Elisabeth Strillacci: The hardest goodbye

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2023

My heart left the building this morning.

On top of an already challenging week, our family dog, Cocoa, was diagnosed with an untreatable, malignant tumor this week, and this morning we said our final goodbyes.

This was the dog that I honest to God thought would be here forever. She was so strong, so joyful, so stoic that I just believed she would outlive us all.

But cancer does not play fair, it does not recognize strong or weak, does not acknowledge the life that is still needed here, does not care the hearts it breaks. We all know this. We have all lost someone we love to this disease.

Cocoa was truly our family dog. She was rescued by our son from the shelter in S.C. He walked down the line of the cages, with dogs barking and jumping and demanding attention. But Cocoa, who was part pit bull (American Terrier), part beagle, and I swear part human, simply put a white gloved paw on the cage and looked at my son. He brought her home.

She was a bit of a wild woman, at nine months old having no training other than likely as a bait dog, which made her submissive and fearful. But she loved her dad.

Then our son moved, and apartments in S.C. wouldn’t allow pit bulls, so she came to live with Jim and me for two years. I took her to training classes and a year in, she got her canine good citizenship. She was better trained than our retired show dog at that point, and I promise you, Cocoa understood what people said to her. Experts can say what they want about dogs not understanding more than a small cache of words, I know better. She was the smartest, most intuitive dog I have ever known, and over the years, I’ve known quite a few.

Our son then went through some big changes in his life, so he moved to N.C. to be with his grandmother, my mom. And Cocoa, who was his comfort and best girl, came with him.

Again, he moved out on his own, but couldn’t take her with him. And mom initially said she was not sure she could handle Cocoa, so we were ready to have her back with us. But I showed mom how well trained she was, how easily she walked on leash. I taught her the commands Cocoa knew, and because she and Cocoa had begun to bond, she decided she would give it a try.

Six years later, Cocoa and mom were the best of friends. After dad’s death, Cocoa was mom’s company, best friend, comfort, and in truth, gave me a run for my money as an only child.

Somehow, she loved all of us fiercely and well, and she truly was “our” dog. Jim loved walking with her because she’d go as long as he wanted to wander. I loved walking on the beach with her because like me, she loved the water. I have videos of her having the time of her life running in and out of the waves. Mom, a true southern girl, would spend hours talking with her and she always said she thought any day, Cocoa would answer her.

She got through an initial bout with mange when she first came to us, made it through ACL surgery, got through numerous small illnesses and injuries, and always, always with her smile and those beautiful golden eyes. At 45 pounds, she was what people call a pocket pittie, but strong as an ox, and graceful as a ballerina. When mom would go outside to play ball with her, the neighbors would come outside to watch. Poetry in motion, truly.

And she protected mom. My favorite story is of the night she and mom were outside in the front yard for a last potty break. Mom had been having trouble with people coming to her door, we are not sure why but it seemed people knew she was an older woman living alone. That night, a man pulled into her driveway. Mom asked if she could help. He asked if her last name was such and such, and she said yes. Cocoa meanwhile got down low. He then asked if the address he had was correct. Now, mom’s habit, when she wanted Cocoa not to react, was to tell her, “this is our friend.” But that night, she didn’t say that. Cocoa got the message, and she rocked back on her haunches, ready to spring, and began a low growl.

The man also got the message. He took a look at her, heard her growl, and rolled up his window and took off, fast. I think it was a very good thing he did not get out of the car.

She was not aggressive, unless mom felt threatened, and that almost never happened. She wanted to be friends with most dogs she met, loved smaller dogs best, and would get her feelings hurt when people crossed the street, afraid of her.

I know that dogs don’t live as long because they’re perfect when they get here, and I know they count on us to do the right thing by them, not leave them suffering and in pain just because we can’t let go. I also know it’s we who are left behind who hurt, because she’s long since over the bridge, playing with all her family members that were there to greet her. And I know she’ll be one of the first faces I see when it’s my turn.

But good God this hurts. It’s gonna be a long time before I can walk the beach without feeling like the hole in my heart makes it hard to breathe. What I would give for just one more walk.

Godspeed my sweet girl, I’ll see you on the other side.

Elisabeth Strillacci is editor of the Salisbury Post.