A familiar “bump” on my shoulder roused me from my sleep. Without opening my eyes, I gave the “bumper” a quick pat on the head, grabbed my glasses and phone, and sleepily rose to my feet. Together, we padded to the back door and stepped out into the night.
The ground was wet. It must have rained as a cold front moved in. I glanced down at my phone and squinted at the bright light. 2:35 a.m. This was not unusual. Over the past few months, Coco, our 14 year old Chocolate Lab, had been waking us up throughout the night. Pain and medication were keeping her from a good sleep. 21 years ago, we were the sleep deprived parents of a newborn. Now, much older and less-accustomed to sleep deprivation, we were walking-zombie versions of our normal selves.
Coco and I walked to the end of the paved walk. I stopped at the end, and she continued into the dark yard to take care of business. We are both older. Slower. I stretched and stared into the sky. I could feel the warmth of the previous day slipping away as a sharper, cold breeze pushed it aside.
Coco periodically stopped and sniffed the air. She walked the yard and stopped at all her favorite haunts. There is a “dog-height” window cut into one of the fences. She peered through it, scanning the driveway for strangers. Then she circled the “rat tree”. I won’t go into detail. Just know that she was the only one excited that this tree took that name. A slight pause, and it was on to the tree where a possum had been spotted. Then the tree that was always good for at least one squirrel and multiple birds. She followed the long fence back toward the house, stopping to sniff at holes that had been created over the years by cats, bunnies, skunks, possums, and at least one armadillo.
She was taking her time, so I walked back to the patio and sat down on an ottoman. I pulled my legs up under me to try and stay warm, and realized that as Coco walked the yard, she passed (unknowingly) the graves of two cats and one dog. I caught my breath and a “squeak” sound escaped my throat. I didn’t want to think about what the day was about to bring.
Coco eventually finished her tour and walked, stiff-legged, back down the sidewalk until she reached me. Then she lowered her head and pushed into my chest. A trademark move. I bent over her and hugged her. Petting her for as long as she would let me. In the years past, she would stand there for as long as I would pet her. I would always have to be the first one to give in. But standing up was difficult for her now, and she quit first. I stood up and we walked back into the house. We made an uncharacteristic pass through the kitchen, and I gave her a cookie. She was delighted. It didn’t matter now. I could spoil her.
She curled up on the rug next to the bed. I tried to sleep. Instead, I cried. At some point, I drifted off, my face against a wet pillowcase.
At 6:35 a.m., another bump. Another trip outside. This time, she had no “business” to do. She was just sniffing and exploring, as if it were her last time outdoors. I think she knew. I cried some more, but stopped as she walked back to me. I didn’t want her to see me like that. She was always so in tune with my emotions. Whenever tempers flared or emotions were heated, she would pick up one of her toys and carry it around, walking in circles with stress. It would force me to calm down and call her name until she walked over to put her head in my lap (still holding her “baby” in her mouth for comfort), and I always felt bad about making her upset.
For the next hour, I sat on the floor next to her as she slept. Both cats stayed close, and at one point Coco’s head was on Lixie’s butt. During that hour, my thoughts crossed the years.
Easter Sunday, March, 2008. We first met Coco at a barbecue thrown by a friend of a friend. She was in the backyard with two smaller dogs, and she needed a home. She needed to be rescued. We already had a dog and two cats. Did we need more? It took us less than 12 hours to decide, and by the next day she was in our living room.
Coco was the most beautiful color of chocolate brown, with a swoosh of milk-chocolate color between her shoulder blades. She was 2 years old and had never been inside. The first few days, it felt like a horse was in our living room. She would get on the couch and try to curl into the smallest ball. She wanted to be a lap dog. She was afraid of water, loud noises, men, and old people. She was easily stressed, and we constantly cursed the person who had abused her. We made it our goal over the next 12 years to love all of the bad memories out of her. I think we succeeded.
She quickly became my husband’s favorite girl. He would take his “girlfriend” to the lake for the “Guys Only Lake Trips”. She lived for those trips. She chilled on the boat, hung out with the guys, and played with the other dogs. I think it must have been like summer camp for her.
Back in Waxahachie, she was my best friend. She liked going for walks, but she loved going for rides! For years, I would take her with me to drop off my daughter at school. Coco would sit as still as a statue in the back seat and watch until she disappeared into the school. It was only then that we could drive away. We would return in the afternoon to pick her up. She would crane her head out of the window, waiting anxiously. My daughter often had friends with her and they would all pile into the back, giggling and grossing out over the drool and general bad breath that accompanied Coco’s adorable face.
