Early one Tuesday morning, not long ago, I stretched out my feet in search of the soft fur that was always close by to warm up my toes, finding nothing there but the ends of my blanket. In a split second I knew something was wrong. Holding my breath, I did a quick search to see where my faithfully loyal and loving dog Kora was. Every night for the last 13 1/2 years, without fail, Kora slept next to me. Even as she aged and struggled with arthritis, every night she would wait at the bottom of the stairs for us to help her 95 lbs frame up each step until she found her spot in the bedroom. But that morning she wasn’t there. I immediately sprinted down the stairs to see my sweet girl asleep on the living room floor, her head still gently laying on the pillow I could tell Joe had placed under her the night before. She was still with us, though her breathing was labored and heavy. Her soulful wise eyes didn’t open as I called her name. My entire body collapsed on top of hers because I knew what that day was. That was the day my sweet girl was Kora was going to die.
This is a hard story to write. My dog Kora was one of the greatest loves of my life. Loss is hard, and losing a beloved pet is no exception. Kora may have been a dog, but she was my family, without question. She may not have had words, but she could easily communicate with me and was always there to comfort and love those around her. I’ve had deeper more intense conversations with her than many humans in my life. Just because her body was covered in fur does not negate the intense grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. Yes, I am a mom to a tiny human and my love for Kennedy is so intense and stronger than I’ve ever known. But I was also Kora’s mom and the love and bond we had was so special on a totally different level. We love our pets. They are our family. In their death we still have to mourn, celebrate, and grieve our loyal companions. We have to feel the loss of those that gave us all that furry unconditional love. We have to honor their memories by deeply missing them. Kora was so much more than “just a dog”. She was pure magic and the world lost a big ball of beautiful light on the day that she died.
Kora and I rescued each other right after I finished my junior year in college. I grew up surrounded by animals and felt a strong void not having one in my life every day. Dogs have always had such healing powers for me. As an individual who struggled with depression and anxiety since a young age, having that loyal companionship was essential to my well being. That unconditional love and friendship gave me strength, and being needed by another allowed me to never give up on myself. Plus, pets are just amazing. They teach you selflessness, show you never ending forgiveness, and give you pure unwavering love. So one day when I was randomly scrolling through dog rescue sites (as animal lovers often do) I saw a picture of her little 12-week-old face. I couldn’t pull my eyes away. She was the one. I can’t tell you if I was exactly “ready” to be a dog owner in college, but when I saw her photo I knew that I had enough love to make it work. When I got to the rescue, I immediately picked her up out of the crate she was in and never looked back. I named her Kora Koru after a New Zealand Māori symbol meaning new life, growth, strength, and peace. And from that first day until the day she passed away, Kora was all of that and more. She gave me a new life, she helped me grow, and she provided all the strength and peace I knew in the world. Even in death, she still does.
Those who met Kora immediately fell in love with her. Even those that are not “dog people” would be Kora People. She was something exceptional. Her rescue papers said that she was a Jack Russel/Beagle mix, but within just a few weeks of bringing her home she quickly towered into a 95 lbs love bug. Many decided she was actually part horse/deer/cow. Her looks were striking and unique, her demeanor loving and wise. People would gravitate towards her. She just had this magic to her, a wisdom beyond this world. When I was once battling a tough spell of depression, it was Kora I leaned on and confided in. She was so intuitive, often knowing what I was feeling and what I needed before I did. During the darkest of days she gave me purpose, she gave me meaning, and she got me out and about when I honestly didn’t think I could leave the bed. One look at her face and I knew she deserved a long walk and fetch in the park. Little did I know that it was really her telling me that I deserved that too.
Kora and I truly grew up together. When we found each other, we became each others world. She was the first thing I was ever fully responsible for, and even on days where I wasn’t the best at being responsible for me, I always was there for Kora. The bond we had was so strong, unbreakable. I love our other dogs that Joe and I got together, but Kora was mine. She was with me through the biggest transitions of my life- those true coming of age moments. I celebrated with her on the day I graduated college. She faithfully moved with me across the country into a tiny walk up apartment in NYC for grad school, and yet again as I took a leap of faith and moved to Madison. She was unquestionably by my side for my first big heart break. Then on my first date with my husband, Kora jumped in between us on the couch as we were talking- clearly letting Joe know who was going to be #1 in this relationship. It was her collar that held my engagement ring as Joe asked me to marry him, and she was right there waiting to give me a big kiss at the end of our wedding aisle before I said my vows. She laid her head on my pregnant belly as Kennedy kicked away inside. When we brought Kennedy home from the hospital, it was Kora who gave the first kiss, almost a promise to now protect this little one as well. She stood by me as I struggled with the transition to motherhood and postpartum anxiety, always giving me that look saying “you can do this”. She was faithfully right there with me, never questioning me and always loving me. Kora was my rock, my constant, and her passing truly closed one of the most pivotal chapters in my life. Though I feel such immense gratitude that I got to truly grow up with Kora, I also feel such sadness and fear because I wonder how I’m going to do this next chapter without her.
