The woman wakes suddenly in the early hours of Sunday morning, a line of poetry running through her mind. She’d heard it clearly, just as if someone had leaned in close and whispered softly in her ear, “don’t let grief then stay your hand.” Silence follows, broken only by the gentle breathing of the big old dog lying on the foam mattress next to the bed. The man had (at the woman’s insistence) for some days now, taken to sleeping in the other room. The constant switching on and off of the air conditioner drying his eyes and nasal passages. They’d installed it some weeks before, a necessary step to keep the big dog cool, he was struggling to regulate body temperature, particularly at night. At 14 years of age, his mind still sharp, his personality and demeanour that of a puppy, only his body was failing him.
The man was often woken, firstly by the sound of the golden dog’s heavy panting, then the woman’s bare feet padding across the wooden floor on her way to the bathroom and finally the watery sound of thirsty lapping in the dark while the woman knelt on the foam mattress holding the bowl below the golden head and wiping the dripping mouth with a facecloth after. All this interspersed with the sound of the poor black dog hacking and regurgitating on her bed in the living room, a symptom of the newly diagnosed incurable, maddeningly confusing megaesophagus condition. No one in the little house was getting much sleep.
The retriever’s back legs had rapidly weakened over the last year but he was still able to lift himself up using his front legs and most often a helpful pair of human hands. Later on, an x-ray revealed badly deteriorated hips, particularly the right one, the ball of the femur so arthritic that it could no longer fit into the socket of the pelvis. There was the vet’s advice, “There’s nothing we can do but for now, let’s increase his pain medication by an extra half dose, to ensure his continued comfort.” a slight pause and then, “I don’t want you to feel pushed into anything but quality of life and mobility is very important for a dog. When you decide it’s time and you make the call, no-one will question you.”
Moments later the man turns to his weeping wife and says, “That is something we don’t have to decide today” and the couple, their hearts full of tears take their beautiful big hearted Golden Retriever home. That was five weeks and a bucket list before the Sunday morning when she hears the whispered words.
The bucket list consists of walks and swimming in the lagoon with the black dog, roast chicken, a taste of Mommy’s mince, a tablespoon of Daddy’s creamy oats, a new chewy toy to destroy, playing ball, massages, lots of love and cuddles – all the things the big boy loves to do and some things he hasn’t done for some time.
The woman does her utmost; acupressure, massage, reiki. The man cuts the sides off a cloth shopping bag to use as a safety hammock to prevent the big dog tripping and falling during their short daily walks, to help negotiate stairs or assist with getting up after a long night of lying down.
For a tantalising two weeks the big animal seems to improve and gain strength but then things take a turn for the worse and before long the weakened hind limbs and severely compromised mobility finally begin to get to him, sometimes he flings himself down on the floor in frustration, refusing to let her help him stand up. A few episodes of incontinence cause him great distress and upset, especially the ones in his bed.
A few days before, holding his beautiful face in her hands, staring into his soft dark eyes and her heart breaking, the woman says, “You tell Mommy when it’s time for you to leave, I promise I won’t hold you back or beg you to stay, I’ll let you go in light and love because I love you.”
Lying there in the dark, the woman recognises the whispered words, “don’t let grief then stay your hand”, they are from the first verse of an anonymous poem –
If it should be that I grow frail and weak
And pain should keep me from my sleep,
Then will you do what must be done,
For this, the last battle, can’t be won.
You will be sad I understand,
But don’t let grief then stay your hand.
For on this day, more than the rest,
Your love and friendship must stand the test.
She knows now, knows without a shadow of a doubt, his soul is speaking to hers, he is ready.
In the morning, the man walks into the kitchen, takes one look at her pale grim face and knows the decision has been made. He breaks down, she cradles his head against her chest, weeps with him. Two broken reeds leaning against each other for support. The rest of Sunday is quiet and subdued, her manner takes on a temporary false type of gaiety, she’s determined not to upset the dogs with her tears.
Terrified she’ll forget all the adorable things he used to do, she makes little videos with her phone and uses her big Canon camera to create even more images to add to the hundreds she already has of him. She’s a photographer, he is her muse, the most beautiful thing she has ever photographed. They have a unique and special connection these two, he is a beautiful soul.
