I promised myself I would never put on paper the story that follows, but the last paragraph has filled me with such joy, I have relented and now wish to share it. I hope you will read this without deeming me too self indulgent but sometimes something so utterly lovely flings itself upon your heart, that you forget (and don’t care) that you might bore everyone rigid and so instantly pick up your pen…
Just on two years ago, my father died. He had been ill for around 7 years, so, whilst I was desperately sad at the thought of no longer being able to talk to, or touch him, my overwhelming emotion was one of relief. I’m certain death was also a relief for him. We all knew that his body had reached the point where total failure was near, and whilst we could make him comfortable, death was inevitable. We offered him our love, constant touch and our tears but no-one resiled from what was approaching, least of all him. When the time was right, he needed to stop breathing. He needed to ‘go’. (In conversation, neither he or I were entirely sure where that ‘going’ would take him, but he was unconcerned, and bless him, tried to convince me not to be afraid for him). He died with surprising ease and calm. If death can be lovely, his was. Some may consider it odd, but I enjoyed holding him after his death. He was peaceful; not bound up, with laboured breathing and a pinched look on his face.
The most fascinating aspect of my father’s death is that it involved two animals. This is interesting only insomuch as he was not at all fond of animals. He accepted that they would always be a part of his life (he married an animal lover), but he only ever tolerated pets. He never really engaged with them, until a slightly overweight King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Charlie entered his life.
But hold on. Before I tell you about Charlie, I need to talk (just a little) about Molly. Molly was my first dog. She was my first “child”. That looks completely daft when written. When spoken it sounds vaguely acceptable, so try to imagine my voice. She and I were inseparable, even after the birth (and obvious adoration) of my two human children. After their arrival, Molly recognized her inevitable slide in the family pack, but was also wily enough to know that all she need do was crook her head “just so” and I’d melt and let her hop back up onto my bed at night.
My children found her by literally tripping over her while playing hide ‘n seek. They came flying to me, screaming “Molly’s dead Mama, Molly’s dead.” And yes she was. Bloody foolish gutso. In her greed, a large bone had gone down whole; the wrong way. There was nothing I could do. I tried kitchen tongs, the Heimlich manoeuvre, violent massage, you name it. Ultimately, what distressed me most about her death is that my children, for the first time, saw me completely undone. I sat for a long time clutching her, rocking back and forth on my knees, my tears splashing onto her fur, while making odd uncontrollable guttural sounds . For someone who shows control at all times, this was a very naked moment. It still makes me feel inexorably sad. It was so unexpected. Horrid, just horrid. Although, I’ve come to think that her death prepared me and my children for the death of my father.
So there we are. Two deaths in under a week. One expected, the other not. The family swung together and made ‘arrangements’. Molly ended up under a lovely hydrangea and a sandstone plinth in the front garden. That was easy. Arranging Dad’s funeral was pretty easy; after all, we’d all talked about what form it would take for some time. The trickiest task was phoning the Priest at the Church in which Dad’s funeral service was to be held to ask, if for the first time ever, an unleashed dog could lead the casket into and out of the church. And so we come to Charlie.
Charlie is a rotund Cavalier Spaniel who lived up the road from my parents. He used to visit every other day, begging for tidbits from my mother’s always overflowing fridge. His owners gave up trying to stop him visiting and he very quickly became a part of our family. Over the years, as my father became seriously ill, Charlie also gave up asking for what might come out of the fridge and instead hopped up onto Dad’s bed and gently laid his head beside my father’s. At first, Dad would feign horror and kick him off. But Charlie persisted and slowly, Dad relented. On the day of his death, Charlie was firmly ensconced by my father’s side which gave both of them great comfort. After Dad had gone, Charlie placed himself in my father’s favourite chair and didn’t move for several days.
On the day of my father’s funeral, Charlie was allowed to lead all of us, ahead of Dad’s casket up the aisle of the church. He sat, head cocked and listened to the service. On leaving, he walked slowly, head low, down the aisle and guided Dad away. It was a very special moment.
And then Charlie disappeared. Vanished. Gone. Mum found this incredibly difficult. We all presumed Charlie had fallen ill, walked into the nearby bush and curled up to die. Mum and Charlie’s original owner posted a $500 reward for anyone who could locate him. Nothing. So, again, we suffered an unexpected, but this time, unexplained death in our family. And again, horrid, just horrid..
And so we come to today, two years on from Dad’s death. This afternoon my mother phoned me in tears to say that Charlie has been found. On Christmas Eve he apparently wandered into the garage of a woman in Liverpool and sat there. She gave him something to eat and next day phoned the local vet. The vet, despite enjoying the last of his Christmas pudding, scanned a slightly dirty little King Charles Cavalier, to discover that his true owner was some 30 kilometres away. Who knows how he ended up there or how he has survived all this time. And quite frankly I couldn’t give a flying fig on the detail. What I do know is that we have all unexpectedly regained a part of our lives that will serve daily to remind us of a father that we still miss very much. A truly special Christmas present.