Time heals-but you can never replace a best friendby Charlotte Cory / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
On tuesday 3rd March 1992, at 12:30pm, my best friend died. Nothing had prepared me for that moment. Or for the grief that rushed upon me like an incoming tide, wave after wave of blackness and sorrow that knocked me completely off balance. I had known her practically all her life. We had shared everything, the highs and the lows. She was there when I got married and when my first novel was published. She consoled me through the many broken love affairs that scarred my twenties. She was my confidante, my ally, totally loyal, totally forgiving, always enthusiastic. She was beautiful and gentle. She loved me more than anyone else in the whole wide world. I authorised her death. Indeed, I paid for it.
They say time heals, and what “they say” is true enough. When I think of her now, unbidden tears do still occasionally spring to my eyes but what shocks me, scares me even, is the emotional devastation she left in her immediate wake. My grief was absurd. Grendel was, after all, only a dog. She was not my partner, my child or my parent. People expect to be overwhelmed with sorrow when a person close to them dies. But a dog? It was absurd. It felt absurd at the time-and the absurdity of the grief made the grieving worse. The more I tried to contain it, the worse it got. I thought I was going mad.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is
like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning… There is a sort of invisible blanket
between the world and me. I find it hard
to take in what anyone says…
I read this standing in Waterstone’s. I was wearing a duffel coat against the March chill but I stood wrapped in that “invisible blanket,” conscious of people around but at the same time oblivious. I had come to the bookshop because, ten days after Grendel’s demise, I was so restless I could not bear to be at home. I had lost all interest in my work, the radio, television. Above all, I could not bear to listen to music. If I looked at a newspaper it was only to scan the deaths columns hoping to spot the names of those who had died the same day as Grendel. People for whom others were presumably-amazingly-grieving. There was little consolation in this, which was why I sought out the only text I knew of that might help, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I did not purchase it because I did not want to own it. I dipped into the slender volume, eagerly and tentatively. And all the time I stood in Waterstone’s, fugged, alert and yet dopey, I was painfully conscious how absurd it was that I, mourning a dog, should seek reassurance from this account of a man’s grieving for his wife who had died of cancer.
Grendel had been very much my dog-a stepchild Bob, my husband, had tolerated. Any sorrow he felt at her death was only really sorrow for me. Not that he had not always been kind to Grendel, but in mourning her I was very much on my own. Always when I had been on my own before, there had been Grendel. Much of Lewis’s account of his grieving relates to his feelings about the God he and his wife believed in-a male Christian God, utterly alien to me. Even so, I found ludicrous consolation in A Grief Observed. Someone had been there before me. My misery was a known phenomenon. I was not going mad.
Initially I had coped quite competently. The vacuum was filled with little chores. Putting her bowls and beanbag away, out of sight; disposing of leftover food. Gradually, though, I began to go over and over the details of her death. Her death undoubtedly made life easier for me. I felt racked with guilt. Just because she could not climb stairs any more or go to the toilet easily, had I been rather too keen perhaps to get rid of her? Had I answered the vet’s questions completely honestly, or had my answers in fact loaded the cards against her-and in favour of that final needle? When I removed her collar just before the end, did she know? Did she think I had betrayed her? When she dragged on her lead outside the surgery so that I had to coax her to her doom, did she resign herself sensing that I was bent on her destruction?
Of course, I always knew losing her would be upsetting. I had adopted her when I was a student in my final year reading English. There was an advertisement in the alternative bookshop: Old English sheepdog/cross puppies in urgent need of homes, or they’ll be put down. A rather harassed woman in her late twenties answered the door. Behind her sat a sleek brown mongrel with half a dozen black and white puppies. One had a spot on her head. I picked her up. “Are you Grendel?” I asked. She nestled into my arms. I became Grendel’s “mother” who, as anyone familiar with Beowulf will know, was even more fearsome than Grendel.
“There go your finals!” my friends said. But they were wrong. From the moment I took her on, I started working. I had something to work for. I had wasted a lot of time running a magazine, and running about with unsatisfactory boyfriends. Now I stayed in and made up for lost time. There can’t be many puppies who have had Malory’s Morte read aloud to them.
Over the years that followed there were many difficulties, not least keeping a roof over our heads. I soon discovered that my original landlord had been unusual in allowing pets and Grendel and I found ourselves living in some pretty awful places. For over 13 years we enjoyed a joyous fellowship. I was able to give her a high degree of material comfort in the latter part of her life; her joie de vivre kept me going through some bleak and meagre times.
Now, there was a small hard lump on her chest. The vet said it was probably benign but should be removed as such lumps can grow and become a nuisance. I took her in one morning and signed forms authorising the operation and anaesthetic. When I rang at midday for a progress report, the vet came on the line. The operation had been more extensive than she had anticipated. When she had shaved back the fur she had found evidence of peculiar skin growth. She had taken samples for analysis.
When I went that evening to collect Grendel she looked rough. “Put an old tee shirt around her if she licks her stitches.” I was to take her back the following week to have the stitches out. They would ring me when the results of the tests came in.
Part way through the next week, when Grendel was bravely staggering around in my baggiest tee shirt, her paws through the arms, the garment bloodstained and looped about her body, the vet rang. “It’s bad news, isn’t it?” “Come in and we’ll speak.”
We arrived to find the waiting room full. Grendel’s file was out on the table. While the receptionist was busy, I scanned the page and a half of medical jargon until I reached the phrase “very virulent…” I went numb. Grendel sat beside me, better behaved than usual. When we had first visited a vet she was a puppy and ever since she had seen it as her right to sit on my lap in the waiting room. Not an easy exercise for either of us, although generally hilarious for anyone else waiting. Now she made no attempt to climb up but made occasional attempts to pull towards the door, and the car, and home.
