You may be thinking, if you read my last blog, I’m not the sort of person who should have a dog. You may even be right. Well, I didn’t know as I was writing it that I would soon be a person who didn’t have a dog anymore…
Willow had been quiet for a week and not wanting to come for walks – unusual for her. She’d been yelping a bit as she lay down. We wondered if she had neck pain, maybe even disc disease.
After a week of (almost) complete rest (just because we’re vets doesn’t mean we follow our own advice, okay?) I decided it was too nice a day – I took Willow on a fairly gentle walk.
On the way back, I noticed Willow was scuffing her back legs as she walked – and that’s when the cold feeling crept into my gut, and I started to worry.
The ataxia worsened through the day and, by the morning, she couldn’t walk at all. Four hours later, we were cuddling Willow as we left her behind in her kennel, awaiting an MRI scan.
The next time I saw her, she was already cold to the touch. It turned out she had a tumour in her spine – a huge, incongruous lump on the MRI big enough that I couldn’t believe she had been walking the day before.
Some time will have passed by the time you read this – maybe long enough that the house will feel less empty, or walks will seem to have some point to them. Not just now.
I know you didn’t know Willow, but I bet you’ve known someone just as wonderful. You might have lost them too. This is a blog about loss…
Surreal: I’ve heard it described like that a number of times, and it’s probably the word that sums it up best, at least for me. It doesn’t feel real. How could it be? Personalities don’t just stop existing, do they? That’s crazy. That doesn’t make any sense… that’s how it feels, anyway.
Rationally, I am aware of death, of course. I have dealt with it, and in it, enough times to be familiar with the mechanics of it. However, our brains aren’t well wired up in this regard – rationality doesn’t enter in to it. It doesn’t matter how much you know someone is gone, it simply doesn’t make sense.
When I was younger, I could never understand why people had to see their loved ones after an accident – why was it so important to recover the bodies, if there was no possibility of them being alive? Isn’t knowing enough?
It isn’t. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before. When they were alive, you never really accepted, or appreciated, that this unique and wonderful personality you didn’t spend enough time with (and weren’t always as kind to as you should have been) would one day be gone, and gone forever. You need the body, because it helps to drive the message into your stubborn, unbelieving brain that today is that day, and you need to accept it.
I think it’s a mercy that the body starts changing almost straight away. I picked up Willow only a few hours after she died, and the wonderful referral centre staff had even done their best to keep her warm for me, but there was no mistaking she had changed, finally and completely, and would never be my dog again.
Even with the body, our brains are cruel. I don’t know why it should be this way – surely, from an evolutionary point of view, it would be easier it we could immediately understand, accept the fact and just move on. Perhaps the kind of personality that can do that isn’t compatible with the kind of altruism and empathy a social species like ours requires to survive?
I remember when we buried Beattie, our first greyhound, in the garden at my wife’s grandmother’s home. It was raining that night and all either of us could think, all night, was Beattie would be cold, wet and alone, and why had we left her out there?
Taking my son out for a walk in the woods this morning, I heard Willow snuffling about in the undergrowth at least three times, each time sternly reminding myself it wasn’t her. I can understand why people start to believe in ghosts. It’s hard to accept.
A physical presence
This blog is about loss, and it definitely feels like I have lost something now. The strange thing is, when it happens, it doesn’t feel like an absence – it feels like an intrusion; as if something real and malign has forced its way into your lives.
It’s almost like a physical presence. I wonder if this is why many cultures personify death?
Dying is as natural as breathing, but it feels unfair, as if your family has been singled out unfairly by something that wants to hurt you. There’s a similar feeling of unwanted invasion with the diagnosis of a terrible illness – Death’s long shadow, a reminder that He always gets His way in the end.
I feel the chill of that surreal shadow in my consulting room when I am the instrument of that unwanted intrusion, but feeling the chill hasn’t helped me look it in the face any more than anyone else.
I know Willow was a dog, but I have lost people, too and the feeling is the same. The feelings may fade more quickly for a pet, and there may be fewer reminders than with a person, but loss is about what that personality meant to you, and Willow meant a very great deal to me.
I’m sorry I wasn’t always the person you thought I was, Willsie. Thank you.