Zelda was the first dog I fully embraced, for better or worse. I was living in Italy when Phyllis and Steve adopted her. She had been rescued from an infernal puppy mill where she had been forced to have litters and was subjected to an amateur caesarian from which she still bore the physical and psychic scars.
She took a long time to recognize and accept our love, to stop cowering, and to trust us without fear. Phyllis was always and forever Zelda’s number one, Mama, her safe place in a cruel world. Steven was number two, Papa, who instantly fell in love with her and took such delight in her wiggles and wags and kisses. Their relationships with her were formed while I was still living in Italy, so when I returned two years later I was number three, Papa due. It took time but soon she accepted me into the pack, the three humans devoted to her happiness and well-being, and she loved me lavishly, her kisses – those little licks on my nose –my reward for welcoming her into my heart.
During the first years, when Phyllis left for work in the morning, Zelda would skitter down the stairs (tikka, tikka, tikka – the noise of her nails on the wooden floors and hence, her nickname), jump onto our bed, wedge herself between Steven and me, stretch to her full length like a boa constrictor, impossibly soft, and sleep with her nose to the wall, buried in our pillows (I often wondered how she was able to breath like that) until we awoke.
I was the one who always slipped her treats and bits from our plates, and although I still remained number three (she was fiercely loyal) that won me special winks and licks of appreciation. She knew exactly how to perk her ears and stare at me to convince me that even though she had just eaten her own dinner she was starving to death for those few morsels left on my plate. She adored risotto (licking out the pan especially), cucumbers, tofu, and reggio parmigiano.
While I recuperated from my hip surgeries she lay beside me to comfort me and brighten my days. I did my best to make her final days as easy as possible, so that our constant and unfailing love would continue to light her way free from fear and pain.
She was a ferocious guardian who saved us from countless ax-murderers lurking behind every noise on the porch and every car driving down the alley. Her bark, so outsized for her 20lb body, warned the world at large that we were under her protection and any threats had best stay clear of our home.
Her ears were the softest things in all creation, spidery brown-and-white velvet. They were especially beautiful when she perked them up at the prospect of treats or a belly rub. I could stroke them forever. She was my flubsie, my flub-a-dub, so close to the ground (legs barely three inches) for so towering a presence. She had a thousand names, Zelda, Tikka, Fofana – our wifi is still named Bobika Fofana, another of her pet names (from the “Name Game” song, which provided so many of her soubriquets: “Tikka Tikka Bo-bika, bonana fana fo-fika…”)
Her huge round eyes, so full of tender expression, were sublime. They earned her the nickname Ernestina because they were so earnest and unguarded. Steven named her that. “Look,” he would say, “she’s Ernestina now,” when she raised her imploring eyes.
Steven had special little noises he would vocalize into her ears when he rubbed them with his beard, throwing her into a special ecstasy all their own. It was Steven who taught me to recognize her smile and who articulated the subtle language of winks and head bobbles they exchanged. Sometimes he called her Frau Wigglebottom because when she wagged and walked her gait was exactly a jaunty wiggle. If we had sex when she slept with us she would go berserk, licking us in inappropriate places and wanting to be part of the game.
She conditioned our lives in every way as much as we conditioned hers. We always considered her when we made plans to go out or to travel. She hated being alone when mama, papa, and papa due went out together. We arranged our affairs as much as possible so that someone was always home with her. When we brought Mona into the pack some of those anxieties were, if not alleviated, at least ameliorated, shared with her little buddy. What a god-awful racket the two of them made barking together!
Zelda’s love for us was unquestioning and absolute. No love is as unconditional as a dog’s. Human love is rarely without questions, doubts, accusations, petty dissatisfactions, recriminations, disagreements, or discontinuities. Zelda never wavered, even when we had to take her to the vet (she hated strangers with needles and car rides), give her a bath (which she also hated), or give her a haircut, or pare her nails. She always rebounded with a few licks to the nose. Whenever she licked Steven’s nose he would say “thank you, Tikka.” Therein lay a complex emotional conversation and I soon learned to do the same. She understood. She knew more than we imagined, and nothing marred her perfect love.
Now that she lies in our garden under three feet of earth, that is my takeaway: Love like Zelda. Fiercely hold the pack (broadly defined) in my heart, love them unquestioningly, and be grateful that they buttress me, defend me, nourish me, sustain me, and hold me as dear as I hold them.
Darling Tikka, if the essence, what we casually refer to as the soul, has an eternal presence in spacetime, I hope you still feel my unfailing love as much as I hold on to yours. Thank you, Tikka, for making our world a better place.