The Dog Who Means Nothing to Me

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!



126 thoughts on “The Dog Who Means Nothing to Me”

  1. I lost my “heart dog” in March 2015. Blessedly She was my friend for 16 years after I rescued her at 2yrs old. Although I had a second dog, I missed Crissy desperately. In early November 2015 I happened upon a plea by a New York rescue seeking for a short-term foster…only 3 weeks they said. They were going to southern Virginia to pick up 8 dogs from a small shelter and learned at the last minute that there were in fact 9 dogs and they did not want to leave one behind. Living in MD, it was easy to meet the northern bound transport and take a dog. Kelly has been with me ever since, and I swear my Crissy had a hand in bringing us together. Although Crissy was a soft sweet Kooiker girl, Kelly is a muscular American Bulldog, they have the same sweet, loving, cuddly personality. I will never forget how special Crissy was, but I thank her often for sending Kelly.

  2. The wonderful Golden dog, Sweet Eddie McFly, was mine. When he died I fell, face-first, in the dirt and remained there. I cried every single day for almost a year. God forbid anyone would say the name…’Eddie’. Even worse, a human Eddie was my brother-in-law. Not pretty cries, either- ugly smoosh-faced squalls. My sister, Mrs. Eddie, insisted that i get Charlie. My most beautiful and precious “orange dog”. Charlie fixed the hole that was my heart, my soul. I hope he knows that. Here’s a toast to all the furbies, past, and future. Thanks so much for this beautiful piece.

  3. Well, I just bawled my way through this. Amy (above) tagged me when she posted this, because she knows i lost my beloved boy a few weeks ago. Actually, Amy was the one who brought Kone to my house to “foster” some 9 and a half years ago. Haha, that was a long fostering.

    Anyway, thank you for writing this and for capturing so well how so many of us feel. Kone was everything to me and I cry my way through each day and feel like I’ll never find any kind of happiness in my life…..but it’s comforting in a way to see that others feel similarly about our best friends and companions.

    • Love a good failed foster story! It was months before I made it through a single day without crying over Eko. And as soon as I realized I hadn’t cried that day about him? You guessed it, I cried. There’s no easy or right way to begin again at the seemingly impossible task of loving another dog, but is undoubtedly a worthy endeavour. Good luck!

  4. Thank you for writing this. You have no idea (or maybe you do) how true this rings for many of us, even though I’m reading it through my tears. I lost 2 of my beloved dogs in just over a week. I’ve been crushed, so focused on my loss. Something told me to reach out & foster a puppy this week. This explains why. Thank you.

  5. Pearl was a reminder of how things in life go. She was a small black lab mix, cautious and hard to get along with puppy. I had rescued her but was unable at the time to get her mom who she was in the pound with. They were only days from termination and I had to save her if nothing else.

    I knew she had struggled in her young life. The pound worker was dragging her to me in the parking lot after I had completed her paperwork. After I stopped him in his tracks and had a few choice words. I took her home.

    When I got her home she wanted nothing to do with me. I sat her down in the house and she ran to the nearest corner in the room and sat staring at me. I picked her up but to no avail.

    About a week or so later. I awoke one night to here her whining. I got out of bed and picked her up and put her in the bed with me. She struggled to get away for a while and finally I held her long enough the she finally settled down and went to sleep next to me. When I got up the next morning much to my surprise she was still laying there awake but comfortable in the fact she was warm and being snuggled.

    Over the next couple of weeks we worked on this routine and finally she started getting into bed with me at night. Much to my surprise one night she came to bed and just stood next to my head and looked at me. She finally went over and started pushing the the cover around and made her way under the comforter. With a little effort she got settled in and curled up in a ball next to my stomach. This is where she slept over the next five years.

    During the next several weeks she had worked out a very odd routine. I would wake the next morning to find her on my pillow draped across my head like a hat. A dog hat. I woke the wife up giggling at that silly puppy. This was now the way I woke up every morning, with my dog hat.

    This little puppy had changed from a stand offish little girl to a pup that would not let me out of her sight. When she sat in my lap (Which was at every chance she could get) she protected me without hesitation. If you got close enough you got warning barks and growls. If you persisted you got bitten.

    She was with me until she was five years old and lost her. The doctors still had no idea of what took her away from me, but when she passed. it was if I had died with her. You are correct in stating that there are no words I could have written here to explain how I felt. I still think about her often and pictures or a sudden memory will still bring tears.

    So I raise a glass with you to Zero and Pearl. May they always be in our hearts…


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