our glasses again in thanksgiving. As always, I’ll remain thankful for the dog who meant everything to me. But this year, on his first birthday, I’m especially thankful for the dog who means Nothing to me:
Nothing taken for granted. Nothing gained, if not risked. Nothing worth loving that isn’t worth suffering for.
Happy Thanksgiving and Happy birthday Zero!