Pets. You take the relationship between their age and their inevitable death for granted. You look at a creature’s graying hairs and bowed legs, and you know that death is coming, and soon, but until the day it strikes you manage to push its cold sting to the back of your mind, relegating its inevitability to a mere statistical possibility. Your intellect and emotions have the occasional fist fight over it. You rationalise in the face of reality. It hasn’t happened today; maybe it’ll never happen.
My mum called me just as I got in from work.
“Jamie, I think we’re losing Zoe. I need you to come up.”
Zoe was my family’s Alsatian/terrier cross, and one of the gentlest beasts I’ve ever encountered.
Warm, happy memories are welcome visitors following loss – they’re all really that matter, and sometimes all that remain – but they’re not so welcome while the loss is still fresh, or in the process of happening. In such cases, happy memories are less a comfort, and more a cruel torture your own subconscious has deployed against you.
In the car, the memories came.
Memories like… her bounding towards me with what I thought was a stick in her mouth. Turns out it wasn’t a stick: it was a dead crow. She had a wing jutting out each side of her mouth. She gobbled it down in about forty seconds, rather than allow me to steal it away from her. She sooked the wings into her mouth like they were spaghetti, and crunched the bones like they were spaghetti made by me (let’s put it this way: I could set fire to the kitchen making cornflakes).
As a puppy, she went through an identity crisis, where she believed herself to be any animal to which she was in close proximity. When she saw the cats lying atop the kitchen table, she thought to herself: ‘Cool, I must be one of those things, so I think I’ll be having a bit of that table-top action, thank you very much,’ and promptly jumped up there alongside them. When she encountered a Shetland pony for the first time, as it casually chomped grass through the gaps in a wire fence, she stared at it with a puzzled expression, and thought to herself, ‘OK then. I seemed to have been wrong about that whole cat thing, but there’s no denying it THIS time… I’m a fucking horse!’, and then joined the pony in its green, ground-based meal. We can only be thankful she never encountered a lion.
When Zoe was very little I used to take her over the fields and along the rights of way that ran between and behind them. There was a particular row of trees I’d always encourage her to slalom through, which we did so often together that even years later she’d run ahead and thread through them in that same way, completely unbidden by me. Always swishing her tail, and fixing me with a look that seemed to say, ‘See? I remembered, Jamie.’ We’d sit in the tall grass, and I’d watch her as the wind whipped at her mane, blowing her fur back so she looked for all the world like she was riding on the back of a speeding motorcycle. We’d sit there for a happy age, her wide eyes scanning the horizon, her tongue lolling contentedly from her mouth, and I’d scratch behind her ears and ruffle the fur on her head, and say to her: ‘You’re my dog, Zoe.’ And she’d think to herself: ‘No, I don’t think so. You’re my human. Look at it this way: how many fucking times have I made dinner for you?’
I arrived at mum’s. Zoe was in the back garden, lying on the paving stones underneath my niece’s full-size trampoline, a shaded and secluded spot to which she’d often defiantly retreated when she didn’t want to come straight back into the house after a night-time pee. The place to which she was retreating now, we all knew, wasn’t one from which she’d return. Her breathing became more laboured, and she lacked the energy even to sit up. I lay with her a while, stroking her neck and kissing her head. We lifted and moved the trampoline, and brought her a pillow and a blanket to make her more comfortable. The emergency vet was en route, though we’d never see him. The end came too quickly for that.
As Zoe’s breathing became more and more of a struggle, all my girlfriend and I could do was lie with her on the ground, stroking her gently and comforting her with words she could never understand, in a tone that hopefully she did. If our pets truly know nothing of the death that awaits them, then that is their blessing, but it’s also our curse. Because we can’t articulate to them how much they mean to us, nor assure them that what is happening to them – the pain, the panic, the anguish – is not within our power to stop; we’re as helpless in the face of their extinction as they are.
The normal business of breathing became the occasional choking gasp; a violent half-bark that pulled her jaw into a grimace. All I could do was keep stroking and gently shushing her, a ritual that was as much about bringing comfort to me as it was to her. Now and then she became deathly still and quiet, and I would wonder if she had passed away, hoping that she had, wishing that she would. She was trapped in a cycle of struggle punctuated by pain, a harrowing cycle that I grew impatient to see come to an end. This poor creature – this little puppy that had weaved through trees – didn’t deserve this pain, this fear.
‘Slipping away’ is a common euphemism for death, and one that was impossible to apply to Zoe’s. As she drew her final breath, blood began to seep from her mouth, pooling on the ground next to her. Though she was at peace, the transition to that blank state was far from peaceful. The memories of those final seconds haunted me for weeks, and sometimes haunt me still. The choking, the gasping, the blood. The silence (after I’d viewed my paternal grandfather’s freshly dead corpse I dreamt about zombies for weeks, as his eyes had been wide with terror and his jaw was left hanging open – thanks a fucking million, nursing staff). I’d remember how being in the presence of death had reduced me – as it reduces us all – to the role of helpless bystander. And it reminded me that one day, and not long from now in the grand scale of things, someone will be witness to my final moments.
Hopefully, though, that poor bastard won’t have to dig the hole.
Just to break the gloom for a second, I’m just wondering if it might be feasible to pay a celebrity to be my grave-digger. Now THAT’s what I call a bespoke funeral. I can feel a franchise coming on. I probably won’t be able to afford a De Niro or an Alec Baldwin, so I guess they’ll just have to get Joey Essex to do it. Maybe Nick Nairn, so we can get a good deal on the catering, too. (Celebrities aside, I want it on record now that I don’t want to be buried by anyone who reads The Sun or The Daily Mail. Vet them, please. This is my last will and testament)
Mercifully, this time my step-dad directed me to a different burial site, a large rectangle of reasonably soft soil that had once nourished vegetables. So much for ‘you’ll need to bury the rats in the hard ground at the bottom of the garden, son, it’s the only patch I can spare.’ It was still hard going, don’t get me wrong – as a large dog obviously requires a much larger hole than your average shoe-box – but at least I didn’t feel like I was taking part in an episode of fucking Time Team (my favourite part of the burial was when my step-dad tried to tell me that my digging technique was flawed – sweat dripping from my face, agony coursing through my limbs – and I politely suggested that the longer he stood berating me, the more it made me look forward to the happy day when I’d be digging his grave).
Zoe was the hardest to bury (physically and emotionally), the hardest to say goodbye to, and the hardest to write about. I guess there is a sliding scale of grief when it comes to pets, or perhaps we form closer bonds with animals that are easier to anthropomorphise. Whatever the truth of that, I loved all four of my pets, and hope that in some small way I’ve succeeded in honouring their lives and deaths.
For the real markers for their graves aren’t to be found in my mum’s back garden.
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