Rising from the ashes in my sock drawer

A tale of two dogs and the life they shaped

If you were to open my sock drawer, you would find, in addition to socks, a box that contains the ashes of my late dog, Cosmo. Cosmo spent sixteen years with us before he died in 2015. My husband, Jordan, and I went from unformed 23-year-olds to somewhat-formed 39-year-olds during our journey with him.

In the early aughts — babies, all of us

Six years after his death, placing Cosmo in the past tense still breaks my heart. It feels like a betrayal. My love for him is vigilant and worshipful: While his body is reduced to powder in a box, I believe — and insist — that his spirit is still with me. I refuse to let him go.

Letting Cosmo go means letting go of one of the central relationships of my life. It also means letting go of the version of me that existed during all of those years I spent with him.

And so, I speak daily, in my mind, to a spirit whose ashes live in my sock drawer.

Cosmo entered our family in September 1999, a few months after our wedding. We were sitting in a stranger’s living room in Winchester, Virginia, watching two seven-week-old puppies explore the space. Both were mostly black, but one had a little patch of brown, too, and he was the one who came over and sniffed me. We decided that “Brownie,” as we nicknamed him, would be our dog.

I drove us back to the city as Jordan held this tiny creature in his lap, bundled in an old flannel shirt. Brownie was whining, unrelentingly. We threw out name after name — “Brownie” was temporary, after all, just an initial sorting mechanism, not a lovingly applied name for a member of our family. “Jackson,” we suggested. He whined. “Homer.” Whine. “Cosmo,” Jordan said, and he stopped crying.

“Cosmo” it was.

Cosmo and me soon after we brought him home

Cosmo was one of us. He was there when I was lost, for years, in undiagnosed depression and anxiety; when Jordan and I finally broke away from our hometown to pursue the life we dreamed about; and when, after years of thinking we didn’t want to have a child, we changed our minds. He was there the day we brought our daughter, Ali, home from the hospital.

He was there for every major event, until his death became the major event.

My mom, who’s been a dog owner for her entire life, never quite understood Cosmo. “That dog marches to the beat of his own drum,” she’d say, chuckling. I didn’t know what she meant. He made perfect sense to me.

About a year after we adopted him, the three of us moved into an apartment where to get to the bedroom, you had to go through the kitchen, and the bathroom was off of the kitchen, too. I was working from home, for a job that I loved, but that drained me emotionally, at a company where I received a rapid series of promotions, only to later find out that my coworkers nicknamed me “Demanda” behind my back. Work-from-home days were a reprieve from the psychological exhaustion of office life.

Jordan wasn’t home, and the toilet was overflowing — again. And I was plunging and plunging, and nothing was working, and there was water all over the floor, and I lost it. I started sobbing and screaming, an animalistic expression of the helplessness I felt in that moment and in the face of so many other things. (Remember the clinical depression and anxiety that I mentioned earlier? I was still a couple of years away from a diagnosis.)

“Fuck!,” I wailed, collapsing on the green tile floor.

And Cosmo came to me — just tap, tap, tap, as his paws touched the floor, and then he lay down next to me, and put his head on my lap. He comforted me the way a mama comforts her baby. I had exposed my neediness, the same neediness I worked so hard to conceal in almost every area of my life, and he was undeterred.

My allegiance to him was sealed for life.

What I would have given, to have Cosmo with me during the pandemic.

Instead, I had Clover.

The first time we met Clover, at the shelter, she immediately leapt up and licked Ali’s face, causing Ali, who was three at the time, to twirl around and squeal with delight. Jordan was smitten. I was happy they were so happy. But we were concerned when we learned that her previous owners had returned her to shelter after having her for an entire year. They swore, though, that she didn’t have any behavioral issues — they had another dog, and a child, and a baby on the way, and two dogs was just one creature too many for them.

