BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
You know that death is coming. 14 years for a Chocolate Labrador by any dog/human age comparator is in the high nineties. The occasional coughs and retches remind you that your dog is falling apart at the seams and has more lumps to his name than the sweetest cup of Yorkshire Biscuit tea but he’s still chunky and grins with happiness all the time. He still loves his walks and occasionally breaks into a trot to snaffle a tennis ball. His ears and eyes are not what they were, but still he plays along, and his nose is as powerful as it ever was – capable of finding a crisp on a beach or (his favourite trick) an apple on a walk whatever the time of year. His back legs give way every now and again, but surely he has some weeks or months left in him yet, or so you convince yourself as a fishing holiday nears and the riverbank beckons. That 100th year letter from Anubis will undoubtedly materialise.
Losing Cadbury – my most devout and loyal companion – on Thursday morning has hit me (and my young family) like a juggernaut. He was loyal to the end – refusing to die during the night and waiting until we came downstairs to let him and his fellow chocolate lab, Bussie, out into the garden. Instead of getting to his feet, on Thursday morning Cadbury lay in his bed only able to raise his head. His nose seemed colder than usual. I carried him in my arms from my study into the garden where the beautiful early morning sun shone down on us, while my wife set up what turned out to be his deathbed on the lawn next to a flowerbed resplendent with chrysanthemums. I lay beside Cadbury on his comfy, chequered memory-foam mattress, holding him from behind in my arms, as we once spooned for much-needed body warmth in a chilly tent on Dartmoor. We all knew – loyal Cadbury must have known for much of the night.
My wife ran upstairs to wake the children and told them to rush downstairs and say goodbye. They appeared in dressing gowns and floods of tears. Within fifteen minutes life had slipped out of our darling dog and we were all there when he went – his nearest and dearest hugging and kissing him, with Bussie and Mouse, the family cat, looking on.
Cadbury’s last moments brought out that toothy grin one last time, he lifted a paw onto my wife’s leg as if to thank her, while sniffing at my hand (which always seemed to give him comfort), then his brown eyes turned but briefly a shade of luminescent yellow or gold before he took his last breaths. I always thought these last breaths were the spirit exhaling into the universe and turning to light, as it climbed the stairway of sunshine to heaven. However I am told by a Gurkha friend – who has a big heart and was perhaps merely spreading comfort – that the spirit seeks its exit from any of the orifices and that an exit through the eyes is highly auspicious. (I am happy to report that, for once, on this occasion no flatulence emanated from my old chocolate boy).
Yes, I had prepared for this moment in my mind a thousand times, but they say it’s always a shock. And it bloody well is. Even this beautiful, perfect departure in the sunshine – no more than we should have expected from this perfect dog – was still a thunder punch in the guts. We sat there together on the grass beside Cadbury’s body, we all cried lakes and rivers for a while and we let Bussie have a good sniff of his dear old pal. The cat, as if emotionless, went off to tear apart some poor bunny or mouse – we’ve noticed even she, the furry assassin, has been sombre since her dear friend’s passing.
Despite the agony of Cadbury’s death for us (I rarely use the word agony), there was a certain feeling of comfort in the air when it happened – we were bathed in warming light as the protons of the morning sun caressed our tear-stained faces. As if Cadbury’s quick and seemingly painless death could be any more perfect, a pristine white butterfly landed on my daughter’s hand. The spirit of our angel seemed already to be working its magic – the twinkle in his eyes now conjuring wizardry in the ether. The word that sprung to mind was metamorphosis not expiry.
Death and time make fluid companions. I completely forgot that it was just seven in the morning when I called friends and family. Cadbury was a dog with human eyes – to us a saint who helped guard our babies and who we trusted implicitly to bring dropped shopping into our house. He rarely barked – preferring to flap his ears when he wanted to go out into the garden to spend a penny. All who know us as a family knew him as umbilically attached to me, his human master. Cadbury was by far the most popular member of our family, had anyone ever been so ruthless as to muster an internal poll.
