In 1996 I was 18. I was in a sh*tty relationship (I didn’t know any better at the time). This person and I were ultimately incompatible, however he was the catalyst for one of the greatest loves of my life: Esmeralda.
(You’ll have to bear with me. All hyperbole aside, it’s hard for me to even type her name. And I almost never talk about her; not in writing, not out loud. It’s still too hard for me.)
That person, we’ll call him Dan, knew I was terrified of dogs. It’s hard to believe now because of how much I adore dogs but, back then, I was scared so badly by them.
He thought it would be funny to get me one.
We went to a pet store in a strip mall (I know, I know, I would never go to a pet store now, but back then I didn’t know a fraction of what I do now where animals are concerned). There were three puppies in an enclosure: two boys and a girl. The woman working at the store asked me if I’d like to hold one of them. I said no.
I watched them interact. The boys were trying to get the girl to engage and she kept trying to break up their antics. She intrigued me. I told the woman I’d hold her.
She pressed herself against me, all warm and smelling of corn chips, and licked my face.
I didn’t know what to do with the thoughts I was having. She seemed so lovely, yet she also, simultaneously, frightened me.
Dan offered to hold her. She immediately peed on him.
I think she knew a lot of things before I did.
Here she is, the day I met her and brought her home:
I didn’t know how to hold a puppy. I was afraid to hold her. But she seemed to want me to hold her, so I did the best I could.
She was a German Shepherd. I didn’t know anything about dog breeds before she came into my life. I didn’t know anything about dogs, period, before her.
I was a terrible puppy parent. I didn’t know how to raise and train a puppy. I still feel like I failed her. In all fairness, she was an awful puppy. I mean that sincerely. It’s like she sought out the most devious activities just to wreak havoc. She chewed through cables and cords. I would wake up and find her staring at me like a weirdo. She would sneak behind the washer and dryer and chew on that funky metallic tube thing. I would swear I knew where she was, then she’d be somewhere else, doing some other awful thing that either required a lot of cleanup, or throwing something out.
She ruined a couple of phones.
Looking back, I wish I’d tried to understand dogs better. I was half scared of her, half confused by her.
A few months after we got Esmeralda, we went to move from the place we were living (with Dan’s brother and his long-time girlfriend and their baby). Dan’s brother said he’d care for her until we found a place that would take dogs.
I kept visiting her. She seemed bored, but she had a large yard to run around in. I kept looking for an apartment that would allow me to have her with me.
One of the times I visited, I noticed she had no food. I’d been giving his brother money for food for her and their dog. Turns out he’d been using it for not dog food, and both dogs hadn’t eaten in at least a couple of days.
I was furious.
I said, this stops here.
I went to my parents. They had never allowed me to have a dog. I told them the situation and they agreed to allow her to live at their house until I found a suitable place.
She was relegated to the backyard and her Dogloo. This was in the Pacific Northwest autumn; it was cold and wet. She wasn’t allowed in the house.
All it took was her sitting at the back door, completely soggy, in the rain, for my parents to allow her inside, but only inside the back porch.
You can already see where this is going.
Bit by bit, she was allowed further and further into the house until, finally, she was sleeping in bed with my parents. They loved her.
As awful a puppy as she had been, she turned out to be an incredible dog. She was majestic and noble. Strong and steadfast; always in protection mode of me. She would sit on my feet, facing away from me. She didn’t do that to anyone else.
Sometimes when I wasn’t feeling well, I’d go over to their house to see her. She would lay down with me and, if anyone tried to get near me, even my parents, she would put herself between us.
In 2000, well after my relationship with Dan had ended, I wound up in a position to move to Germany.
I wanted to take her with me. My parents wanted to keep her in the United States with them. We finally agreed she would stay with them so as not to uproot her and have to potentially quarantine her.
I missed her desperately.
The first thing I always wanted to do when I came back home from Germany on visits was to see her. Immediately.
