lessons from the tragedy

Posted: May 27th, 2011 | Filed under: life | Tags: , | No Comments »

Mom, I think Zoey went in the neighbor’s yard. I heard a dog screaming and it sounded like her.” – my 8-year-old daughter

I think she’s fine. My kids can be dramatic sometimes.

Zoey is our four-pound fur ball. She’s been a part of our family for almost five years. My five year old used to tuck her under her clumsy toddler arm and carry her everywhere. Zoey would just hang there, happy to be loved. She’s the enthusiastic greeter, the loyal couch cuddler, the equal opportunity lover.

“Mom, I climbed to look over the fence and I saw a white fluffy thing on the ground and two dogs standing over her.” -my 10-year-old daughter

I can tell when my kids are being dramatic. This isn’t one of those times. Her mind knew, but her eyes were begging me to reverse what she just saw.

“Are you serious?!” I knew she was, but maybe my eyes were begging her to reverse what she just said.

“Yes!” she wailed.

She wailed.

I screamed, “No!”. No. Because it wasn’t true. Zoey is not laying in our neighbors backyard. We don’t know him. He’s a single guy living in a rented house with two big dogs.

Zoey can catch flies with a snap of her teeth. She is a cuddler and will take turns cuddling with everyone in the house until the last person goes to bed. Then she sleeps with my ten-year-old. She’ll get up when my ten-year-old gets up and sleep with someone else until they get up. Four girls. Two adults. She’ll keep moving through the house, from bed to bed, until the last person gets up. And it’s usually me. She’s not laying on the ground in the neighbor’s backyard.

I wailed.

I pounded on the neighbor’s front door. He just moved there a couple of months ago. He could be a child molester. He could be social deviant. I pounded on the window next to the door. I pulsed the button to his doorbell until he opened it. His dogs were inside looking at me through the window.

“My dog!” I couldn’t breath. “Is in your backyard!”

Zoey was a 10th birthday present to my 15-year-old. She needed a bath.

“My dogs are inside.” – my confused neighbor

He’s older and in his pajamas. He doesn’t have very much furniture. His house looks bare and his dogs are wagging their tails.

“My dog is in your backyard!”

I wailed. I held myself up with my hand on his door frame.

Zoey used to let my five-year-old wrap her in a blanket and carry her like a baby. She would stay in the little doll bed until my five-year-old got her out.

I stood on my neighbor’s front porch waiting for him to come back from his backyard. His dogs were watching me through the window.

I couldn’t wait any longer. I ran to my backyard and climbed until I could see over the fence. I saw him standing over the white fluffy love on the ground.


“Is that her?!”

I knew the answer, but I wanted him to tell me I was wrong. I wanted that look in his eyes to go away.

I wailed.

My sobbing fifteen-year-old jumped the 6-foot fence. I ran around the houses to get in his yard.

“Can I come back there?” I screamed from the outside.


I ran in his yard and saw her.

Zoey knew what time the  school busses were supposed to get home. She would wait by the door until the girl’s opened it. She loved us so. One year, the girls were visiting family in California and were not coming home on the bus like they were supposed to. She stood by that door for an hour.


I was screaming.

I ran to her as though I could save her. She was laying on ground that wasn’t hers. On ground that her girls didn’t trample when they played. On ground that my husband didn’t cut for her. On ground that I never tread. She didn’t belong on that ground. I couldn’t stomach the thought of her dying on ground she didn’t know. Ground that could not cradle her with the familiar smells of love and home.

Lesson #1

When she crossed under the fence, did she know she would get in trouble? Or did she think she could check out the strange land and get back to safety? She found out she was in trouble when it was too late to turn back. Did she look, from the strange land, at her house, filled with her loves, and wish herself home? Can you wish yourself home?

You can’t wish yourself home. You can’t wish your poor decisions undone.

She needed me and I wasn’t there. I scooped her limp body into my arms and cradled her to my chest. She was still warm. Her eyes were open and gone. Was it my heart I felt beating? Was it my breath I felt against my chest?

“Zoey, I’m so sorry.”

I wailed.

“I didn’t understand what you meant. I’m so sorry.” – My distraught neighbor

I couldn’t hear him.

All I could think was: My daughter heard her screaming…

“Zoey, I’m so sorry.”

My children are crying. My heart is breaking.

I want my mom. No matter how old I get, I still want my mom when it hurts.

We drove to my parents house. We cradled her in our towel. We held her to our chests because we couldn’t let her go. We usually sing like an off-key pop version of the Von Trapp’s in the car. This time, our car was filled with the alternating silence of shock and and amplified sobs of mourning.

We made her pictures and wrote her letters and laid them in the burial box with her.

Her body grew cold. We couldn’t make her sweet eyes close. We buried her with our smells.

Lesson #2

I couldn’t stop thinking about our neighbor. He was new to our neighborhood and this was his first noticeable act.

My heart broke at the thought of him blaming himself. My heart broke at this wrench in his new beginning.

What in his life put him alone, with no belongings, in an expensive rental home? What kind of brokenness was he trying to dog-paddle? This man who goes to work in a fancy suit and a Lexus, but has no furniture, who is he?

I couldn’t stand the thought of what he was already going through, just to add to that….this. My heart ached. Like it was me.

I went to his house today…the day after.

“I just want you to know that I don’t blame you or your dogs.”

I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about the pain you might feel. The sense of responsibility for our pain that might rob your sleep.

He withered. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I couldn’t get the picture of your dog out of my head.”

I knew it.

Zoey could out-smart the girls when they ran in loops around the house to trick her. She didn’t mind always being ‘it’ in hide-and-seek.

He said, “They’ve never hurt anyone or anything before. I don’t know what happened.”

“They’re dogs.” I said.

They didn’t maul her. Just sunk their teeth into her side and  shook her until her spine snapped. I didn’t understand it either.

“I know what it is to love a dog. To not think of them as dogs, but family. I can only imagine the pain in your house. I’m so sorry.” He said.

I knew he was. His whole body wilted at our forgiveness. His eyes were sad, but his manner was relieved.

What is it, sir, that this would have crushed in you? What battle are you fighting where this would have been the kill shot?

I don’t know his story, but I found out that he’s a prestigious figure in our local legal system. Maybe he’s going through a divorce where he gave his wife everything but his suit, his car, and his dogs. Maybe he is wracked from something in his life and this would have been too much.

I know that feeling. I know that when it rains, it pours. And, on my watch, I won’t let it rain on you. He needed to know his rain didn’t hurt us and our rain won’t hurt him. We’ve been there. We can’t stand by and let another drown in their own life.

I want to be a shelter that helps you find The Shelter. I want to be the soft place to land until you’re carried back home.

Oh, it hurts. It hurts so bad. But, the pain of a broken life can hurt so much worse.

Zoey would have jumped to welcome him if he ever came to our door. Zoey would have introduced him to our family and rolled over to let him rub her belly.

Sometimes we cross fences into territory we should never know. I know what that feels like. I can’t move forward knowing someone is stuck in their pain.


my 5-year-old's letter to Zoey "Stella never will see Zoey."

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