We believed them. And so, Clover was ours. Mostly white, with black spots and black patches over her eyes, people told us she looked like the old RCA dog, or like Petey from “Little Rascals.” When we first brought her home, she was the picture of good behavior: sweet, crate-trained — not a challenge in sight.

Not a challenge in sight…

But a few months later, we moved, and a few months after that, Clover started to lose it: Chewing through her metal crate, so that it looked like the Incredible Hulk had been there, bending open the bars. Lunging at other dogs whenever she was on her leash, and sometimes at people, too, in the lobby of our apartment building. We hired a trainer, who told us to distract her from other dogs with treats, and to cross the street when we saw another dog coming our way. Walking her was like being in a stressful video game where you’re trying to constantly dodge other dogs, but sometimes, you aren’t fast enough, and then your dog tries to eat those dogs.

Off-leash, Clover was sociable — at the dog park, or the place in the neighborhood where we boarded her when we went out of town. With the help of medication, we were able to reduce her anxiety at home. Still, she was like Jekyll and Hyde: A sweet, snuggly companion who, when you put a leash on her, turned into Stress Dog From Hell.

At the same time, parenting our human child was becoming more and more stressful.

Ali, now four, was having meltdowns multiple times a day that seemed out of sync with other kids her age; describing her behavior, her pre-k teacher proclaimed, “I haven’t seen anything like this in 30 years of teaching.”

Thank you for your helpful feedback that certainly doesn’t leave us feeling desperate and alone.

We couldn’t walk down the block without Ali climbing on everything. Our dog lunging, our child treating everyone’s banister like a jungle gym—the level of effort that even the smallest things took in those days made us feel increasingly like we were trapped in a very small, very difficult world.

Then the 2016 election happened. That night, I found myself in Ali’s room, whispering to her sleeping body, “I’m sorry.” I honestly thought, “If I had known that this was what the world was like, I wouldn’t have brought you into it.”

Then I lost my job.

The walls had been closing in, and now the floor was falling out from underneath us.

Soon Jordan, Ali and I would meet with a neuropsychologist and learn that she was something called “twice exceptional,” meaning that she was an exception from a so-called “normal” kid in two ways: she had a near-genius-level IQ, and she had ADHD, and anxiety, as well as “sensory issues” — not full-blown sensory processing disorder, but she was constantly seeking or avoiding sensory input. We learned to never leave home with Ali without fidget toys or chewing gum. We took her to therapy and enrolled her in a specialized school, where she learned, gradually, to talk about her feelings, instead of fearing them. She began taking medication. The meltdowns started to disappear.

Ali

It wasn’t just Ali who was changing: Jordan and I were learning new ways of being as parents. Where general advice about how to talk so kids will listen failed us, we were learning from specialists, now, and from our own informed experience, how to communicate with her to get the best results. Jordan was learning to control his anger; I was learning to stop curling into my shell, like a turtle, and hiding in my bedroom with the white noise machine on full blast.

One day, in the middle of all this, I was walking Clover when she lunged at another dog, pulling me down in a crosswalk. I came home in tears. “We may have to get rid of her,” I sobbed to Jordan. “It’s not responsible to have a dog we can’t control.” We were not the kinds of people who gave dogs away. Except now, maybe we were. We were responsible for two intensely needy beings, and one of them, when you came right down to it, was optional.

Besides, you bring a dog into your life to make it better. Right? Clover was not making our life better. Why couldn’t she be more like Cosmo? He had always been so easy.

Except, wait: Had he?

When I scratch the surface, and challenge myself to conjure all of the details, I remember that for the first three months that Cosmo lived with us, it actually wasn’t that easy. In fact, I felt completely disconnected from him. What’s wrong?, I asked Jordan, at the time. Here’s this adorable puppy, and we lavish him with love and attention, take him out to pee in the middle of the night, but he seems…remote. Indifferent.

Then a neighbor suggested we take Cosmo to puppy kindergarten at a local dog training facility. We did, and almost overnight, everything changed. On the first day, when the teacher asked for volunteers, my hand shot up. Standing in front of the class, he showed me how to cross my arm in front of my chest while instructing Cosmo to “sit.” “This is crazy,” I thought. But I did it. And Cosmo sat.

