Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Melancholy lines upon the death of a dog

No dog lives forever but I hoped he would be the first. Kola, my Labrador. Kola, my trusted friend and confidant these 7 years. Kola who has seen my children grow, almost since they were babies, and has loved them every minute. Kola, the glory of his breed and the friendliest member of his household. Kola, bone-chewer, ball-chaser, beach-swimmer, humper of male dogs and feared destroyer of several chickens.

He was named after a teddy bear that my son had when he was two years old. The bear had come all the way from China with a tag that bore the name of Kola. I don’t know why they called it that. Maybe they were trying to spell Koala. My son loved that bear, it slept beside him and he dragged it around in the dirt wherever he went. He must have imagined that getting a dog was the same kind of thing as having a teddy bear. So the day the puppy came bounding into our lives – the first pet we ever had – my little son declared that the dog’s name henceforth would be Kola. And that is what we called him.

We soon learned that a dog is even better than a teddy bear. Because a dog is not a thing. He is not a person either, I understand that, but he dwells somewhere in the borderlands of personhood. Anyone who doubts that animals have souls has never reckoned with a Labrador. Whether the dog brings his soul with him into the world or acquires it through constant communion with the human soul is a moot point. At any rate the dog is more susceptible to humanisation than any other animal. He feels joy and doubt and affection and cunning and anticipation and contentment and shame – what human ever felt more?

The creature of whom I speak used to sneak under the covers of my son’s bed and lie there on the forbidden mattress, a huge Labrador-sized lump under the covers beside a sleeping boy, hardly daring to breathe in case I found him and banished him to the unwelcoming floor.

Once when I had taken him to the beach he saw me body-surfing and was seized by a sudden terror for my life. He snatched the leash up in his mouth – I had left it lying on the sand – and plunged into the waves and swam out to me, whimpering horribly until I consented to take the leash in my hand, whereupon he turned and swam to shore, pulling me behind him. I thanked him for rescuing me, it was a considerate gesture, and I informed him that I would now continue swimming. But he – he who loved beaches and knew them so well – was very distrustful of the waves that day and sulked mightily when I tried to get back in the water. So I trusted his instincts and lay down on the sand instead and he laid his wet head upon me in satisfaction. And I never drowned that day, so maybe he was right. Who knows how much a dog knows?

Once, when I had left a carton of eggs on the kitchen table, he crept into the room and climbed up on the chair and somehow got the carton open and removed the little unfertilised parcels one by one without cracking the shells or making any mess. One by one he smuggled the eggs outside. I saw the carton right where I had left it on the table and saw that it was empty. I searched the premises and eventually found the crime scene: a black dog, looking rather bloated, lying in an orgy of eggshells in the back yard, licking his dripping whiskers in mournful self-reproach. “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”: Shakespeare must have been thinking of Kola and the eggshells when he wrote those words.

Today he died.

He left our lives almost as suddenly as he had arrived. They said it was a cancer of the spleen, it happens sometimes they said, the invisible malignant growth advancing secretly and one day bursting and then, before you can say fetch, the Joy of Nature is lying very still and watching you with infinitely patient eyes and telling you in little whimpers that he is sorry but he cannot get up, not today, that he does not feel like playing anymore, that he will not be needing breakfast, not today, not ever again, that you should go along to the park without him and let him lie there in the shade a while with the ants and beetles creeping all around him.

By the time we got him to the vet he was nearly dead. We gathered round him, my children and me, and whispered our sweet nothings in his floppy ears and caressed his good kind face and anointed his gentle paws with our tears.

We did not lie to him. That’s not how we do things around here. We did not tell him everything would be all right. We told him that we loved him and he was dying and we would never see his face again and we would never forget him. He had walked his last walk, he had chewed his last bone, he had fetched his last slobber-filthy tennis ball. He looked me in the eyes and trusted me completely, in dying as in life. He had never died before but he knew I’d get him through it.

Apart from dying, it had been one of the great weeks of his life. For it was only a few days ago that he, Kola, the somewhat fat and lumbering Labrador, caught a young rabbit that had been grazing on the lawn. A hundred years of selective breeding came good at last. He caught it. He brought the rabbit to me. He nursed it in his mouth as gently as an unbroken egg. It hung from his jaws, alive and apprehensive, the two long bunny-ears twitching in dismay. He stood before me: Kola, catcher of rabbits. He laid the bunny at my feet as worshipfully as the Magi bringing gifts. His eyes burned with a holy pride. I paused from washing the dishes and looked at him and told him to take the goddamn thing outside this minute: which he gladly did, and with all ceremony.

I think of him now with that rabbit and I thank God for it. I am glad the dear boy finally got a little taste of heaven before he left this world. He had caught chickens before but that was years ago and it was only practice. The real thing, as everybody knows, is Rabbit. The prophet says that in the world to come “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). If that is true, then even as you read these tear-stained lines you must picture Kola curled up with his big face resting on his paws, lazy as ever, sleeping like a dog beside the tender and ever-living rabbit in that peaceable kingdom where cancers never grow, only joys, where all the leashes are lost, and where every hour of the day is breakfast time.

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