Monday morning. The vet is notified, he agrees with the decision, yes he’ll come to the house. Tuesday is the soonest he can make it, would it be alright if he came between 5 and 6pm? The man fights the impulse to say to her, “Let’s wait another week, even just a few more days,” but he doesn’t let the words leave his mouth, he knows this is the right decision and it’s breaking his heart.
They take the dogs to swim in the lagoon one last time, she sees a man walking a young golden retriever, he waves at her smiling, she smiles back, happy for him that his dog is young and strong and golden.
She contacts three friends in distant locations, they are familiar with the golden dog. She tells them of the decision and asks them to send positive energy and celestial beings to assist all four of them during this agonising time but especially to help the big dog return to spirit with ease.
That afternoon when they return from the walk with the dogs, a pair of pied crows land on the lamp post outside the cottage and preen each other for a long time. Crows are rarely seen around the house, the crow is her totem animal, she takes it as confirmation that all is well and Great Spirit has everything under control.
That evening, she steals glances at the big dog lying at her feet in the flickering light of the television, cannot believe that this is the last night she will look down and see her foot lying next to his. An invisible hand squeezes her heart, this is the hardest thing she has ever had to do.
Time for bed. She helps the big dog settle himself on the foam mattress and opens the bedroom window, the weather is cooling down, there is a smell of rain in the air. During the night the wind comes up, rattling the blind keeping the room cool. She can hear the rain falling softly on the earth outside the window, comforted with the knowledge that Great Spirit is directing the elements to help in any way they can, keeping the big dog cool and softening the earth for his final resting place.
She lies awake for a long time listening to his breathing, trying to memorise the rhythm of it. The waning moon is in it’s last phase, it’s energy is deep and powerful; it is a time for transition, transformation, a good time for letting go, an auspicious time to die.
Every single night for the longest time he has slept next to her side of the bed until the morning sun gently lights the room but not tonight. He sleeps beside her from 9pm till 3am, when she hears him struggling to stand up and get off his mattress, she clicks the bedside lamp on and helps him up. She thinks perhaps he has messed the bed or wants to go outside, he goes as far as the passage and flops down next to her desk. The man opens the door of the other room, all the commotion has woken him, “What’s going on?” he asks, “I thought he needed to go out but now I’m not sure what he wants,” she answers.
Going back to his room the man closes the door. Right on cue the big animal heaves himself up, using all the strength in his chest and front legs, she rushes to help him, he staggers to the man’s bedroom door, stands staring at it. This is a familiar sign, she knows it well, he wants her to open the door and she does. He goes in, turns around and lies at the foot of the man’s bed for the final three hours of his last night on earth. Six hours for Mom and three hours for Dad, just so you know I love you both.
Tuesday. The final day. The date is 17-10-2017 and weeks afterwards, thinking back on all the synchronicities of his crossing, she wonders if there is any significance to the numbers. She asks a friend who knows about numerology and discovers that according to the numbers in the date, the day vibration indicates a new beginning, a new journey. It seems appropriate. He is a very smart dog.
They walk early, the wind is blowing, the sky is like lead, tiny drops of rain fall on the couple and their dogs. It’s the golden dog’s favourite kind of weather, he loves the wind, it makes him frisky and blows his long silky hair all around him like feathers. She’s brought her mobile along, they take a turn each to photograph themselves walking with the dogs. She knows that no amount of videos or photographs can keep her precious boy with her but she can’t help herself, the thought of him no longer at her side is unbearable, this is the only thing she can do to try to keep him with her forever.
After breakfast the dog separates himself from them all and goes to lie in his favourite place, the garage. She is sure he is readying his spirit for the journey to come. She roasts a chicken, a treat she has promised him and begins to prepare a sacred space in the living room for his crossing. She lights a candle and cleans the floor with a wash of Lavender and Tea Tree essential oils, she doesn’t have sage, this will have to do. After moving his mattress and sheet to the area, she smudges everything, including a crow feather and a white feather with a hand rolled stick of frankincense, she lays the feathers next to the candle for later.
In the back yard the man digs the grave with a heavy heart, it is very hard work, he stops every now and then to rub at his eyes. Everything is ready except the couple. They will never be ready for this.
