‘Now I know I’ve got a heart, cause it’s breaking.’
-The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz
This morning, James and I said goodbye to a beloved member of our family. Not a flesh and blood human being, but a furry four -legged friend named Leo. To those who’ve never loved a dog, I think the sorrow we’re experiencing might seem absurd. ‘He’s just a dog. What’s the big deal?’
I get it. As I grow older, I’m confronted more and more with my own mortality, as well as the mortality of those I love. In the last couple years alone, it has been striking how many dear friends of mine have lost parents and family members. Loss has been all around me and yet, I’ve remained, luckily, guiltily, unscathed. When so many bad things are happening to people that I love, who am I to wail about the loss of a pet?
Well. . . let me try to explain. I grew up around dogs. From the time I was a toddler, we always had dogs in the house. I’ve loved every one of them and felt genuine anguish at their passing – whether the culprit was old age or diabetes or a passing motorist.
Without diminishing any of the love I held for my childhood pets, Leo was different. He was the first dog I, we, ‘owned’ as an adult. Leo came into our lives by chance, or more likely, fate. After 2 plus years of dating, James and I took the plunge and moved in together. We were only a few weeks into our new living arrangement, and it was still, shall we say, a bit tenuous?
We knew we wanted to get a dog, and were contemplating the idea of adopting a rescue Terrier we had just met the previous day. Enter Leo. While on our way to Home Depot to shop for a new air conditioner, we pulled off an exit off of the 5 fwy, just as Leo was running up the on ramp of the same exit on to the freeway.
He was a scared stray mutt a hair’s breadth away from being run over by high-speed traffic in front of our eyes. We tried to grab him, he tried to bite, and then by some miracle, James opened the door to his truck and Leo jumped inside. We now had a freaked-out, panting dog with eyes glazed over in our car, and no idea what to do next.
We called friends and after getting advice from various animal lovers, elected to take him to East Valley animal shelter. He had no collar, and upon inspection, no microchip. He was filthy, abandoned and clearly had been abused. At 8 years old (the age the shelter presumed he was at the time) and labeled a Chow mix, there was almost zero chance he’d be adopted from a high kill shelter like East Valley. The shelter gave him even less of a chance when after the 4 day waiting period for the owner to come forward was over, they put him on what’s the called ‘the red list,’ meaning the dog could be euthanized at any time.
James and I were at a crossroads. We knew we wanted a dog, but we knew nothing about this guy. We wanted to get a puppy or a younger dog, not an 8 year old. We didn’t know anything about his history, whether he was aggressive, or whether he had any personality whatsoever. At our first meeting, he was understandably shell-shocked. When the shock wore off, what kind of dog could we expect to find?
But we also knew that we couldn’t rescue a dog from near certain death on the freeway, only to have him be euthanized in a shelter. We debated, we argued, we worried, but in the end we decided to take him home and give it a shot. We could say that we chose him, but in the end, when he jumped into our car that day, wasn’t he choosing us?
Just over four years later, taking that stray mutt home was one of the best decisions we could have made. An amber haired fox, we named him Leo because his mane resembled that of a lion, and after he grew out of his initial shyness (he’d been hit, and would cower when we go to pet him and cringed when we touched his ears), he developed a feisty personality to match.
Over the last 4 years, he’s been our constant travel companion, and has road-tripped with us to Lake Tahoe, Palm Springs, Monterey, San Diego, and many points in between, often accompanying us to major events like weddings (o.k. he stayed in the hotel room), including our own wedding last October.
Having Leo in our lives has made us more tolerant, more compassionate, and more patient. As the 3rd member of our little family, he has improved and strengthened James’ and my relationship, and I daresay, his wandering into our lives by way of a freeway exit ramp ended up making us better people too. What some people might say is ‘just a dog’ has opened up my heart to a kind of love I’ve never experienced. Alright – I’m not a parent- and know I can’t and won’t compare the two, but this sweet little guy is at this point in my life, the closest thing I’ve known to a child.
That kind of love is also why, over the last six months, James and I witnessed Leo’s physical decline with an inordinate amount of patience, denial, hope, and ultimately, acceptance. He went blind, and whittled away to an almost skeleton-like frame. He developed severe arthritis in his hind legs. He had breathing trouble, and he needed teeth pulled.
An x-ray last December revealed a growth in his nasal cavity – likely a tumor, but the procedure involved to diagnose that with certainty was both expensive and (more importantly), too aggressive for a dog of his age. We went through a few vets (who either told us there was nothing they could do, or seemed to be only in it for the money), before we finally found, through the kind referral of one of James’ friends, a sweet man named Dr. Prabhakar at Panorama Pet Hospital in Panorama City. He told it to us straight – it was likely cancer, and that he was older than we thought, probably about 14 years old at this point. He advised us that any medical procedure at his age would be too hard on him and wouldn’t be successful anyway. Better to keep him comfortable and take it day by day and we’d know when the time came.
Which brings us to today. After fighting, denying, trying everything we could think of, James and I finally arrived at the only decision we could make. We weren’t ready – we’d never be ready – but Leo was ready. He told me so two nights ago with a plaintive bark (he never, ever barks) when he struggled and failed to stand up on his own. A bark that said, ‘help me.’ Coupled with his rapid weight loss and his inability to keep any food down for days on end, we knew that the time we had been dreading had arrived.