It was like we’d finally learned to speak his language. The more we practiced — not just “sit,” but “stay,” “come,” “heel” — the more we bonded. “Dogs are pack animals,” our teacher explained. “Now that he knows his place in your pack, he can relax.” By the time he graduated, Cosmo was bonded to us, and us to him.

How had I forgotten all of that? Why was my memory tempted to gloss over the challenges in my relationship with him? It was if I believed that if there had been a time when things were easy—or at least, easier—then I could believe that such a time was possible, again. But maybe, as complex and difficult as life can feel these days, the truth is that it was never easy.

What’s more, maybe I don’t need things to be easy. Maybe, to quote the author Glennon Doyle, I can do hard things.

My kid’s brain is wired differently? Great. What good is “normal,” anyway? We’ll get her the support she needs to thrive. And in the meantime, we’ll savor the creative, wise, passionate, and silly force of nature that we are privileged enough to witness every single day.

The dog we rescued from a shelter needs extra support? Great, it’s a good thing she landed in a family as creative, loving, and resilient as this one.

The company I worked for has decided that my position is no longer needed? Great, I’ll pour myself into my writing, and develop a new business where I get to work with amazing women leaders all over the world.

Even the 2016 election and its aftermath: there’s no way it was “great,” of course. It was, and is, a travesty. But this chapter of our history woke me and a whole lot of other people up to the truth about this country, and fueled our activism.

I’m not trying to minimize the pain of any of this, or suggest that it’s been easy. Nor am I suggesting that the trials I’ve faced have been the hardest of them all—not by a long shot. But these are my traumas, and as I look back, I can’t help but think, “Holy fuck: I’m more powerful than I ever knew.” And if not for all of these challenges—not to mention living, and parenting, through a global pandemic—I’m not sure I would have ever figured that out.

If you were wondering: We didn’t give Clover away, even though nothing we’ve tried keeps her from lunging at other dogs. We started noticing that a lot of other dogs do this, too — it isn’t just her. Of course, they aren’t all 70 pounds of sinewy muscle. But I got stronger. I can hold her back, now. At some point, I just accepted that walking her required me to be completely present and alert. I stopped fighting it. And I stopped holding it against her that she wasn’t the dog I’d expected her to be — the dog whose ashes I keep in my dresser. I started loving the dog she actually was.

I still miss Cosmo every single day, and soon, I might miss Clover, too: Just last week, we found out that she has a cancerous tumor on her side, near her ribs, a small white lump amid all of her black spots. She’s having surgery later this week, and then we’ll learn whether the cancer has spread — whether this is a “we caught it in time, and it was nothing,” story, or a story about the end of Clover’s life.

As I write this, she wanders into the room, sighing as she curls herself into her grey bed, which sits at the foot of our bed, as Cosmo’s once did. As beguiling as I might find this weird, beautiful dog, I’m grateful for her, too. I’m grateful for the physical presence of a being capable of love, who always allows me to snuggle with her, even when the other members of my family aren’t in the mood, and who has officially turned me into someone who appreciates dog kisses (she’s basically been licking us constantly ever since that first Ali lick in the shelter on the day we met).

Getting a famous Clover lick

I hope I haven’t fallen in love with Clover just in time to say goodbye. But whether she dies in the coming weeks, or years from now, I won’t be holding onto her ashes. I’ve learned that I prefer to let go: of pets, of expectations, and of the versions of myself that brought me where I am today. I’m even going to find a place to release those ashes in my sock drawer. In a way, writing this essay feels like spreading them into the hearts of every reader. May you know a love like that. And, no matter what, may you allow yourself to love what’s right in front of you, yourself included, no matter how hard it may be.

Writer and mother. On a mission to fill the world with stories that tell the truth about women—and with women who tell their stories.