My brother Nathan described her best, when he said that Pepper was like a cat in a dog’s body. I mean no disrespect to my feline loving friends. However, Pepper’s disposition wasn’t like that of a typical dog. She was feisty, ornery, choosy about her humans, and could sometimes be downright standoffish. It was rare to see her warmly greet anyone. She preferred the solitude of the corner, or under the bed, rather than come up and lick your face. She wasn’t for everyone that’s for sure. But, she was mine. And made for a
wonderful companion for 16+ years.
This sassy little animal, who looked like she had pepper sprinkled into her copper colored fur, wandered into my life in the fall of 2003. My life was very different then, as I was married to my first husband (a member of the U.S. Air Force), and we were living in what felt like another planet in Anchorage, Alaska. We’d been there about a year into our 3-year assignment when we decided to bring another dog into our home, to accompany our Husky, Savannah. Small dogs were hard to come by there. We searched and searched for a small to medium sized dog. Yet, the average size of most pets we found at animal shelters or, online looked like a small horse! Then one day; there she was staring at us from the computer screen. Pepper was a few miles outside town, at a puppy rescue farm. It was a sunny, fall day when we drove out to meet her. The caretaker told us that she didn’t know much about Pepper, other than she wandered on to the property recently, and given her coloring they decided to call her Pepper.
I remember vividly seeing her off in the distance, running toward us – leading a pack of three or four other dogs, of various sizes. As I assumed she was trotting toward me, I squatted down, arms wide-open at what I thought would be a loving, “awwwww” filled first meeting. Only to have her casually, almost intentionally swerve, and run right passed me! It surprised me to say the least, but, as I got to know her, realized that was just her way. She never begged for attention, and most of the time was determined to prove she didn’t need it, haha.
Life is nothing but full of surprises. My first husband and I divorced in the spring of 2006, and suddenly my life was in a very different place. Military life had moved us to Oklahoma City, and for the first time ever, I was living alone. When we split, so did our little family. I settled in a small apartment on the northeast end of town, and Pepper came to live with me. She quickly came to be a precious companion to me. Divorced life was an adjustment that I was not prepared for. My identity shifted, and, I was uncomfortable. Going to work was “normal,” but coming home in the evening felt foreign. Yet, waiting for me every night in my one-bedroom bachelorette pad, was Pepper. She patiently “watched TV” and laid her kennel during the day. Then barked, and yelped with excitement (and probably relief) when my key turned the lock at the end of the workday. I’d grab the leash, and we’d walk the grounds of my apartment complex, giving us each the chance to breathe, and walk off the day. No matter where we walked, I loved returning to the quiet comfort of my apartment. I’d change clothes, and we’d snuggle in for the evening, eating dinner and catching a little TV.
As we adjusted to our new living space, we welcomed new experiences, and adventure into our life. With lots of free time on the weekends, we started coming home to visit my family in Missouri. Heading to Columbia, Rolla, or St. Louis for a weekend was no sweat for us. I’d pack a bag, and we’d hit the road Friday night after work. I remember it being summer, and as we drove over Midwestern highways, I fondly recall the smell of the summer air, and the sound of the cicadas when we would stop to “powder our noses.” Ever my fierce protector, she pulled and tugged on her leash any time she thought someone (or another dog) was getting too close. It’s funny; I realize I haven’t heard the sound of her “defender” bark in a long time.
Oklahoma wasn’t our forever home. In the winter of 2007, I moved us to St. Louis. I was hoping to get closer to home, and having spent so much of my life there as a kid (St. Louis is my parents’ hometown), it seemed like a natural choice. The transition there was a little longer than I anticipated. Until I could find an apartment, I lived with my grandparents for the first several weeks after I arrived. Pepper was easier to care for in those days, but, had an unpredictable streak. So, I decided to ask my parents if they would mind keeping an eye on her until I was officially settled. They agreed happily, so Pepper made her way to Columbia, where she had my folks all to herself. Always a dog lover, my dad and Pepper became fast, inseparable friends. I remember catching up with my parents on the weekends, and my dad especially telling story after story of how Pepper surprised him! I believe the quote from Shakespeare says “…though she be but little she is fierce.” Was she ever! Pepper chased animals, barked at innocent pedestrians, braved frigid temps to defend their back yard, and basically acted like she owned my parents house. She basked in my parents attention, and there was a precious, familiar bond that she and my dad shared for the rest of her life. As she moved up in years, and became noticeably confused, she always remembered my dad and their connection is one of my favorite memories.
