My family has always been a dog loving family, and for many years I was, arguably, the adult in the family most enthusiastic about dogs. This was surprising as my late husband was a person whose middle name should have been “enthusiasm” as he was characterised by his over the top eagerness about so many unexpected things. Our first dog was a Labrador, my favorite. We had Labradors when our children were small.
Even slightly more enthusiastic about all animals was my brother-in-law and his family too. His wife worked for the RSPCA. Our children were brought up seeing a great deal of each other, rolling and romping with the many dogs, sometimes cats and even birds that appeared. This was to the accompaniment of much loud classical music and the two brothers’ frequent debates about the value of each piece being played. They did agree on one thing, the slow movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto was “music to die to”. Realism often had me pointing out that one did not usually have this much control.
We all cheerfully worked, played and grew older; the children, various dogs and the adults.
Then, almost twenty years ago now, we all discovered, to our shock and dismay that my husband’s life, as it then was, lay in ruin by his own hand.
What did he then do? He bought a tiny toy poodle puppy. That poodle, and the ones that later joined and succeeded that particular poodle, brought much comfort and aid to him, and indeed to the whole family. They were his poodles, however, and they loved no one else with the non-judgmental intensity with which they loved him. They helped him through the difficulties he faced, the depressions and the distresses. They went with him everywhere, even to the local pub, and he was known to all and sundry as the man with the poodles.
In 1996 my much loved brother-in-law died far too young. His last days were cheered by the smallest poodle, smuggled into the hospice to see him. At his request, my daughter took him a musical compilation not long after she had smuggled in the poodle. He died as the Bach “Double” she had included was playing.
The poodles continued to give us all unexpected joy. They had bold and adventurous natures. All but one loved the surf and the waves and they all loved to run on the beach. They recognized the word “beach” even when it was spelled out. They fetched large balls in their tiny mouths and would follow their master to the ends of the earth.They were great company for him as I went to work each day.
For over ten more years this went on. Poodle names became our passwords for various devices and one very smart little girl poodle even decided she knew how to play the card game 500. Except by those who wanted to appear macho, the poodles were widely accepted in the whole community.
Then, almost five years ago now, my husband became ill. It distressed the poodles greatly each of the various times he went into hospital but they enthused at each return home. When he returned home for the final time, ill and bedridden, he was greeted with glee. The two small toy poodles were now very old but there was a younger poodle-cross also who, although much bigger, accepted with resignation his role at the bottom of the pecking order. Nothing delighted them all more than to spend their days relaxing with their master on his bed and they did this for six months. This did not please the visiting medical staff (except for the absolutely brilliant palliative care doctor) because of their passion for the sterile and their perceived need for a hospital bed with all mod cons. In fact the dogs provided more solace for him than any medical person did or could have done. They reluctantly left him only for a compulsory short walk each day. They (and I) were with him in the very early morning hours when he died peacefully. He did not die to the Bach “Double” but I , symbolically, played it on the CD player beside him whilst waiting for the Doctor a bit later that morning.
Our son-in-law and a very old friend, accompanied by a cellist, played it beautifully at his funeral.
And how did the poodles manage? Not well. His death seemed to age them further and very quickly. The seventeen year old father of the younger toy poodle became increasingly blind and deaf and died a year after his master and was buried in the same place as his master’s ashes had been scattered, where they all liked to walk. Then suddenly and unexpectedly the young poodle-cross died of kidney failure. The remaining poodle, by now sixteen, could not cope at all. She literally screamed when I went out of her sight. I took her with me when I could, but this disoriented her. When I was delayed one day, caught in a huge traffic jam on the F3, she caused consternation among the neighbours. They thought she might have injured herself, such was her distress.
This put me in a difficult situation philosophically. I believe in voluntary euthanasia for those who can communicate that this is what they wish. As Peter Singer says, animals cannot do this. Apart from age and failing sight and hearing, this little poodle had no health problems. I had just witnessed my husband choose to take measures to prolong his life which I had previously thought he would not take. So I decided to wait in case her distress abated after time. It did not. After much anguished thought I decided not to let her continue in this way. I had three days with her when I did not leave her sight and she and I, together, did all the very familiar things she loved to do. We went to the beach. We threw a ball. We visited the reserve where she and her dog father and her human master used to walk and where they now lay. But most of all I let her snuggle very close to me as she had always liked to do with her master. (I had usually found it a bit too cloying.) Then I took her for her last trip to the vet and held her as she died.
I did my usual thing of casual, business like conversation when in distress and made a weak joke with the vet and the vet nurse as they tried to be sympathetic and I left with her tiny body for burial with her loved ones.
Soon after I began the short drive home ABC Classic Radio, coincidentally, began to play the slow movement of the Bach “Double”. I’m afraid I had to pull over. I just lost it!
Since then I have obtained another dog, not the Labrador of my children’s youth, nor a poodle of my husband’s latter passion but a dog for my future. A dog big enough to take on long walks and self contained enough not to become too dependent. She is, indeed, quite lovely. But from time to time I still long for the feel of the warm, intrusive nose of a little poodle squeezing in beside me and the adoration in its poodle eyes as it looks up at me.