During one of those visits I was so sick, I couldn’t stop throwing up. She came into the bathroom and gently put her head on my leg. When I finally laid down again, she laid down next to me, occasionally smelling my face and softly whining.
She knew. She always knew when something was wrong. She was my protector. She was my best friend at a time when those were in short supply.
When I moved back to the United States in 2005, it was wonderful to see her far more often. I got to invite her over to my townhouse. I loved being able to see her and spend time with her.
In 2008, my partner and I moved to California. That was hard, for a lot of reasons, one of which was how much I missed her.
At that point, she was 12.
Her health was declining, but she still seemed mobile and comfortable, so I seated myself in denial and thought there would always be more time.
In 2010, my partner and I went home for Christmas. Before we left California, my mother had warned me Esmeralda wasn’t doing well. I asked for details. It was clear she was suffering and her quality of life had diminished. I asked my parents to make an appointment at the vet and we would all go and see what the situation was.
That appointment was seven years ago, yesterday.
I still remember the car ride. She had trouble getting in the car. She voided her bowels involuntarily on the way to the pet hospital. As we got into the waiting room, we had to use a contraption used to help dogs in her condition along because her legs would sometimes give out.
It was hard. But I had no idea how hard it would be.
I asked the vet, what do you think we should do? She said she couldn’t answer that for me/us. When I asked for any guidance, she said she could see a lot of stress in Esmeralda’s face.
(I’m already crying.)
I knew what she wasn’t saying. I knew the compassionate thing to do. But my heart broke and fell apart in messy pieces in that examination room in Vancouver, Washington near the Fred Meyer in Cascade Park.
I feel like I killed her. I feel like, even though it was the compassionate choice, I somehow gave up on her. I feel like I murdered her. I was only trying to do what was kind and compassionate, but my heart never understands that.
My parents left the room. Todd (my partner) and I were in the room with her. The vet gave us time together. I was sitting on the floor, already sobbing; Esmeralda came to me, and gently licked my tears away. I just held her and told her over and over how much I loved her. I told her she was my best friend and that I was so sorry for all the ways I failed her. I pet her face and ears. I kissed her snout.
(I’m crying so hard right now my face won’t stop twitching and these awful involuntary sounds are coming out of me. I can’t see my screen very well. I have to get this out. I’ve been carrying it for so long.)
The vet came back in.
I held her. She died in my arms. My face was next to hers and I kept whispering over and over, “I love you. I will always love you.”
The moment she died, the moment I felt the life leave her body, that sickening slackening of her body, was the worst moment of my life.
I tried to lay her down, gently, but one of her back legs was bent strangely and I couldn’t move it so she could lay down. The vet told me it didn’t matter. I said it did matter. She deserved the respect and dignity of being able to lay comfortably.
Todd gently moved her leg. Of all the moments in our lives together, that one gesture stands out as a beautiful moment of his compassion and love for creatures.
I bent over her on the floor and sobbed. I cried harder than I’ve ever cried in my life. I didn’t want to leave her. I didn’t want to stop touching her or holding her.
They dimmed the lights and left me with her for a long time.
Eventually the question came up of what to do with her.
Even now this bothers me.
My parents no longer lived in a house, so there was nowhere to bury her. I felt strongly that I didn’t want her cremated. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being put into an oven.
I asked the vet for a day to figure things out.
Every time we visit the Pacific Northwest, we stay with my partner’s parents. I love them so much.
When we got back to their house, I went straight to bed. I didn’t want to talk.
The next morning, my partner’s mother and I had a nail appointment. I recall that so clearly, and it seemed all wrong for me to be getting my nails done when Esmeralda had just died. I literally never get my nails done, and she always made a point to take me out to do that which was very kind of her. That particular day I felt so completely detached, I just tried to do what we had scheduled.
We were sitting in the salon, and she turned to me and told me I could bury Esmeralda at their house, because she knew how much she meant to me.
Second only to having Todd, it’s the most meaningful thing she could have said or done.