Later the big dog plays a gentle game of tug of war with her and the black dog. He chews a new blue tennis ball to pieces, pieces she picks up and carefully places in the dustbin. The man and the black dog take a nap, the house becomes quiet, it’s just the two of them now. Feeling melancholy, she lies on the couch next to his mattress. Her funny, handsome, sensitive, clever dog comes and lies down alongside her, she strokes his head and tells him she loves him with all her heart. Turning his beautiful face towards her he lays his head on her lap and tells her he loves her too.
The sky is blue now, not a cloud in sight, the wind is still up and blowing, they take their last bittersweet walk together in the brisk afternoon air. When they get home she feeds him his dinner, a sumptuous meal of tender roast chicken, he enjoys it so much he almost licks the shine off the bowl. It makes her happy to do this small thing for him.
Eventually there is nothing more to do, no more walks, no more roasting chickens, no more bucket lists, no more preparing the space, so they wait. Time stands still, there is a tension to the waiting. Five o’clock comes and goes and still they wait, all chatter has ceased, the house is silent.
At quarter to six, the sombre mood is broken by the big dog’s joyous barking at the vet’s arrival, he loves visitors and the vet is an old friend. After a brief discussion, they help him onto the mattress with the cut up shopping bag, the vet sits on the floor in front of him, she is behind him stroking his head and the black dog sitting to the left of her. After much research they have decided to let the black dog be present for the crossing, the experts say it’s better for her to know what has happened to her beloved mate of eleven years rather than pine and search for him forever. They know it will be very hard on her but easier than if they had hidden it from her. The man stands at the front door he wants to be supportive but he can’t watch.
The vet is ready, he asks if he must proceed, she nods and hugging the big dog to her, she whispers in his ear, “You’re going on an adventure, over the rainbow bridge to play with angels where there will be no more pain and struggle. You’ll be a young dog again, barking and running and chasing rabbits. I love you my boy. I release you in love and light.” silent tears are dripping off her chin now, “Remember to come back for me when my time comes. I’ll be waiting for you. I love you, I love you, I love you.”
She feels him relax, the weight of his head heavy in her hands, the vet uses his stethoscope, he nods; the big heart beats no longer. She closes his eyes and lays him gently on his side, he looks as though he is merely sleeping, as if he could wake up any second. The man looks at the clock, it’s six o’ clock exactly. Tentatively the black dog comes forward to smell her mate, animals understand death, the finality of it, she will not search for him forever, she knows what has happened. The vet asks if they want any help moving him into the garden, she thanks him but says no they can manage on their own. She can’t wait for him to leave and after packing his bag, finally he does.
Kneeling behind her darling boy, she lays across his chest kissing him and stroking the silky golden fur, uncontrollable sobbing begins. The man comes inside, he too no longer able to contain his grief, cries out and together they howl like wounded animals, their loss too great to bear. The black dog flops onto her bed, her mind and body limp, bereft, devastated with grief. Later when the tears subside a little, they sit together with him. Each one holding a shot of whiskey in a crystal glass, they drink a toast and then another to this very fine, big hearted, special animal they have had the privilege of knowing for fourteen years.
It’s getting late, she wants to give him over to Mother Earth’s embrace before the sun sets. Wrapping him in his sheet, they struggle down the hill together to the bottom of the garden, the black dog following. Opening the sheet they call to her softly to come forward and respectfully allow her to say her final goodbye. Gently they lower him into the earth, careful to lay him on his left side with his head facing East, the place of the rising sun. She places his favourite ball and orange frisbee in with him and tucks the crow feather and the white feather under his right arm. The crow feather to ensure that he fly directly to his destination and the white feather to ensure his guardian angel be there to guide and protect him on this sacred journey.
Wednesday. The grief is still so raw, they take the black dog for a walk, her tail hangs down, she is lost without her companion. He always found the best smells, the best places to pee, without him to guide her she is like a rudderless ship drifting this way and that. Arriving home from the walk they hear a crow call. She sits on the back stairs staring at his grave, a red breasted Robin hops about on the newly turned soil looking for worms. The light is dappled, the atmosphere peaceful.
