“An agony. The exit like the entrance – but reversed. A palindrome: gut-tug.”
I had my heart broken twice last year. One was your standard romantic affair, exploding like a landmine, and propelling me into a new reality I’m still struggling to recognise as my own. The other I saw coming, though it hurt just the same – a lingering farewell to the little dog I’d loved for almost thirteen years.
Charlie and I happened by accident. I wasn’t looking for a pet and he wasn’t supposed to be for sale, but we found each other nonetheless. His first night at home, I woke to him sleeping across my throat. I thought I was being strangled by an intruder. He learned to fly that evening, and to sleep on the pillow next to me instead. Sometimes he slept like a human, with his head on the cushion, snoring gently. Other times he was upside down, legs sprawled everywhere; an eight kilo dog taking up two thirds of a bed. No one got to stay over without Charlie making it clear they weren’t welcome in his spot – either with bared teeth, or a midnight body slam to the head as he sought to reclaim his territory.
Charlie was enchanting; curious and full of energy. He was also impossibly naughty. As a puppy he chewed everything – the toes out of all my shoes, my mobile phone charger, every spine of every book on the lowest shelf in my study. He even took a huge chunk out of mum’s brand new custom-built cabinetry when I took too long getting his ball from under it. I don’t know how either of us survived that.
He didn’t have much patience for cuddles, but nor did he like being away from me. He was my shadow in every room I entered, positioning himself on the highest point available so I was never out of sight. I never went to the toilet alone. When I took him to work he’d lie amongst the papers on my desk and wait for me to finish whatever tedium I was dealing with, sighing occasionally if I took too long.
My life changed a lot in the decade after Charlie arrived. A long term relationship ended and with it some friendships, my career went from interior decorating to cocktail making, and my family faced financial insecurity. I had a string of unsuccessful relationships, each one chipping away at my confidence, until eventually I fell apart. The only constant through all of it was Charlie’s ecstatic greeting at the end of every day. I think that was the thing I missed most when he got sick. No longer able to race to the door, he’d stand in the lounge room and wait eagerly for me to come to him. It broke my heart at first, but over time I came to realise how special a homecoming this was – his trust that I would find him, and his obvious delight when I did.
Charlie’s illness happened quickly. One day he was playful and full of energy, and then not at all. He couldn’t walk far without being carried, and he slept a lot. He got old within a week. His curly grey coat, jet black when I got him, began to thin and bald in patches. Friends and family teased me about my ugly dog. I told them all to piss off.
The vet diagnosed diabetes. I learned how to inject his insulin and he learned to hide at the rustle of the needle bag. He became expensive. Sooo expensive. I haemorrhaged money on medication and vet bills. Cataracts took his eyesight – first in his left eye then his right. I couldn’t afford the surgery, but a sympathetic vet told me he was probably too old for it anyhow. I felt guilty that I couldn’t at least get one eye fixed, but we managed.
We settled into a new normal. Charlie became the lapdog I never had, arranging himself across me whenever I sat down. I guess he needed the reassurance as much as I did. He stopped sleeping on the pillow at night, and started nestling into the curve of my legs instead. Some nights he couldn’t get close enough. It felt good to be his safe place.
I began worrying ‘the time’ had arrived. Everyone says you’ll know, but I was never sure. In my experience, there’s a lot of time spent being unsure before you’re sure. I peppered the vets with questions they couldn’t answer.
Am I doing the right thing?
I can’t answer that.
What would you do?
I can’t answer that either.
How long do you think he’s got?
It’s impossible to say.
But what’s the average for this diagnosis? One year? Two?
As it turned out, we got 21 months. I knew the end was coming – he’d been agitated for a week, and we were both exhausted. Yet when he collapsed in front of me, I almost went down with him. I screamed for help but couldn’t get any sound out. He was still breathing, but only just. When he woke from his seizure his legs had stopped working. It was time.
The vet saw us straight away. Charlie was taken to have a catheter inserted. When the nurses brought him back he was wrapped in a blanket. They placed him in my arms and patted my shoulder. The vet arrived with syringes. Charlie slipped away just after 1pm. I whispered I love you in his ear as the needles went in. He was gone in seconds. Afterwards I was given time alone with him, but I didn’t stay long. I left him lying on the metal table, as they’d instructed.
That was a year ago now. I know some people think I’m ridiculous to still be mourning him. To them I can only say how sad it is they’ve never experienced the incomparable love of a dog – and the privilege of comforting one as they fade away.
Charlie was more than just my pseudo-child, the object of all my maternal yearnings. He supplied the unconditional companionship and affection that partners, friends and siblings can only unreliably provide. He kept the loneliness at bay. On my worst days, he was my only reason to get out of bed and face whatever I had to deal with. He knew the nights I spent crying or pacing the floor, and distracted me from whatever destructive thoughts were in my head. He gave me purpose and taught me to be responsible. He was the best thing in my life.
So when my world exploded late last year, and the person I thought might be my forever disappeared, it was Charlie’s calming presence I needed most of all. But he’d already run across the rainbow bridge, and all I had was a pillow where two loved heads now no longer lay.
Their exits were indeed like their entrances, but reversed. It’s been agony.