While she had a sweet side for my dad, she was equally just as ornery, and stubborn. I can think of countless examples of how she baffled me with her obstinance. But, I think one of my favorites was the time my brother Nathan kept her over night for me. I was out of town for the weekend, preparing for a job interview, and so, Nathan graciously agreed to keep her safe in his apartment. Early Monday morning, Nathan was getting ready for the day, when he heard the sound of Pepper rummaging through something. He turned the corner to his kitchen to see Pepper standing on the dishwasher door (open like a drawbridge) with one leg dangling off, scavenging for chicken bones out of the trash! Low and behold she already had a stash under his kitchen table, and when he tried to discipline her, I understand she growled and snarled as if her life depended on consuming those nasty bones haha! She always made me laugh with how possessive (and at times jealous) she could be, and yet it was all somehow part of her charm.
The last chapter of my life with Pepper was full of change, and evolution for us both. I married my husband, Sergio, in the fall of 2009. And the three of us moved into our current home in Lee's Summit, Missouri in 2010. We were pumped to have a fenced in yard for her, and were excited to settle into our forever home. Sergio’s family adored Pepper. I used to bring her to nearly every family event at his parents’ house, where she got lots of attention, and was doted over by many. I distinctly remember at Christmas, Santa would visit the Zendejas home, and always left a little present for Pep. She spent many weekends in the cozy comfort of their home, and I know she was so loved, and warmly cared for.
As we got used to our life as an official family of three, one of my favorite stories about Pepper was one summer afternoon, Sergio was working in the yard. Laser focused on his task list for the day, he didn’t notice that the fence was left slightly opened. Ever ornery, and curious, Pepper escaped. By the time Sergio realized she was gone, I had made it home from work. We searched and searched the streets, but, she was nowhere to be found. Desperate, I called animal control. We weren’t able to match her description during our conversation. So, they explained I could pull up the list of dogs in their care online, and search to see if she was among them. Sure enough – there she was; energetic eyes looking up at the camera, panting I am sure. My little rebel was locked up haha. Being too late in the day to retrieve her, she had to spend the night. But, to my relief, she was safe and made her way home the next morning when Sergio picked her up. After that, we made sure the yard gates were secure, and I’m happy to say that was her only incident with “the law.”
In May of 2014, life changed again for us all. Our daughter Rhiannon was born, kicking off a demanding, love-filled life as parents. The days were long, and the nights way too short. Sergio and I both worked and by the time we came home in the evenings, soaking up time with our baby was priority. In June of 2016, baby brother Dylan arrived, and life got even more demanding. I had an emotional pregnancy with Dylan, and at one point before he was born (when I was sleep deprived and swollen) I remember wanting to find a new home for Pepper. I told my mom about my tentative plans to relocate Pepper, and she lovingly reminded me that even though I was frustrated, Pepper, at this point in her life, was an elderly dog and that any drastic changes to her lifestyle, could have a lasting, negative impact on her. With that, it was like a light went on, and I knew she was destined to stay with us. In the months following Dylan’s birth, I finally felt like I was able to reconnect with Pepper. I laid on our bedroom floor with her, and told her I was sorry for being so distant, and that I was grateful she was still my little companion, riding this latest emotional wave with me, as she always had.
The last months of her life were quiet. She had lost her hearing, seemed to have frail legs/hips that made it challenging for her to get around, and was confused with doggy dementia. She slept mostly, and although she had a healthy appetite, gradually became a delicate version of her formerly fierce self. She no longer noticed much. The ringing doorbell, or rumble of the garage door did very little to arouse her tired little spirit. She was older by the time the kids were born, and as such, they never quite bonded the way they would have had they come a little sooner in her life. Pepper sort of shifted to the perimeter of our lives. In my memories of her now, that’s sort of how I remember her toward the end, always on the perimeter, always sleeping on the side of the room, or tucked away beneath an end table. Away from the noise, and chaos that life with little kiddos can bring. Still, when the time came to let her go, I did my best to focus on her, and her alone. The last week of her life, felt like the old days in my apartment when it was just us. It’s hard to put into words, but, we reconnected, and I am grateful for the final memories that we made together. I gave her a bath, trimmed her hair, did a lovely photo shoot with Adrianne, and when the week was done, took one last ride together as I prepared to send her home. We had lots of time one-on-one, and “talked” about our life together. I struggle from time-to-time, wishing I had been more present, and attentive to her. But, in my heart, I believe our connection was strong, even when I may not have allowed it to be my daily focus.
Letting her go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Bearing the responsibility of ending her time on this earth, wasn’t something I was comfortable with. But, in the days since she’s passed on, I realize that’s part of the precious responsibility of caring for our pets. During their time in our lives they give us everything they have and love us unconditionally. While it would be “easier” to have them naturally go before us, it’s our duty in turn to help them pass away with comfort and dignity when we have the opportunity. It was my absolute privilege to comfort my precious girl while she transitioned from this world. And, as the “Rainbow Bridge” says, I know she’s on the other side running, barking, chewing on bones, and guarding what’s hers, with all her heart. When my time comes to meet her again, I know she’ll be there waiting. My heart tells me she’ll be leading the pack, trotting toward me in the warm sun, just like the day we met. I love you, Pepper. “Til we meet again.”