We would often swing by the bank to make deposits at the drive-thru. All of the clerks knew her, and would pop one or two dog biscuits into the tube for its return trip. The back of my seat (and usually my hair) would get slimed during the excitement, but nothing made her happier than the sound of that returning tube… SWISHHHH…THWACK! Occasionally, they would be out of treats. I learned to stash dog biscuits in the glove box for those moments, because I just couldn’t take the disappointment. Starbucks and other fast-food windows were favorites as well.
Coco loved recyclables. No matter what room she was in, she would come running if she sensed I was taking the last paper towel off the tube. She would stand below me, patiently waiting for me to hand her the cardboard “toy”, and she was off and running. If I had a bottle of water, she always seemed to know when I was nearly finished, and she would sit at my knee, patiently waiting for me to drain the last sip. I would hand her the bottle, and she would spend the next 15 minutes making so much noise that all conversation had to halt until she was done. In later years, we discovered toys that would take an empty plastic bottle as an insert. Why I didn’t come up with that million dollar idea, I’ll never know.
Coco left her mark on this house. It was the only true home she ever knew. Every doorway shows the wear of her coming and going. The yard has noticeable paths, worn down by her years of exploring. The couch is… well, the couch is just disgusting. The window sill of the front window shows the signs of her spending hundreds of hours, resting her head as she waited for her family to return. Then she made sure to stand at the back door, face peeking through a doggy-door window (that was created for much smaller animals), wagging her tail and whining with delight as she greeted her family home. And, speaking of wagging tails, Coco suffered from “Happy Tail”. Her tail would whack against the wall or furniture and the tip would bust open. She then continued running through the house, wagging her tail and splattering blood from room to room. During her growing-up years, my daughter delighted in telling her friends that one of her chores was “cleaning blood off the walls”. She wasn’t lying. But I’m sure a friend or two questioned what kind of horrors happened in our home.
But how she really left her mark was with her gentle soul. Coco knew a total of 5 “sisters”. A dog named Penny, and two cats, TinkerBelle and WildThing, who have all left us. Our current cats, Lixie and Elphaba, were her posse. Elphaba “adopted” Coco immediately years ago. But over these last few weeks, Lixie has attached herself to Coco, so the three of them have spent most of their chilling-out time together. Coco watched our daughter grow up from the age of 9, and befriended a multitude of children over the years. She loved our oldest daughter and was fast friends with our 5 year old grandson. Friends and family always come in the back door. They don’t knock or ring the bell. Coco knew this and would always come to greet them. She reserved her barking for strangers at the front door, and anyone who “snuck” onto the patio to use the back door. But during all of our gatherings, she remained a quiet presence. Silently sitting near anyone who would pet her. And that was almost everyone. She got a lot of lovin’ over the years!
Coco always wanted to be wherever you were. If you got up, she got up. She would follow you in and out of rooms and in and out of the house. She would casually hang out on the driveway, but would never stray too far. She had no desire to run away. I think that made me the happiest of all – just knowing that she loved her home and was content to stay. And, as I mentioned earlier, her trademark move was to gently lower her head as she got close and push it into your chest (or whatever part of your body was closest) until you pet her head. But it was almost impossible to just pet her head. Coco was a hugger. To sit on the floor next to her meant you had to be ready for body-to-dog contact. She moved against you and practically demanded a hug. And she wouldn’t break away. Those hugs were healing. Like good medicine. They brought smiles, lowered the blood pressure and made everything right with the world. Her soft ears would brush tears away, and her fur would absorb stress.
Lately, Coco had been unable to go for walks, or rides or trips to the lake. She couldn’t get up on the bed or the couch. And simply walking the back yard or getting up from her bed caused her pain. So…
This morning at 9 a.m., Dr. Heath came to our house and helped us say goodbye to our beloved Coco. It was almost impossibly hard to say goodbye. Coco held a paper towel roll in her mouth and paced when the vet first arrived, but eventually sat on the floor next to us. We all sat next to her and pet her as she fell asleep. And although we know it was the best thing for her, it was by far the hardest thing for us.
I am selfishly crying as I type this. And I will cry again over the coming days, weeks and months. I will miss the nose that has become my alarm clock. Her bear-like noises as she falls asleep. I will miss her hugs. Her presence. Everything. But I will always be happy that we made the decision to rescue her that day. I know we gave her a good life, and in return she made our lives better. Everyone who knew her loved her.
She will be missed.
Rest In Peace sweet Coco ❤️