What my Cleo taught me about how to live & love

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

My sweet Cleopatra, named for a Queen, sister to a mastiff I never met named Brutus, died on Monday morning. I was working on something and she had been breathing hard all day and I was planning to take her to the vet on Monday first thing. I called after her and she came over, laid at my feet and stopped breathing.

She was somewhere between 8 years old and 11. She was a gift from a wonderful man I met through a good friend who worked at the newspaper where I used to work. Kurt had a brain tumor and needed to go into hospice so he wanted someone to treat his baby right. Brutus, unfortunately, ran away. Cleo, who had grown up with a cat and Kurt, had remained. As you can see, she was beautiful.

My joke about her was that she knew that she was named for a Queen. She was dainty, quiet and sweet. She was well-trained and reserved at first, but mostly she liked to lick people and puppies. On our walks around the neighborhood, she would point her muzzle at the angry-looking feral cats and wag her tail like, “Look, Mom, it’s the love of my life.”

I would gently pull her in the direction of our path. “Um, let’s stay away from animals that might maim you.”

She worked as protection from all kinds of people and stuff, but she did not bark.

Every now and then she would howl in this really unladylike way that was kind of scary. At nothing. Like the wind.It sounded like the creak of a door coming off its hinges.

She sighed with impatience while I tried to make deadlines and hated my computer.

She pressed her wet nose into my face in the mornings when she was feeling well, a reminder for me to get up and get at it. Because I had never had a dog before, I failed regularly to do anything that makes sense to dogs (and probably humans.) She loved me anyway.

For instance, she thoroughly hated thunderstorms and firecrackers (I hear this is typical for dogs). One night, around 2 in the morning, she kept pacing and shaking, so I got several copies of the Yellow Pages (don’t judge) and made a makeshift staircase so that she could use them to climb up on the bed. She walked away and continued to whimper from a couch that I kept just so she could have her own throne.

A few days later, I went to Ikea. When I came home, she had gotten herself nice and comfortable in my bed, sans Yellow Pages. All I could do was laugh.

It was less funny when the frat boys next door had a Fourth of July shindig and Cleo tore down the living room blinds and nearly ripped a few doors off their hinges.

But Cleo did teach me about living and loving in profound ways. The first thing she taught me is that you don’t have to choose a way to be. My story about myself was that I was a cat person (not a single cat lady) and not really a dog person. They were so much work. They were expensive. I didn’t have the time.  But really I was non-committal and afraid of intimacy. I didn’t want to love something other than myself so hard because I was deeply afraid of loss. I don’t care what people say about it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved. It is hard to lose the people and things that we love and the ache feels like it never ends. So I understand why people avoid it.

Tall and Proud.

Size does not matter. I affectionately called Cleo my mini-pony because she really was the size of a small horse. What I loved about her was that she truly adored little dogs. They would be barking and freaking out and running around and she would just look at them and sniff their bellies and if they stood still, she’d lick them until they calmed all the way down.  So I learned from her that sometimes things look and seem scary, but approaching them like you might totally be destroyed by an experience is not a good way to make friends at the dog park/in life.

Even when you’re shy, you find the people and things meant for you. Before I got Cleo, I think I thought that I needed to do a lot of work to date and network and circulate to convince any potential partners that I was worth it. But what I learned getting out and about with Cleo is that just by being her beautiful Cleo self, she drew really great people to her and into my life.

You never have to ask your real friends to be there for you. From a recommendation for a vet to a crate (that Cleo tried to sit in without complaint for our first few days together until I felt like a moron and stopped putting her in it) to giving her medication with peanut butter to having a place for her to crash while my mom was sick and I needed to be back East, Cleo taught me how to think first about how to help us take care of her and trust my friends enough to be part of our community. My friends Andrea and Todd went above and beyond, even though they have three other dogs and two adorable sons and plenty of other things they could be thinking about at any given time.

Nothing wrong with getting your snuggle on.

Forgiveness feels better than you think. I used to hold grudges. I still do, but less after Cleo. I have said this before but I like the saying that suggests that festering anger toward people is like holding a hot coal and expecting the other person to get burned. One of the greatest gifts of Cleo in my life was that even when I was annoyed with her or I raised my voice or something, she might cower a little bit and look at me before she stormed off, but a moment later, she would come wagging her tail when I came back to my senses. Then I would hang out with her on her throne and talk to her while I rubbed her belly, hoping I could get back in her good graces — but she had already forgiven me. Grace.

Check out my Striiipes.

When you are fully yourself, no matter how different, the people who are supposed to love you will adore you for it. Cleo was more famous in my neighborhood, especially around tiny children, as the tiger-striped mini-horse than I will ever be. People would always ask me about Cleo before they asked about me. Sometimes I would complain that I wish she had opposable thumbs so she could have done some work, but I actually loved how committed she was to just hanging out and pretending to tan her belly as opposed to needing to do work. She taught me how to take better care of myself and my heart. She hated water but she also hated the heat, so she spent a lot of her summer doing this version of downward facing dog.

