This is the one I knew I would one day have to write, but hoped, with all the wild magical thinking at my disposal, that I might somehow avoid.
There is no good way to say it, so I’m just going to do it fast.
The Pigeon is going to have to be put down.
I stare at that bald sentence on the screen; my fingers stop, unsure which key to press next; my heart hammers in my chest. It is all stupid and wrong and bad. This life should not stop. All lives stop, but there is a rage in me against the dying of the light.
She developed an ear infection a while ago. Tumours were mentioned. Then it seemed it was just an infection after all. Then a huge polyp was found and removed. It was malignant but slow-growing and seemed not to have gone into the lymph nodes. There was hope, which is why I did not write about it. I was in high denial. Of course she would be fine. My vet is the best in the world. She is so bright and bonny and brave and strong. Her nose was wet, she was romping about, she was not shaking her head or scratching at the ear, she was eating, she was chasing her ball. (When she stops chasing the ball, we are in world of trouble.)
Then the thing exploded into a ghastly horror show of pus and brown ooze, despite antibiotics, and I rushed up to the vet today, and he told me, in his kind, direct way, that we are into the last days. They could do a dramatic procedure and take half her ear out, but the outcome of that is not guaranteed, and I can’t do it to such an old lady.
I left her there, in the tender care of this brilliant veterinarian, who has known her since she was a puppy. They are cleaning out the poor ear and putting her on very strong drugs. I go back to get her at five. She will stay with me for as long as I can keep her comfortable. It may be three days, it may be three weeks. And then the decision must be made.
I am forty-five years old. Despite a strong streak of flakiness and goofiness and moments of rank idiocy, I am a grown-up, or as close as I shall ever get. In my more self-regarding moments, I like to think of myself as an independent female. I’ve seen a bit of life. But this, this, reduces me to a state of helpless childishness. I am swamped by streaming, hopeless tears.
I used to be ashamed of such uncontrolled displays of emotion; when I wept for the Duchess there was a part of me that said it was unseemly, that I should have more gumption and stoicism and stiff upper lip, because it was only a dog, because there were worse things happening in Chad.
In those dark days, my sister said a wise thing. She said: ‘love is love.’ What she meant was: there’s no such thing as only a dog. It doesn’t matter if it is a canine or a human who has your heart, that heart will break, just the same.
My heart is breaking.
I have some experience of this. Last year, it was my father and my other dog, in quick succession. The heart broke. Slowly, carefully, I put the pieces back together. That is what we all do; it is part of the human condition. The pieces are glued into place, because you can’t just fall apart, you have to keep bashing on. Grief is part of life; it is the central part of love. The pieces go back, but what I have learnt is that the cracks remain. It shocked me sometimes how deep they were, how they could open up again at the smallest thing, presaging a storm of grief, no matter how much time has passed.
Love is love. It damn well should leave cracks. I started to see them as a sort of map, where I could trace the beloveds, and mark them well.
Now, that process starts all over again.
I want to say I don’t know what I shall do, but actually I do. Luckily, all the family were still gathered from the wedding. The Sister, the Brother-in-Law, both nieces, the Man in the Hat, folded themselves round me, as if forming a physical honour guard against the horrid reality, as if by their very presence they could hold my battered heart together. The Mother and the lovely Stepfather were as devastated as I. The Pigeon goes to them every morning, when I go up to do the horse; she has breakfast with them and lies on my mother’s bed for love. My poor mum is not very well herself; the Pidge is her best therapy dog.
So I have that. That is what I shall do. Keep myself in the stronghold of that extended family; work, grieve, put the pieces back together. I expect the perspective police might send me a note. I may read it. There shall be nights when I shall call on strong liquor.
The thing I find I can’t do, as I write these stuttering words, is talk about her. It’s too soon for that. Those Dear Readers come regularly to these pages, who are so fond of her, who leave such lovely comments about her, know well her sweetness, her funniness, her beauty, her grace. She has the kindest nature of any dog I ever met. She has ears as soft as velvet and eyes as bright as diamonds.
I had been thinking lately that I had not written much of her. I had gone off on long divagations about the mare, about my new equine life, about Frankel, about HorseBack, about almost anything, in fact, except the Pigeon. I only worked out recently why that was.
It was, I am ashamed to say, fear.
I knew that we were going into the twilight years, and the swooping bird of loss was hovering over my head. I could not write about her, because in some nutty way I thought that if I did it would be an admission of that brutal fact, and I wanted to pretend for a while longer. I would not record the final days because they were not going to be final. I would keep her going until she was seventeen and she would be a wonder dog and everyone would gasp in awe and disbelief.
Now I think to myself: you idiot. You should have written every single snuffle and wiggle and jump for joy; you should have put down each morning sweetness and evening dearness. Every day she had a good story, and I did not write it. Even though I know it is understandable, I am angry about that.
I don’t really know how to end this. All my writing training says there must be a good ending, a proper final sentence, something that sends the piece out with a bang, not a whimper. But there is no good ending. Words, the things by which I make my living, the entities which are my passion and delight, falter when it comes to loss and death and heartbreak. It’s why writing those awful condolence letters is so hard. What chance do feeble scratches have on a page, up against the mightiness and finality of death?
And yet, however paltry, however halting, however thin and unpoetical, those words are important. Even the short sympathy of saying sorry means something; the transmission of a kind thought, the literary equivalent of a bowed head.
All I know are words; all I have ever done in times of trouble is try to write it down. The words themselves may fall into platitude; they are small things; but they are all I have.
'Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.'
I have no good ending. The words I have left are the short bald ones. Love, loss, sad, bad, grief, end. I shall scrabble about in time, and find the better ones: courage, hope, light, life. I shall have my lovely old lady for a few more precious days. We shall, in the fleeting time left to us, summon the spirit of Churchill (Churchill and Shakespeare; my two stalwart fellows in times of travail), and keep buggering on.