I’m in a somewhat bleak spot – I had to take my dog into the vet for that horrible last trip yesterday. She was the second last of the animals we brought out here from South Africa (one cat survives). That was a ruinously expensive exercise – it cost us about 1/3 of what we got from selling our home, and left us in a new country with next to nothing. We did it really tough at first as a result, down to rationing our slices of bread. The cats and dogs ate fish I minced in a hand mincer to get rid of the bones, and – for the dogs (and us) cheap rice. Pet-food was too expensive. But… loyalty calls for loyalty, and we got through it. Ten years later, we’re getting back to where we were, but I came through that at least knowing I had done my best for them. I wish I was one 1/10 as good a man as my dogs assumed I was.
Anyway, my old dog was a few months short of twenty years old – and we’d had her since she was six weeks old. Wednesday – we adopted her and her brother Pugsley to save them from being killed right then – was half pedigree Lab and half traveling salesman. Sometimes the latter half ruled! She could do innocence like nobody’s business when things mysteriously got eaten. Must have been Pugsley! (and he always looked guilty, even if it couldn’t be him!). But the lab part was there strong and true in her affection and loyalty. She loved everyone, but she was dad’s dog. Twenty years of lying at my feet, following me around, and sleeping at the foot of our bed. I was quite badly hassled when we moved out here, to the temporary place while finished off our home: she was old, set in her ways and didn’t need disturbance. I would have stayed for her if we had a choice. We didn’t.
I was wrong. It had been very hard to take her for her favorite pastime – a run (latterly a walk) on the beach, with a good swim. We were seven kilometers as the crow flew from the sea, and she found getting into the back seat had become just too hard. It had been a few years since she’d been down. I would walk her about 200 yards into the paddock every evening, and she found that quite enough. It was flat and easy going. She quite enjoyed it, but if it was raining or cold was happy to cut it short, or not go.
So… when we got here… where the beach is down a dune about 80 meters away, on a whim, when she’d managed to huff and puff along as far as the chickens – about a third of the way to the beach (thinking her time was probably measured in days, thanks to the stress of the move) I took her down to the sea. It was steep, and I had to help the old girl down – and later, back up – with difficulty, because she didn’t want to leave the beach. The smells, Dad, the smells! Her tail was going like a propeller. That was a very very happy dog.
She struggled home and fell asleep. I would not have been surprised if she never woke. She did though, stiff and sore. I really didn’t expect her to see the sea ever again, though. It was bittersweet.
The next day she huffed and puffed back up to the chickens… and walked and stood queuing at the path to the beach. And now she did it with much puffing, but no help.
We had nearly six glorious months (well, entirely from her point of view, and partly from mine. I love the sea and enjoy the beach but in the rain or a gale it was not my idea of pleasant. But she loved it, and I took pleasure in that, and she wanted to go every single day (and twice if she could nag it. I thought that might be too much so that only happened a couple of times. But she kept hoping)). So we did. She got much fitter, and oddly less troubled by her joints. They were still old and shaky when she got up… but she would start her little sigh-whimper, ‘when are we going to walk?’ just after first light. The door was open, she knew the way… she could go any time, really. But she wanted dad with her, even if I wouldn’t let her roll in the absolute heavenly bouquet of a dead penguin, or eat a shark head that washed up.
The smells, from decaying seaweed to the salt on the wind, were life and breath to her.
Then, coming back from the beach on Saturday, she fell, and I had to help her up. She walked but was obviously sore. I gave her a painkiller when she got home and she went to sleep.
She never really got up properly again.
The joint was plainly agony and I spent the night sitting with her. We gave her what pain relief we could, and as much love as we could.
The morning brought her to the vet, and the grim verdict.
In a way… what hurt most, after that, was me. Which is… okay. Better me than her. The anesthetic-tranquilizer gave her relief. I was her beloved and right there with her, the pain stopped and she even tried to lick the tears from my face as I held her, loyal and loving to the last.
I laid her to rest in a grave at our forever-home (I plan to do my best never to move again) at the gate to the beach (it is open) between the young Chestnut trees I have planted there. She’ll have shade in summer and sun in winter. I’ve put sea-weed on her grave, partly because she loved it and partly to remember. And I believe her spirit will watch for me at the gate until we can walk that beach again.
It’s hell to write this. I’d rather not put it into words, scratch the memories open just yet… but that – the sadness as well as the joys… is an essential part of writing. It means a bit of salty water on my keyboard.
That’s what it takes.
And just as I will try to revisit that beach every day to remember, I write this to remember.
It’s the same beach I had the final scene of CHANGELING’S ISLAND set on.
And the vet in that, bless him, is based on the same good man I wrote about in that.
The book, by the way, has just come out in Audio. In a moment of excellent judgement they have Australian narrator, but without too strong an accent. The picture is a link, and yes, I do get a commission if you go via it.