Come and Take it! But you won’t! I’m too cute.

Being vulnerable is a beautiful, painful thing. While the people who know me best and have known me the longest know how intensely I love some people and things, the older I get the harder it is for me to pretend to be aloof. One of my best friends, the one who helped me take Cleo to the emergency vet in the middle of the night to be cremated, said that she learned from her puppy how to open up. I did, too. I was lucky to be a dog mom for a few years. Thanks, Miss Cleo, for teaching me how to howl when I needed to and how to walk and keep trying to live with grace. I already miss you so much.

11 thoughts on “What my Cleo taught me about how to live & love

  1. Whew. This one was hard to read. Really wish I had taken the time to get to know you better during your time here in Austin. I’m going to miss knowing we share the city!

    I lost my 15 year old pit bull in may of this year. Even after moving out of the house we shared and into a new space, there isn’t a morning I wake where I don’t miss her and feel that pang of emptiness. But you are so right. Despite the fear and pain of loss, it always it better to have loved than to never take the risk. I think my Mecca may have taught me many of the same lessons in our 15 years together. This is an amazing tribute to Cleopatra. As usual, your words here resonate in ways that render me speechless. So I just sit here and nod.

    Be gentle with yourself and thank you for sharing.

    • Mecca is such a great name for a dog. I’m sorry for your loss. I know well that feeling of waking up and missing them so much. I feel that now and it’s only the beginning. I’m glad you got to have 15 good years. I know it’s selfish and I wish I had Cleo for longer, but I’m going to take your advice and remember that it was good to have her while I did … and to be gentle with myself. I’ll still have a home in Austin and will make it a point to connect with you when I’m back to visit. There is always time for the good people :-)

  2. Oh gosh, Joshunda, my heart is with you. What a beautiful eulogy for a beautiful animal from her beautiful person friend. I can only imagine how big the hole must feel with her absence. I am glad you know how much a part of you she is and how real the grief over our dogs’ deaths are. Thank you for sharing these pictures and anecdotes, and for helping us to know Cleo and how much she has given you. I miss my doggie so much. It’s never enough time. Moved by you and sending what little comfort I can over the airwaves.

    • Thanks for affirming and reading, my friend. I’m so sorry about the loss of your dog. I’ll be wishing us both healing and comfort as we navigate life without their physical presences.

  3. Crying now. This is a beautiful tribute to a gorgeous queen. It sounds like she died with ease and peace, right where she would want to be. The hardest day of pet ownership. May all these wonderful memories comfort you in her absence.

  4. This is beautiful Joshunda. There is really something about dogs, isn’t there? It is important to realize that they are expensive and a lot of work, because you do best by the animal if you know what you’re getting into beforehand. But with dogs, honestly, you get what you give…. times 100.

    The relationship with a dog is so complicated, and I find it interesting that people throughout time have tried time and again to express the deep, complex nature of our relationships with dogs. I have read tons of books (Jon Katz is my favorite dog writer) and articles, always hoping to hear someone say it just right.

    Your essay about Cleo expresses these things beautifully, and I am especially impressed since you’re new to dogs. Also, the fact that you were/are a “cat person” and decided to take her in anyhow says a lot about your strength of character.

    I have had my sweet angel Beausoleil Francis since 2004 … he’s now almost 12 I think. We’ve had some trying times, but adopting him was my first sacred commitment to another living thing. I will love and protect you no matter what. It means a lot to me.

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    • Thank you, Julia. Wow, 12!
      The thing about Cleo is that I think she kind of believed she was more like a cat than a dog? lol. It’s a testament to how much of a gift she was to me that I can laugh more about her sweet personality than cry. But yeah, I think there’s a long history of humans and dogs that we tap into when we allow ourselves to commit to that friendship. It has such texture and otherworldly depth to it. I felt like she really prepared me to be present for people in ways that I wasn’t able to be before and it’s made my life richer. It sounds like yours is richer, too. Enjoy Francis – or I should say, keep enjoying each other. :-)

  5. I now have one of Kurt’s horses…I always wondered what happened to the Mastiffs.. I’m sooo glad she lived and shared her life with you. Bless you for taking the risk and the pain, and being open to the experience. You are a really good person.

    • Oh, his horses were beautiful. And when Cleo came to stay with me, she was so well behaved and sweet – a testament to what a good man Kurt was.
      Thank you for your kind words. You sound like a wonderfully good person, too. I appreciate you taking the time to read about Cleo and to comment here.

  6. That is just so heartfelt, so beautiful… a very loving tribute to Cleo. I didn’t know you were a doggy mom :) I have been a doggy mom for over 15 years and I really did learn a lot from my furkids :D I love that instead of just mourning her loss, you are celebrating her life and the lessons you learnt from her :)

  7. So sorry you lost your dear, dear friend. I related to so much of what you wrote here. I always considered myself a “cat person”, too, and I still am. But my love for the mutt I adopted three years ago still astounds me sometimes. Like you, I look to him to learn the true meaning of forgiveness, again and again.

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