About Me

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Bristol , United Kingdom
My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, will be published early in 2022 by Indigo Dreams. I am co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy. https://theleapingword.com

Sunday, 6 September 2020

The Blissfulling into his Calling


I knew I’d made a mistake on the way home from the farm at Nailsea Moor, sat in the back of the my friend Cathy’s car, with my daughter Jenny and a cardboard box, from which a pair of violet eyes were studying me intently. Feeling that fierce rush of love and need and connection that I’d only experienced before with my four babies, one after the other. ‘You’ve done it now,’ I told myself. And behind all the ooh-ing and aah-ing, there was a sense that the seeds of something huge and possibly terrible had been sown.

Before we even found him, the dog we’d already named Ted was important beyond all measure to me and the kids. And I knew, even as I was formulating the plan, that it was for all the wrong reasons. I certainly had no business getting a border collie, of all dogs, at a time when I was still  reeling from a relationship that had taken all of my self and thirty years to play out.

I thought what we wanted and needed was a Presence to counteract the Absence of my ex-husband, my children’s father, as he was still dominating our every conversation, thought and reaction, even though he was (thankfully) gone. Also, I thought, madly, a dog for my youngest’s fourteenth birthday might appease his  grief.

Of course, what we really needed, all of us, was Love, and this was exactly what we got: the purest of love, whole-hearted and unconditional, as anyone who has ever given their heart to a dog knows. But being our New Start was a heavy burden for a growing and by now amber-eyed puppy to bear. He picked up on the over-whelming anxiety I still struggle to quell, and it made him reactive and over-protective. Sometimes he was almost more than I could handle, but we stuck with each other.

We were always going to stick with each other.

At eighteen months there was a horrible scare when Ted had an attack of pancreatitis and nearly died. As he was still very ill late in the afternoon, when the vets practice was due to close, my son and I had to drive him across town to the animal hospital in Brislington. That night I had a call from the duty vet at 11pm. I thought Ted must have died, but instead the slightly exasperated voice on the other end of the line wanted to know if I’d had a drink. To my puzzled response – ‘yes, but only a small one’ – it said, ‘Then please can you come over and fetch your dog. He’s so full of morphine he shouldn’t even be able to stand up, but he is and he’s howling and howling and driving us mad. I think that means he’s well enough to be discharged.’

I heard the howling as I parked the car. It stopped as I walked up the drive towards the entrance. Unless it was with other members of his pack, I never left Ted overnight again.

 


Now – suddenly – we have to learn to live without him. I can’t write now about all the joy Ted gave us, the scrapes we got into, the adventures we had – there’s just too much of it over the eleven years and five months (to the day) that we shared our lives. A lot of it is in this blog, which I’m glad to have. I just want to note a few things, so I remember them.


I keep Ted’s name in the part of my brain that holds my children’s names. Will in particular puts up with being misnamed with good humour.

If bestowed upon you, Ted’s love was irresistible. I like to remember him lying next to my father’s armchair when I took him to visit. My father – who’d been adamant that this Ted I was going to find was a German Shepherd and not a border collie – secretly adored Ted, even though at first he was as strict with him as he was with every other living thing that came into his orbit. But Ted – alone amongst all of us – got past his defences somehow, and allowed us to glimpse a more indulgent, softer side of the old man (if only  directed towards Ted).  That dog simply couldn’t put a paw wrong.


One of the best things that happened to Ted was when my partner moved in. I’d made it clear early on that the presence of my dog in any life we might share was non-negotiable. By the end of that year – 2013 – Ted was beginning to realise he could step back a bit and just be a dog, a role he filled very well. Meanwhile, my partner had written him a love poem. He spent hours in the garden throwing Ted’s ball for him, and trudging around the playing field or back lanes in all weathers. Ted was his dog, like he was my dog, and each of my children’s dog. I like that in Facebook posts about his death, everyone calls him ‘my dog, Ted’. This is because we all belonged to him.


You often hear dog-owners say it, but Ted really did understand every word we said. ‘Walk’ had to be spelled out while any outing was still at the ‘Shall we go for a walk now or leave it till later?’ stage, and ‘It’s chucking it down’ would induce a paroxysm of frustrated barking. The word  ‘chocolate’ inevitably led to the appearance of a black and white snout around a laptop screen or laid ever so gently on your knee. (Don’t worry, he only had tiny bits.) Equally, he knew that we instinctively understood the subtleties of the language that is a tennis ball dropped pointedly on the floor.

He also read us superbly well. Even when I made a point of not looking at my watch or phone, he somehow knew the instant the heresy that is ‘Must get hold of Ted and get home, there’s so much to do’ had crossed my mind, and would head to far side of the park where he became Impossible To Catch. And when I broke my leg in 2015 and was laid up for six weeks, Ted went down with a case of limpathy, as this video of Dru's shows.



