to have loved and lost
My friends, I owe you an apology. Since my father-in-law’s sad death in May, my heart has gone out of writing. I do want to, I will come back to regular posts sooner or later. I fear, though, that it may be a little later.
I promised you a final post about my wee boy and the day he saw the Queen. This is not it. Another blow has hit us, and my heart is too full to think of anything else at the moment. It’s not the worst blow, but it has shattered me nonetheless.
My darling spaniel, companion in all my walks, my best beloved, the most sweet-natured, loving and generous-hearted of friends, died suddenly on Friday following an accident.
I grew up with dogs and have loved each of them, but this one was special from the start. She was my baby, coming to us when I was heavily pregnant and she had just left her mother. Our bond was instant and unshakeable. She was the only other female in our household, giving me a little sisterhood of two in which to find solace amongst the small boys, big boys, businessmen, groundsmen, gamekeepers and all the other men who make up our extended household. She learned early the art of reverse gravity: oozing uphill so that a dog that had been lying at your feet materialised in your lap without your noticing any movement. She was patient to the point of martyrdom with overly attentive toddlers. She always knew who was in need of comfort: in these past two months since my father-in-law died, she went unerringly to whichever person was having a wobbly moment to sit in their lap, tucking her soft head under their chin or licking away their tears.
She delighted us and made us laugh by ‘singing’ off- (and sometimes even on- ) key when my husband played the piano. She shadowed me around the house, tripping me up occasionally and rolling over for a tummy rub at every opportunity, no matter how inconvenient. When she spotted me after an absence, her whole body would perk up and she would rush towards me in welcome and launch herself into my lap, spilling a mug of tea as often as not. She was my enthusiastic, tireless companion on every walk.
Who will walk with me now? What shall I be walking for, if not for her?
She was seven years old. Last Wednesday, I sat on the front step giving her an overdue haircut in the sunshine. Running her soft ears through my hands, I noticed grey hairs among the black and was rather cheered by the thought of the two of us growing together into middle age. On Thursday, the two of us walked through the woods and she stopped for a drink at her favourite watering hole, a pool of rainwater collected in the roots of an old beech tree.
That evening she managed to end up on my lap on the sofa as usual, looking up at me with those brown eyes that would melt a stone. When my husband took the dogs to bed, she turned back to nose me goodnight.
On Friday morning, when the dogs were let out, it was the westie who returned first for a change from the customary mad dash through the undergrowth chasing rabbits. When our spaniel eventually responded to my husband’s call, she came slowly, creeping, utterly unlike herself. Then my husband realised that she was bleeding from one eye. Something was very wrong. Her eyeball was sunken in her head and it looked like there was a piece of stick embedded in the socket. We knew she had to get to the vet immediately. As my husband carried her to the car, she became aware of my presence for the first time and feebly wagged her tail as she looked at me from her good eye.
By the time we reached the vet a few minutes later, she was shivering and salivating from pain. The vet acted extremely fast, thank heavens, giving her an injection of painkiller while I held her and stroked her and murmured to her. Within five minutes she was unconscious on the operating table. I knew it was possible that she might lose her eye; such a desperate thought that I couldn’t allow myself to think it, not yet. My last sight of her was of her looking back at me with that remaining brown eye, as she sat on the table just before the anaesthetic was administered.
‘It’s all right, sweetie, they’re going to look after you,’ I told her. ‘I’ll see you soon.’
An hour later, or perhaps less, the vet phoned me. The stick was several inches long, and had driven so hard and so far into our dog’s head that it had severed the main artery of her eyeball and ruptured the carotid artery in her throat. Her eye had to be removed. Her airway started to fill up with blood: the vet performed an emergency tracheotomy. She seemed fleetingly to recover but, when the breathing tube was removed, the damaged artery burst and she began to bleed out. You cannot clamp the carotid artery, as that would only lead to brain death. There was nothing the vet could do except to send her back into merciful unconsciousness. Our dog died there on the operating table, pumping out her heart’s blood through the hole in her neck.
Why does a gentle life have to end in such bloody violence? I cannot comprehend this. The cruelty of her death seems vindictive, as if a malign spirit resented how much she loved and was loved.
I know that worse tragedies happen all the time. The horror of violence – the violence of bloody birth and death and injury – is everywhere to be found. This was only a dog. If you can dismiss her death so easily, though, I know that you have never really known the love that an animal can give.
When I returned to the vet’s in the afternoon to bring her home, I tried to stroke my darling dog’s soft fur, but the grey hairs of her spaniel ears were matted and bloody. Since she was a baby, she had a habit of putting her velvet paws around my neck or of putting one up to touch my cheek. Now her paws were sticky with her own blood. I put my head down on her cold neck and sobbed, and sobbed.
My husband and a colleague dug a grave for her in the woods that she and I love best. It is just down the slope from the beech tree where she had stopped to drink the day before. The woods are full of rabbits and pheasants: she adored it there. Beyond her grave, the woodland gives way to fields and to the lochan where the heron feeds and the swans and wild ducks visit.
I brought her home from the vet’s wrapped in a blanket. The boys came to stroke her goodbye, the elder white and silent, the younger blotchy with tears. Our westie, who had been whimpering and looking for her all day, jumped up into the car beside her body as soon as I opened the door. He sniffed her fur, touched her cold nose with his own, started, then lay down beside her for a while. That seemed to be all he needed to accept that she had gone.
We formed a ragged procession down into the woods, me holding her dead weight in my arms. While our other dog – our dog – pottered blithely about in the bushes, the boys helped us to fill in her grave. I pulled some bluebell seeds from their stalks and scattered them in the soil as we finished shoveling. We outlined her grave with smooth pebbles and laid wild forget-me-nots and a pheasant feather on top. I found a slate and scratched her name on it, to make do until the local stonemason can carve her a more beautiful headstone.
Such a little hole in the earth, to contain so much love.
That afternoon, last Friday, I had found myself wandering through the house with empty arms, looking for something that she had left, some memento to cherish. There was nothing, no object but what we had given her: a basket, a water bowl, a collar which she never wore. Animals tread lightly on the earth.
She did leave something, of course. All her life, she gave us love unstintingly, constantly, without reproach. If I can take anything with me into a future without her by my side – if I can learn any lesson from her bright life – it is her example of full-hearted, generous love.
My spaniel starred in a happier post, Just walking the dog.