The man is so supportive, he says they really must try to celebrate the big dog’s life. They tell each other stories about some of the moments they’d shared with him; the day they went to the breeder to pick a puppy and he plonked himself down at the woman’s feet as if to say, “Pick me, pick me!” and on the drive home the way he’d slept on her lap, completely content and never once cried for his canine mother or eight brothers and sisters.
They recalled the times (when he was a puppy) how he used to steal the man’s carefully laid out socks, hankie or underpants from the end of the bed and how one day when he was a boisterous and unruly young dog they were at the park and a mentally retarded young child wanted to pat him. How calm he was, how perfectly still he stood, allowing the small boy to run his hands all over the dog’s body, he knew how to be gentle when faced with a vulnerable soul. They remembered his penchant for lying on tables and benches and how fond he was of his cat sister. The man laughed about the time the big dog jumped out of the car window making the woman scream in horror.
What about when he used to sleep on the bed with the grandchildren, his body bigger than theirs, taking up more space than both of them combined. Playing tug of war in the garden, two of them on one side of the rope and him on the other, never pulling them off their feet, he always gauged their weight against his and kept tension on the rope just enough to keep the game going. They reminisced about Mauritius, the way he and the black dog were so welcoming and kind to all the foster dogs they took in, oh and what about how he used to dunk his head into shallow water to catch sea cucumbers and that day he found a goat skull on their morning walk.
How tolerant he was when she began to learn about pet photography, a patient and willing photographic model no matter what ridiculous pose she tried to put him into, only resorting to incessant barking when she carried the session on far too long. How he knew and responded to all the nick names she gave him, Paddy-Poops, Pookster-Malookster, Padinski, Pookylooze, Pooh Bear and even when Dad called him “That Brown Bastard”, when he did something naughty. It makes them happy to remember and talk about all the good times they’d shared with him.
That afternoon, she has a particularly severe bout of crying, the man holds her, what else can he do? Some time later she is sitting on the couch when she hears the raucous call of a crow, then a second call, the third time it sounds different, insistent, urgent. She goes out the kitchen door to investigate, there are the two pied crows on her neighbour’s roof parallel with the back stairs and diagonally opposite the big dog’s grave. This is most unusual, she calls the man, he comes to look. The largest crow gives a soft call after which they both fly away over the rooftops, first one then the other. She takes it as a sign that all is well with the golden boy and everything is happening just as it should.
Days go by, grief comes and goes, they are okay one minute and in bits the next. There is no way around this thing called grief, one has to go directly through it, experiencing everything. It can’t be hurried, there is no time limit, it’ll be done when it’s done. The big dog was much loved in the neighbourhood, he loved to lie and stare out of the front door, his deep friendly bark to passers-by is sorely missed. People are very kind, they bring flowers, commiserations, tell their own stories. The couple sit at the very top of the kitchen stairs most afternoons with the black dog, a glass of wine in hand, watching the sun sink behind the sand dunes, it makes her feel calm and close to her beloved furry soul-mate.
Two weeks to the day, it’s her birthday and despite the sadness it’s a good day. There are phone calls, a few gifts, unexpected flowers arrive. They share a quiet intimate dinner outside on the wooden deck with all her twinkly lights burning. By candlelight under the stars, they eat a rack of ribs, crisp herb salad, garlic bread and share a special bottle of wine. Afterwards he makes a fire and they toast marshmallows.
They rise before six the following morning and decide to walk the black dog early to avoid the heat of the day, they can see it is going to be a scorcher. The man is locking the front door, she walks ahead of him and as she steps though the garden gate a large flock of pure white birds fly directly overhead. They are so close, she can clearly see their legs tucked neatly underneath the streamlined bodies. In the stillness of the morning she hears a faint fluttering of wings and feels a gentle breeze as they pass above her, time becomes elastic, the moment is sacred, she feels the shift in energy, a slight lifting of her spirits.
The flock of the white birds are a good omen. A message from him she thinks. They give her hope.
She will long for the big dog each and every day until the time of her crossing when he will come back for her. Until then she knows there will still be sad days and tearful moments but the pain will lessen little by little and eventually only good memories will remain.
Until we meet again, rest in peace sweet Paddington, it was a joy and an honour to walk this earth with you for 14 years, I love you forever my boy.