When we looked up at the stars, Ted did too. If we paused while we were getting up in the morning to wonder at the sunrise from our bedroom window, he would bark in frustration until Colin picked him up so that he could look as well.

The folder on my laptop that I keep my writing in is called ‘Looking after Ted’. The folder where I keep my finished manuscripts is called ‘Looking after Old Ted’. I only wish we'd been granted the chance to do that. Ted was eleven when he died. We might have expected up to another three years with him in our lives, and maybe even some bonus time after that.

And yet I always maintained I didn’t ever want Ted to be an invalid dog, like the ones you see with their back legs on wheels, because he was born to run, black and white on green – somehow this image is printed on the inside of my eyelids. I’d tell people I’d rather he died while he was still enjoying life, than when he couldn’t go on the long walks he loved and had to be helped up and down stairs. It turns out I’ve had my wish granted, but I’m only now understanding the downside, which is sudden, shocking loss.

We had an agonisingly long morning of waiting while Ted was at the vets for his ultrasound. (We couldn’t wait there with him because of Covid-19.) When he’d made his diagnosis, the vet let us have it straight. I phoned my children, and then we arranged for one of the vets to come around the next day at noon to give Ted an injection. I was relieved that this was to be Michael, the head of the practice, as it was him who’d saved Ted’s life ten years earlier. I was also very glad to speak to him on the phone, and thank him again for what he'd done, and then for every wonderful, eventful moment we'd had subsequently with our dog. And then we fetched Ted home, to where he had to be.


I don’t want to write this as it will always be the most painful of memories, but I don’t want to forget it either. Ted was Ted to the end, and had other plans. He didn’t want to leave and yet somehow he went after death like a steam train.  He was indefatigable. Samuel came to say to goodbye and he wagged his tail for the last time.  Even though I told them not to, Jenny and Alex travelled all the way from Brighton to spend a couple of hours with him, and then Alex drove back, a 320-mile round trip all in the middle of the night. While they were here, we discovered that Ted was less agitated in almost complete darkness, so we dimmed the light at the far end of the room and turned off all the others, and this seemed to help him. Will came and stayed through the night and into the next day. He took one last photo which I thought I didn’t want to see, but then did and treasure for all that it is terrible and beautiful and breaks my heart. My dog still watching me, his eyes dark with pain. 

If I left the room at all, it was to return to the huge, hideous tableau of a dog dying in the dark, but up close it was bearable because it was us being with our boy and helping him on his way. Colin squeezing water from a sponge into his mouth and moistening his lips. The shape of his dear face against the cushion, so like when he was a puppy and I realised he looked just like the carved Norman heads guarding the door of the church at Compton Greenfield. The curl of his lip, a grimace at the effort of dying, not liking it but doing it all the same. A darkish brown discolouration to the fur above his mouth. His eyes holding some terrible knowledge that he was trying to keep from us. We didn’t want him to leave and we told him to go, that we would find him again one day, that we’d keep him so close in our hearts, always. We sang Bob Marley songs to him, and Colin read him his poem, ending with the line ‘the blissfulling into his calling’.

When his time came – at 9.20 in the morning – Ted howled and his legs jerked but he was still with us, so Colin howled and Ted joined in, and just like that he was gone. So quickly, neatly almost, like a candle blown out.

Ted loved going to new places more than anything else and now he’s gone where we can’t follow yet, but we've promised him we’ll find him.

Ted was always my dark poet. He had lots of poems written for and about him, in which he played both starring and supporting roles. He shone even in the walk-on parts.  Here’s one I wrote almost exactly ten years ago. It’s the last poem in my first collection, Communion, and, as poems do, has just now taken on a whole new meaning.


             A Moon Like This

 

You’ve called it a day.

Decided to settle

for a walk in the park

with the dog at twilight.

And this, you tell your dog,

will be enough.

And for a while it is

until above the lollipop trees,

a lunatic moon hurls itself

in the sky’s blue well.

A tuppenny bit to wish on

and a small wind rises

riffles your blood,

you clear your throat

it makes no sound,

but another night

on a moon like this

you might hear yourself

howling.



6 comments:

  1. Oh Deb, that is such beautiful writing and it's wonderful to see his whole life described so vividly. Yes, I know what it's like to bond with the animals that share our lives and how important it is to honour all they give us and teach us. Love to you and Colin and the pack xxx

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    1. Thank you, Victoria. This is exactly what we must do now.

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  2. So beautiful Deb tears fall on my eyes xx

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  3. Beyond sad to read this...
    Xx

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  4. Thanks, Janey. I know you know how we feel xxx

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