A Dog Has Died

I thought I should publish the piece below as a blog. It was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany (RTE Radio 1, Ireland) recently, and perhaps it interests dog people . . . so here goes.

A DOG HAS DIED

Since childhood, you’ve been aware of this fact of life. Dogs arrive, they keep you company for some years and eventually, after picking the right place, you bury them somewhere in the garden. This loss is familiar. But this time, there’s a different edge to it. Your husband sits in disbelief on the edge of the bed, and as he wipes a few tears, remarks that this isn’t how it was meant to be.

What you imagined was the nine-year old, unruly, black crossbreed going on, at least until the age of fourteen. You imagined at worst a slow fading. But this summer will be different. One of the unspoken highlights was to have breakfast outside on sunny mornings, while he waited to be offered a saucer of tea or coffee.

When your daughter first discovered him on an internet search, he was due to be exported to
Sweden, where he would have fared nicely in that world of extremes of light and temperature. He had the coat for a cold climate. He even had a passport. But a few days before he was due to travel, you all went to see him in the Wicklow foothills, your mother included, who was to become his greatest ally at the kitchen table because of her ability to slip him scraps from her plate. Your hearts were captured.

He knew your habits in the way a child of the 1960s knew the Latin Mass by heart. Immediately after breakfast, he would position himself at the kitchen door, knowing your next move was to go to the study, and at the words Lets go to work! would nose eagerly through the door, and along the hallway to enter that room, where he would then listen to you mumble, sigh, pause, then go clicketty-click-click on the laptop as work resumed for another day.

Attentive to certain domestic details, he enjoyed wet hair and wet towels. Your husband’s pillow held particular appeal for rolling on, and he often shared the bed with your daughter. His bird-watching was avid and unrelenting. A flutter of pigeon wings, the sight of a pheasant, enough to create a mood of wild excitement. If, occasionally, he picked up a fallen starling chick, his teeth didn’t close on it. He was the dog of your dreams, the one you’d written poems about ever before you met him, who crept into your fantasy of isolation on some remote Scottish shore, you and your companion dog, into whose fur your fingers would sink, and onto whose head sorrows and fears could fall without judgement.

He smelt your thoughts and feelings before they’d grown into something you might recognise as a thought or a feeling. He was in there, right with you, practically laughing his big hairy head off when he knew you were happy, ready to jump, primed for a chase around the kitchen, then bolting outside to run thundering laps of the house. It was how he showed off, and he knew you’d laugh, which only encouraged him.

His misdemeanours were minimal: the occasional piece of fresh fish, filched off the grill-pan, herbed and buttery, just as he liked it; or, when your back was turned, that marinaded lamb chop which awaited your attentions but was gone in a quiet gulp of greed. He was a template on how to live well. Go do it, he seemed to say, bolting through the brambled undergrowth of Donaghadea Forest, or trotting nonchalantly across the iced-over lake during the winter of 2010, while scattering moorhens and ducks.

He could hear spiders breathing, and roots sinking into the earth, he could sense the upwards push of vegetables and the pop of a green poppyhead as it revealed deep skirts of crimson and flame. He could smell bitches in heat from miles away, but was never too bothered, having had ‘the operation’.

Our dog has died, he whose innocence let you believe that somewhere in existence, lies a labyrinth of goodness, despite all. His beautiful fiery eyes dimmed all too quickly, and the vet could not save him. As Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem “A Dog Has Died”:
Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.
There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,
and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.
So now he’s gone and I buried him,
and that’s all there is to it.

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