By Kristin O’Keefe
Of course she paced the van’s third row. Zoe knew what suitcases signified and she did not like to be left.
Abused as a puppy, our rescue dog would flinch when strangers raised a hand to pet her. She got better over time, but she was still frugal with affection. Zoe loved five people: my husband, our two children, my father and me. She tolerated everyone else.
Unfortunately for the dog, we promised friends in Europe that this was the year we’d visit.
At least Zoe wouldn’t be kenneled; she was old and sensitive and keened mournfully the times we dropped her at one. She’d be with family: first my sister-in-laws’ home for a few days, then off to my parents, where she’d rest her head on my father’s lap and patiently wait to be petted. Our dog was in good hands.
The van pulled up to departures. We gathered luggage and said our goodbyes. I knelt and buried my face in Zoe’s fur, scratched beneath her floppy ear. I told her I loved her.
At the last minute, I turned to Kelly. “If something happens to her, don’t tell us.”
I hadn’t included this line on my travel checklist. Perhaps it was the close look at the abundant white hairs that framed her twelve-year-old face. Perhaps it was the recollection that we often had to help her down stairs. She’d had a good check-up, but still. For whatever reason, I said it.
Zoe ran away the second day of our trip.
As we scrambled over stone walls at Castle Lichtenstein, she flew across neat front yards in Maryland. As we doled out Euros for chocolates, my sister-in-laws paid for dog trackers and neighborhood robo calls. As we settled into comfy guest beds, Kim pitched a tent and listened for sounds of our dog from the front porch.
They didn’t tell us she’d gone missing until the last day of our trip. Kelly had honored my request, but she wanted us to be prepared. We took over the search our first day back: walking, posting signs and working with a tracker. Tears were shed; hopes were raised.
We never found her.
A sad ending, on the face of it.
But here is what happened on our trip.
In Germany we saw my dear childhood friend and their family during such a happy time in their lives. Our children staged imaginary sword fights on castle steps; we adults raised our steins and reveled in our reunion.
In Chevry, a French village outside of Geneva, I reconnected with Sue. Twenty years prior she took in a traveling American as nanny to her children (they treated me like family). Now I was mother to children of the same age; Sue and Alan got to play honorary grandparents. Our days were filled with hikes, parks and meals, the Jura or Mont Blanc always looming nearby.
We promised to come back one year to ski (those mountains!), but it turned out the farewell with Sue at the train station would be our last; we lost her to cancer in 2015. I never even knew she was sick; it happened quickly.
My last memories of my friend included picking a perfect orange at a market with my daughter, scrambling over rocks with my son, standing in her light-filled kitchen as we made dinner and talked. Our focus was on the present, our families, our time together—while back in Maryland my sister-in-laws spent ten frantic days trying to find the dog they knew we loved.
It was in Paris, our last stop of the trip, where we learned of Zoe’s disappearance from an email in our cramped hotel room. We didn’t tell the children.
Two dazed parents and two oblivious children wandered the rain-drenched streets, looking for a place to eat our final meal before we left early the next morning. The first four cafes were closed or didn’t take credit. But the staff at Il Giramondo took one look at us and somehow they knew.
For the next two hours, they nourished our bellies and hearts. The children were plied with treats and given free reign to explore, touch, watch the pizza-making up close. My husband and I were presented with aperitifs, a taste of this and a bowl of that.
“You must try!” the owner would warmly exclaim, appearing with a dish of raviolis surely sprinkled with equal parts Parmesan, love and solace. It seemed as though the City of Light had given express orders—in English, French and Italian—to counter our sadness with exquisite food and affection.
There was also this: an old dog used some effort to escape. There were steep stairs to maneuver, a fence to squeeze under. People tried to catch Zoe but could not; she had rediscovered her youth.
The last scent of her ended at the woods. Perhaps, as some have suggested, this was her end, and it was the end of her choosing—to run free, to frolic in the creek like a puppy.
Perhaps she finally caught the squirrel that frequented her twitching dreams; perhaps she had an unforgettable meal the same night we did.
Perhaps she closed her eyes one last time to dreams of her family.
Perhaps we say things at the last minute (“If something happens to her, don’t tell us”), but need far more time to understand what went into honoring those words, what my sister-in-laws’ efforts and silence gave us: ten glorious, unencumbered days. Carefree time with dear friends, including one I’d never see again.
We were nourished every kind of way that trip. It just took me a while to comprehend them all.
Kristin O’Keefe is a freelance writer trying to wade through all the busy in search of essential truths. It’s a journey. She recently acquired an agent for her first novel (it’s never too late, we can do those things we fear!) and hopes to see it published soon. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s and Bethesda Magazine; she also blogs at KristinOKeefe.com.