Though the last day of Kora’s life was one of the saddest I’ve known, it was also one of the most beautiful days I have ever experienced. We were supposed to go on a once in a lifetime trip to Europe as a family the very next day, something we had booked 9 months before when the vet thought she had a thyroid disease that would shorten her life. But in true Kora fashion, she didn’t let it. We watched her age, and I cared for her just as I would an aging parent. She had the most gourmet home cooked meals in the whole house, and we made sure that she got to do (and eat) all the things she loved. Every morning the two of us would go for a walk, letting her aching bones pick the pace and the route. We spoiled her and made sure she knew how loved she was. I spent the weeks before the trip worried- how was I going to get on an airplane and leave her? It was making me sick to even think of her passing without me by her side. I would lay with her each night after Kennedy went to bed and beg her to let me be there with her when she passed. I told her if she couldn’t hold on until we got home, then it was ok to let go before hand so that I could nurture her just as she nurtured me all those years. I promised her that I would be strong without her here, and that the most important thing to me was that she wasn’t in pain. I in no way question why Kora chose the day before we left to let me know it was time. She didn’t want me to spend the entire trip sick with worry over her, but she also wanted to give me every second that she could. That was what Kora did.
We often talk about wanting “just one more day” with a loved one. Kora gave me that one more day. When Joe saw her and I laying on the floor that morning, he unquestionably canceled his schedule and took Kennedy out of the house so that I could be with Kora. I needed to give her my everything, to be 100% present, just like she always was for me. I made a nest around her with pillows and blankets and spent the entire day on the floor telling her how much I loved her. Those that were deeply touched by Kora sent me their beautiful memories to read her before she passed. Every once and awhile she’d open her eyes and look at me. One time she even wagged her tail just once as I was talking about our adventures together. Kennedy and Joe came home and we all laid around her, petting her and telling her everything we needed to say. We sat with Kennedy and wrote down all of her favorite things about Kora. She helped me get Kora’s paw prints so we could always hold her hand. I didn’t want to shield Kennedy from the loss that was about to happen, I wanted her to be able to say what she needed to as well.
As I could sense that Kora was almost ready to let go, Joe and Kennedy said goodbye and gave Kora the biggest hugs, leaving me to spend those precious last moments with her alone. I needed that- after all, it was Kora and I at the beginning and I found it fitting that it be her and I at the end. I had the honor of holding her in my arms as she found her way to Rainbow Bridge. I felt her last breath and told her how much I loved her over and over. The memory of that moment still feels so surreal, and it still really hurts, but I am just so grateful that she chose me to be with her as she journeyed on. There is no place I would of rather of been than faithfully by her side just like she was always by mine.
The day after Kora passed away, we did go on that once in a lifetime trip. We left with immense sadness but also gratitude and relief. Kora was no longer in pain. I took her collar with me and slept with it wrapped in my hands. We shared memories and toasted to her in every country. We talked about all the things she would of loved to do (and eat) there. We really honored her and cherished her. When we got home we planted a beautiful Cherry Willow tree in our backyard. It’s our Kora Tree. We held a ceremony where we spread some of her ashes around the roots and planted the seeds for a butterfly garden in the dirt around the trunk. As a family, we stood around the tree sharing our favorite stories of Kora. We howled Jingle Bells as loud as we could, just like Kora would do every time we had bacon with breakfast. We cried, we laughed, we honored our girl. And as we scooped the last bits of dirt on top, church bells began to ring in the distance. Church bells we had never heard in all the years we have lived in this house. It was Kora, telling us she was there with us. I may not know what I fully believe about what happens after we die, but I do know without a doubt that Kora is up at Rainbow Bridge running around, eating endless amounts of peanut butter and bacon, and watching over us all the time. She is connected to me in death just like she was in life. That’s just how Kora does things.
I could write a novel on my love for Kora. And as raw as it feels right now, I am comforted knowing that I have the best possible soul mate looking out for me up there. I can feel her guarding the house, feel her watching over Kennedy, and feel her comforting me whenever I need it. As a family, we talk about Kora all the time. Her memory will always be alive with us. I am at peace and grateful with how she passed, but I am still grieving. I will be for a very long time, if not indefinitely. And that’s ok, because the love is real and so is the grief. I have yet to wash the clothes I wore as she passed in my arms and I can’t tell you that I ever will. Our crazy life continues, but I find the hardest moments are when it’s silent and everything slows down. I deeply miss her on those nights Kennedy is asleep early and the house is quiet. Or when I walk in the door and expect her to jump up and greet me. I look out the window when the sun goes down and see her tree lit from below and my heart fills with love and sadness. It’s those unexpected quiet moments, where the distractions fade and I realize such a huge piece of me is missing. I’m learning to embrace those moments, not run from them. I know those moments won’t always feel as raw as they do now, but I know I’ll always miss her.
I know Kennedy is aware of my grief, and that is ok too. I’d be doing her an injustice being stoic and just moving on. I can be strong, but I can also feel. She needs to know that it is ok to have these feelings; it is ok to miss and honor the ones that have passed. It’s ok to be sad. I can give her words for the grief and show her that sometimes life gets hard and we experience profound pain, but with love, support, and time, we all can heal.
And together we are healing. Just the other day I heard Kennedy whisper to one of our other dogs “Bentley, I know you miss Kora and that’s ok, we can remember her together.” A few days later Kennedy was coloring at the kitchen table and told me she needed to go outside for a second. She took her drawing and walked to the Kora Tree and left it there for her. Then she blew a kiss up to the clouds and told me she was letting Kora know she loves her. Those moments break my heart and heal them all at the same time. Kora’s memory will never be forgotten, its just not possible and she just wouldn’t allow it. I will be telling the tales of my big, beautiful, loving cow dog until the moment her and I meet again at Rainbow Bridge. Kora was my family, I will never forget her. As cliché as it is, she truly did leave big paw prints on all of our hearts.