I wrapped the dog in a blanket, lifted him gently into the car, and took him to the vet. Beside him on the seat, I folded a red quilted jacket I bought 30 years ago on a freezing December day in Seoul. If Pete had to be put down, I planned to wrap him in my old warm coat and take him home to bury him.
Even the sound of knife on chopping block which normally rouses him from the deepest slumber had no effect. Later in the day, I found him standing stock-still in the kitchen, staring at a patch of floor as if in a fugue. When he needed to go outside he whimpered to be let out, no longer willing to execute the balletic manoeuvre required to slot himself through the pet door. I let him into the garden. When he had relieved himself he went back to his basket and curled in on himself again.
Not even the sun sprawling invitingly at the kitchen door didn’t lure him from bed.
Pete is the only dog I have ever owned. I bought him nine years ago from a pet shop in Auckland, a stick’s throw from Takapuna beach. He is dove grey and white. One ear stands up, the other is creased and bent. When I drove home from the pet shop with him beside me in the car, I had no idea of what a relationship with an animal, particularly a dog, can teach a human being.
Now I do.
I’ve learned that you can say a lot without words. I‘m not suggesting that words aren’t useful: I’m a reader and a writer, how could I believe that? But words are slippery things and can be made to lie. Whatever a dog feels, it expresses without words, immediately, unequivocally, and without dissembling. When I found myself in a stressful job which stole all my confidence - in myself, in other people and in the goodness and power of language – walking with Pete is what saved me. I roamed up and down Takapuna beach each morning, Rangitoto afloat on the horizon, while the dog abandoned himself to the sand and salty air. He would run ahead and then loop back to canter around me, weaving me into his joyous unselfconsciousness. Through this simple, wordless communion, he lent me his bounding self-confidence and faith in the future. He made a space in which I could reassemble myself.
In her poem “Having it Out with Melancholy”, poet and life-long depressive Jane Kenyon, talks of this life-affirming connection with a dog:
The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot
"Sometimes the sound of his breathing/saves my life“ she says.
It’s a trust which works both ways. I’ve always found something heartrending about the placid confidence with which a dog will wait tethered outside a shop, or locked in a car, for its owner to return. Pete’s not a brave dog: he’s afraid of moving water, heights, and bridges - especially the kind with gaps between the planking. When we meet one of these horrors on a walk, he whimpers and circles anxiously, battling his instinctive fear while I call to him from the other side. But almost always, he will trust my implicit assurance and walk over the bridge simply because I tell him it is safe. I’m not sure when this trust was established although I remember the morning I woke to find Pete sitting beside the bed waiting for me to wake up. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised that I had a dog, and he had a human and he would honour a bond that had been created out of our everyday engagement with each other.
I’ve learned another valuable lesson from the dog: the past is not always a good indicator of the future. Pete is a creature of habit. If he startles a rabbit from a pile of fallen branches one day, those branches will draw his anguished attention for weeks afterwards. He’ll bark and bark, stiff-legged with indignation at the foot of a tree where, once upon a time, he spied a possum. There’s a culvert up the road, too narrow for him to enter, which he finds of perennial interest. He’ll stand with his head thrust inside its hollow gloom for minutes at a time unwilling to relinquish his belief in the possibilities just beyond reach.
These were the thoughts that filled my mind on my reluctant drive to the vet clinic with the dog bundled in a blanket on the seat beside me. The vet’s examination revealed that, for reasons not yet clear, the source of Pete’s malaise was a stiff neck.
The effect of a week of anti-inflammatories has been miraculous: he’s diving through the pet door with his old insouciance and is ready for a walk at a moment’s notice.
Best of all, I’ve been able to pack away my old red coat for the day which must come, but not, I hope for a very long time.