If you’re not a dog lover, I don’t expect you to understand what we’re feeling right now. And that’s o.k. But I can tell you this: in the short four years that he went from being an abandoned, scared mutt on the freeway to the love of our lives, Leo opened up our hearts and our minds. Creatively, he’s the inspiration behind our production company, Punk Monkey (one of his many nicknames), the umbrella under which we’re launching our one-act noir play festival P L.A.Y Noir this summer.
In the end, James and I are different (and better) people because this sweet little red-haired dog wandered into our lives. Today, we grieve his loss and celebrate his memory. Rest in peace, Leo Bear.
Until next time, friends.
My heart breaks for you and James. I understand so well how a dog (or cat) can walk right into your heart. And, that’s where Leo will always be. He was truly loved.
Thank you so much Monique. You are such a kind soul, and you’ve experienced more than enough loss for one lifetime. We really appreciate you thinking of us. I hope you’re well! xoxo
I feel your pain.. it is not easy to loose a dog. He seemed very special. Prayers with you…
Thank you so much. He was indeeed very special. I really appreciate you reading and thank you for your thoughts and prayers.
Sarah and James…I am so sorry to hear about your loss of Leo. From reading your blog you obviously had some wonderful years with him and that is what you should try and focus on now – the happy memories and how he enriched your lives. He is now at peace. Gaye xxx
Thank you, Gaye. You’re 100% correct and the blog was an attempt to do that. We’re working on following your advice and know it will get easier. Today, we miss him so much it’s nearly unbearable. Thank you for reading the blog and for your lovely comment. It means the world to me that you check in with it and reminds me that I need to post more content. Thank you! xx
Sarah and James this brought me to tears from one dog lover to another we completely feel the pain of your loss take care and even though extremely heart breaking let alone not being able to breath you did what Leo needed you to.
Tommy and Sonja
Thank you, Sonja! I had to write this today as a form of catharsis, for no other reason then to make sure that we documented Leo’s story while it was fresh. I’ve been tremendously touched by dog lovers like you who’ve responded to the blog in such an emotional way. I wasn’t seeking validation (just needed to get it out), but your response is incredibly comforting and warms our hearts. Thank you so much.
Such a wonderful tribute to dear Leo. What a marvelous being/Spirit. I love your heart-felt words and I adore the photos. Sending you love.
Thank you Pam. I appreciate your words more than you can know. Hope to see you again before too long. xo
Finally getting to email today and read this beautiful blog post about Leo. I’m so sorry and understand all you and James are feeling. It was so lovely to read and find out more about the story of his presence in your lives, the gift of love he was to you two and the gift of love you gave back to him after an abusive earlier life. While it’s so sad we have such a short time together with our four-legged, furry kids, it makes us appreciate them even more. It’s truly one-of-a-kind unconditional devotion and love. And he was a lucky pup to have been given such unconditional love and devotion in return. Sending you love and a big hug!
Thank you Danielle. I know you can relate and I appreciate your words so much. We miss him so very much. xoxo
Hey Sarah San, just read your touching blog about Leo’s passing…I remember the story from the beginning…he was such a sweet and special dog, and I am glad I had the honor of meeting him. So very sorry for your loss, and lots of love to Leo in doggy heaven…xoxo
Thanks Jenn. I appreciate your kind words and thank you for reading the blog. We miss him very much. I hope you’re well. xoxo
Sarah, this is the most beautiful homage you could have ever written for someone you loved. I remember you telling me the story of how Leo came into your life. You came into each others lives for a reason and were all made better for it. Thank you for sharing what is a painful but ultimately uplifting story. Sending you and James much love. Here’s to Leo and a life well lived…..
Awww, thanks so much Ash. Hard to believe how much time has passed since we did that little show at CTS. I think Leo was pretty new in our lives when I first told you the story. I started writing this blog the night before he passed, sitting on the kitchen floor with him and my journal at 3 a.m. I couldn’t write the ending until he was gone, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt a more necessary form of creative expression. One more reminder that us artists have to channel our pain into creativity. . . it’s the only way we can deal. Thank you for your kind words, lady. I hope you’re doing well. xo
Oh noooooo. Sarah, I’m so sorry! What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful friend.
Hi Karla, yeah, it’s been a rough week. Working hard to focus on the happy memories we have of him. Thanks so much for reading, I really appreciate it! 🙂
That was a beautiful post. My friend Karla sent this to me as I just put my precious Sasha down about a month ago. She had cancer and there was nothing I could do either but enjoy the time we had left and not dwell on it. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life and I understand completely how you feel. Dog spells God backwards for a reason, they are the purest form of spirit on earth. They live in the now and don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow. Leo and Sasha are watching over us now in Heaven and you will feel his presence in your life again.
Thank you so much for your comment and for reading my blog. I am really touched that you stopped by to leave such a heartfelt message. I am very sorry for the loss of your dear friend Sasha and I definitely understand what you’ve been going through. It’s so incredibly hard, especially when you have to make the (humane) decision to end their suffering. All we can do is celebrate the happy memories we shared with them, and take comfort in the fact that they’re at peace. My heart goes out to you and I really appreciate you stopping by to share your story. Wishing you all the best, from one dog lover to another.
Sorry but I’m not even gonna read the post. I just enjoyed the pics. Michael taught my kittycat to high-five. I’m gonna go home and give him a big hug – the cat, not Michael. Well maybe Michael too.