Many tears were shed by those answering their phones. The WhatsApp messages started pouring in, then the Facebook posts and the tweets (tweets mostly from strangers, I should add, through the CSM account where a kind colleague posted our painful news – Twitter at its best – words of comfort for which the family and I will be forever grateful).
Am I overreacting? Maybe, but in our dogs we mirror our humanity. I have experienced the shocking death of a human loved one and in no way should the death of a dog be compared, but it is peculiar the similarity and strength of sensations of grief and loss.
When the tears slowed, we walked the short walk across our country lane where – we are so lucky – there is a thirteenth century church, which is always open and most often empty; our very own bush-telegraph to God. Like most thirteenth century village churches it is cool and dark inside. My wife, the children and I knelt on the carpeted step before the altar and we said a prayer out loud – that Cadbury’s spirit be accepted into heaven. It was the easiest prayer to conjure – none of us could recall our loyal friend ever misbehaving. We had prayed for no more than a few minutes when a thin beam of light shone from outside through the stained-glass window above the altar – it landed on the carpet just in front of the children, who were a bit shocked at first, then smiled. We looked at each other with wide eyes and all smiled. Our prayer seemed there and then answered. Cadbury’s halo had been awarded.
The real pain comes when the shock dissipates. The reminiscences, the calling the dogs for teatime when only one remains. Toast in the morning and breaking the last crust in two instead of one – how that truly grated.
It’s as if at the dog’s death the emotions you parked in the dog – your comfort blanket – come back for a while to bite you. I bought puppy Cadbury from a breeder in Yorkshire after my father died unexpectedly in 2005 aged 61. I was a carefree young bachelor at the time. It is fair to say that this puppy’s arrival forced change in me overnight. He became my son and I his father. He taught me to be responsible for another – to feed, jab and water him. In return he helped me to grieve my own father. Within two years of our paths becoming one, I had moved out to the countryside, I was soon married, then came the children a few years later and our family of seven bound strong – with Cadbury a key part of the glue that united us. He witnessed it all, my old friend – his head resting on my wife’s belly as our babies first kicked; the bride across the threshold; he was there for the highs and the lows, the pain and the magic, come hail or shine.
Sure, Cadbury could be a clumsy choccie – occasionally his tail cleared a coffee table of fine china and every once in a while he’d run into a nappied rugrat sending them flying. He never stole anything, which is remarkable for a Lab. He could never bite, be vindictive or manipulative – he seemed somehow immune from evil. I recall one afternoon when the local Conservative MP came to speak to a crowd at my family house, Cadbury broke through to the front, grinned and then vomited at her feet – in retrospect, given her current undemocratic stance on Brexit, I’d suggest his puke was well-targeted.
I shall not forget Cadbury’s grin – so clear in the article feature photo above taken just one day before he died. In his younger years he would plunge from a pontoon into a lake and grin from ear to ear as he did so, often swimming happily past snakes. When I had my right leg rebuilt a couple of years back, he would sit right next to it and lick the scars to heal them when I dropped off to sleep. Whenever I left the house he’d sit by the front door in expectation of my return and when I returned he’d dance a merry dance (even if in the latter years his dance turned into more of an arthritic jig). His ashes shall soon sit on the bookcase beside the desk in my study but how I’d prefer that warm ball of fur beside my feet whose snoring I had to apologise for during conference calls to clients. I sincerely doubt that in this life I shall ever meet such a selfless and loyal creature again. To do so would be like winning the lottery twice and I do not believe in such remote odds.
I know you are waiting for me, my dearest friend, because a bond like our’s – your raison d’être – echoes for eternity. I pray that in the time left I am granted on this extraordinary planet, I shall somehow find a way to get somewhere near to the levels of kindness and honour that you have displayed to me and our family day in and day out during your lifetime of selfless service. For a reunion with you, My Dear Cadbury, will need a transcendence on my part. This is some burden with which you have left me. For we could only ever meet again in paradise.