That night, my parents picked up Esmeralda’s body from the vet. They had put her in a large plastic bag and I recall that upsetting me.
So, in late December, Todd and I began to dig the Esmeralda-sized hole behind their home.
It was freezing. I couldn’t stop crying. My tears were freezing to my face. There may be no worse feeling than digging a hole for someone you love.
Finally the hole was deep enough.
I couldn’t bear to put her in the ground in that awful bag. I couldn’t bear to put her in the ground unprotected.
I took off my long woolen coat (it hung to the ground). It was brown. I wrapped her in it.
I’m not religious, but I took my medal of Saint Francis and placed it in the interior coat pocket. For protection.
Todd and I gently put her in the hole.
Filling in that hole with dirt…it still feels wrong. I knew I wouldn’t see her again.
I laid down on the ground and cried and cried and the crack in my heart got bigger.
I went to sleep.
The next day, I found a place where I bought two markers for her grave: a stone that said simply “peace,” and a small statue of two birds, huddled together.
His parents take such good care of her grave. They put a stone bench next to the site. They planted flowers there. Every time we come to visit, they have put something commemorative there. They know how much I loved her. How much I still love her.
I go out there and talk to her. I don’t know what happens after death (though I have technically died and all I experienced before being revived was darkness), but talking to her feels correct.
I know it will sound like an exaggeration, but I think of her every day. It hurts just as much now as it did that day in the winter of 2010. I try to look at pictures of her, but they all make me feel devastated.
This was always my favorite photo of her:
My oldest brother took this in 1998. He titled it, “You’re always on the back of my mind,” because of the connection we had. That’s me in the background.
This year, I had an idea.
I wanted to turn this picture into something that I could look at and feel not sad about, but happy about. Happy about her life.
I asked a friend who is an artist if she could take her from this picture and put her in a completely unique setting; somewhere I’d never seen her, somewhere fantastical and beautiful and colorful. Somewhere I could imagine her being. Somewhere entirely new and not dissolving into sadness.
And that is exactly what she did.
This is the painting she created. It’s more beautiful beyond measure than I could have ever hoped for. I look at her there, I can think of the myriad positives, and it doesn’t hurt quite as much. I can picture her there, in the wildly colorful landscape, and my thoughts turn into a Gondry film starring Esmeralda. There she is surrounded by warm breezes, neon palm trees, and synth music. She’s like a glorious version of Amaterasu.
This one piece of art has helped me beyond measure. A testament to the artist and her amazing skill and love for what she does. I couldn’t love this any more than I do. She brought her back to life for me. She brought her to life in a beautiful new way.
I’m ever so grateful.
Sometimes I still think I see her. Sitting on a corner. Looking at me from across a room. It’s difficult, but it’s also kind of sweet. My brain must want to see her so badly, it’s like I think she must be there. It’s like looking for someone and finding out they just walked away. It’s like you just missed them.
I have almost no photos of her. It’s one of the main reasons why I take so many photos of Cloud. I also whisper to Cloud that he’s my favorite living dog. I whisper in his ear that I love him. I whisper that I want him to be healthy and live a fantastically long life. I try to make his life as lovely as possible. I feel like I failed so badly with Esmeralda when it came to being a good dog parent; I only want to learn from those shortcomings.
I hope I have.
I miss her.
I think of her.
I love her.
At the dog park we go to, there’s a Shepherd who looks so much like her, it’s eerie. I can’t watch her without breaking down.
When I played The Last Guardian, it was impossible for me not to see her in Trico. There would be times I’d break down into tears just watching Trico move.
At the end of a game called Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, (SPOILER) one brother must dig the grave for the other, and it wrecked me. All I could think about was that night seven years ago, in the cold, dark night.
This piece of art, that beautiful, colorful, art, has helped me more than I could have anticipated. I credit the artist with such skill and care. She opened up a portal to another world where I can see her and think about her in a new way. I can think about her life force.
I once saw a gravestone, and I think the inscription concludes this more accurately than anything I could say:
” If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”