The vet said: “I think you gathered from the phone call.” I nodded. But she could live up to six months, a year, who knows? She was not in pain. The skin cancer would spread. But at the moment… Grendel and I left with some tablets-I was to give her two a day for 14 days and then reduce the dose.
We never reduced the dose. A week later Grendel could barely stand up. Her limbs had gone weak. I had planned to take her to the seaside. Some sea air might do her good and we had gone to Barmouth when she was a pup and my boyfriend at the time had kicked her bright yellow ball out to sea and we had watched it float away. I thought we might go back and somehow retrieve that ball.
I carried her to my car but instead of jumping about, she lay not even looking out of the window. I don’t know what I was expecting. I could have asked Bob to take us to the vet but he was busy and I did not want to bother him. When she gave a feeble bark as I started the engine, I knew it would be her last.
“She is very sick. If she were my dog, I would have no hesitation,” said the pretty German vet with long blonde hair. I nodded, and signed another form. I asked what would happen to her body. I had no garden to bury her in. I was grateful for the vet’s pragmatism. It would be sealed in a bag and then frozen until it was sent to the incinerator later in the week. “You do everything you can for an animal when it is alive,” she said briskly. “Afterwards, it does not matter. A body is just a body. You concentrate on the living.”
A sedative injection was given. With a large dog the killing dose can burn so it is best to sedate it first. The surgery was busy so we were sent to the waiting-room while the sedative took effect. Grendel just stood there. Well, she’d been sedated, hadn’t she? I cried, with my arms around her, my face buried in her fur. I had never hidden anything from her and I was unable to hold back now. Some awful woman with a bull terrier tried to talk to me but I asked her to leave us alone. Those were probably the worst 20 minutes of my life.
When at last we were summoned back in, Grendel was lifted onto the table, her collar removed and she was injected down the length of her front paw. I wanted to hold her but the vet summoned an assistant so the closest I got was a hand on her head. She will die instantly, I was told, but there will be a kick afterwards as the nervous system reacts. People take it as a sign of life, but it isn’t.
She kicked. The vet left me with her. “Stay as long as you like,” she said. I looked down at the battered, bruised corpse. So small when Grendel had always seemed so big. People who met us after an absence invariably joked that I must have put her in the washing machine as she had shrunk. Doubtless because she always leapt all over the place. She was not leaping now. I stroked her and whispered in her ear. She did not need telling, and she could not have heard anyway.
That was it. I left her. “I need to pay, and I’ve still got some of your blankets at home.” “Come back later,” they said. Outside, I dropped the packet of dog treats I always kept in my pocket in the waste bin. I drove home, in icy control. I went into Bob’s office holding her lead and collar. He had not realised, he said.
The rest of that day I was in a daze. I had people coming to dinner. I thought it would be a good thing to go ahead as normal. Even when one of those friends turned up with tangerines for Grendel-her favourite food-I calmly insisted we sit down and eat them ourselves. I managed to sleep that night, and the next day. I told the cleaner what had happened and asked her to do any vacuuming that I had overlooked. “You looked after her better than you ever did yourself,” she said.
How I wished that were true. What was true was that she had gone. It was the following day it really hit me. I kept hearing her, turning around looking for her. Bob was out. I paced about, unable to work. By the evening I could barely breathe. When he came home I was lying on the floor wailing. Not tears like the ones I have shed writing this, but great gusts of wailing that came from somewhere far beneath the bottom of my lungs. “I want her back,” I screamed. All I ever wanted was Grendel and now she was gone. At one point I remember Bob holding me down.
It was 16 weeks before a Tuesday passed and I did not crumple as the clock approached 12:30pm. It was a year before I could look at an Old English type dog and not weep. This year was the first time 3rd March went by without my remembering to mark the day.
Time heals. A couple of years ago, I acquired Mr Chicken, an irrepressible Airedale terrier, as different from sensitive Grendel as you can imagine. When I gave him her food and water bowls-because it seemed stupid not to use them-I gulped as I put them on the floor. She was irreplaceable. But, of course, so is he. And I have since acquired an adorable wire-haired fox terrier to keep him company-a nine year old, called Rufus. They give me such joy-but at least now I know the score.
Some time after Grendel died, I read an alarming statistic about the number of people who commit suicide following the death of a pet. Unless you have been through it you probably find this absurd. We are not very good at coping with death. We are almost proud of the fact. The nuclear peace and medical progress have ensured that, for the first time in human history, it is not uncommon to reach middle age without experiencing the loss of someone close. Social mobility reinforces this. Grandparents are often people visited a few times a year, if that. Families drift apart. Close friendships dwindle to Christmas cards that are exchanged until addresses change or are lost.
Loving a dog means grieving when it dies. Because this love is unalloyed, the grieving can be terrible. You cannot have the absurd happiness a wagging tail brings without the absurd grief when the wagging stops. That’s the way it is. “Grendel wouldn’t want you upset like this,” a friend told me at the time. It was true. She hated it when I was down, and she would think me crazy sitting here scribbling this when I could be out enjoying a nice walk. Dogs have such a healthy attitude to life. They love it. Compared with a wife dying of cancer, Grendel had an easy death. I was able to ensure she hardly suffered at all. Next time round, instead of scanning the deaths columns in newspapers, I hope I will have the courage to go straight to the dogs’ home and rescue some scrap who badly needs a home. I learned two things the hard way: guilt and grieving are inextricable; you can never do enough for a creature you care about. Also, you never replace a dog. You just love the new one in a different way.