This Friday it will be three weeks since the death of Shiloh of the Ears.
Our dog, who was only eight years old, succumbed in the early hours of the morning of Friday August 17 to a horrible cancer, of the spleen thought the vet. We had an appointment to “put her to sleep”, as they say, but death came earlier, and I was glad of that. Better to go on her cushion next to my bed than in fear at the Horrible Place.
She and I had spent a lot of time in the Horrible Place in the run-up to her death, trying to find out what was wrong with her, coming and going with packets of pills and fear and hope in my heart. In her heart there was just fear. She would sit on the vet’s scale in the hope that being a good dog would make me take her home again (because she would always sit on it to be weighed, so obediently, not like other dogs who wriggle and bounce).
She had not been our dog – my dog – for long.
This coming September 24 will be the second anniversary of the day she came to live with us, a gift from a family emigrating to the United States and unable to take her with them. The Snymans posted her picture on Facebook, and since we had been looking for a new dog, and they said “good with cats”, she seemed perfect for us. And she was (good with cats, and perfect).
Her predecessor, our first dog Indiana, taught me the Way of the Dog, to like them, to understand the joyous and irritating and noisy and fun ways that dogs are are nothing like cats.
Shiloh taught me much more. From her I learned precise heft in your life of a dog who decides that you, and you alone, are her person. Which is what she decided when she came to live with us, a time that must have been scary and confusing for her. She was always a little nervous of men (a relic of her long-ago past, for the Snymans told us she had been a rescue puppy for them), and so she clung to me as the only understandable thing in her new life.
We formed a bond. So much so that I heard my son saying to her once: “What do you want, Shiloh? I don’t know what you want. Ask Mom, she always knows what you want.”
And I did. I knew she would fetch sticks and NOT balls, to the point of exhaustion and beyond. That her feet got hot when fetching the fabric stick-things I made for her, and that there was then nothing so blissful as standing in a puddle to cool them down. I knew how her gorgeous enormous silky ears liked to be delicately stroked, and how they showed all the feelings of her heart. I knew that she was always a little worried – but willing to abandon all that for the joy of a walk or a piece of biltong. I knew that she was happy to just lie at my feet, wanting nothing except for me to say her name every now and then. I knew that she hoped always to be a good dog, for me to see how she sat so neatly, with her chest stuck out, so that there might be a little treat. I knew how she wanted to play with other dogs as she walked her delicate ballet-dancer walk around the park, but was never certain how to do that making doggy friends thing. I knew that, above all, she loved a cuddle and I persuaded my husband, who has Views on what dogs are allowed to do, that first she should be allowed to sleep in our room, and then that she should be allowed on the couch and (sometimes) on beds, because nothing else made her happier than being as close to me as she could get. Her biggest ambition in life was to be dog who could sit on a lap.
She was too big for my lap but I am glad now we had that time on the couch together.
People say, when you lose a dog, that it is like losing a friend, or a member of the family.
But it is not like either of those things.
It is much simpler and much more complicated than that. What you have lost is a dog.
And that means you have lost a faithful and constant companion, a shadow who is with you every possible moment, an understanding of what it is to be loved and trusted with all of another creature’s heart and soul.
I miss her more than I can say.
I came to understand some of this through a poem that came my way in the week after her death, via an email subscription to the Poetry Foundation’s Poem Of The Day newsletter.
If Feeling Isn’t In It
By John Brehm
You can take it away, as far as I’m concerned—I’d rather spend the afternoon with a nice dog. I’m not kidding. Dogs have what a lot of poems lack: excitements and responses, a sense of play the ability to impart warmth, elation…
Dogs will also lick your face if you let them.
Their bodies will shiver with happiness.
A simple walk in the park is just about
the height of contentment for them, followed
by a bowl of food, a bowl of water,
a place to curl up and sleep. Someone
to scratch them where they can’t reach
and smooth their foreheads and talk to them.
Dogs also have a natural dislike of mailmen
and other bringers of bad news and will
bite them on your behalf. Dogs can smell
fear and also love with perfect accuracy.
There is no use pretending with them.
Nor do they pretend. If a dog is happy
or sad or nervous or bored or ashamed
or sunk in contemplation, everybody knows it.
They make no secret of themselves.
You can even tell what they’re dreaming about
by the way their legs jerk and try to run
on the slippery ground of sleep.
Nor are they given to pretentious self-importance.
They don’t try to impress you with how serious
or sensitive they are. They just feel everything
full blast. Everything is off the charts
with them. More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.
*Poem used with permission of John Brehm.