IT’S 1998. I’M 21. Things are happening fast. I’ve dropped out of law and started a massage course in Fitzroy. My girlfriend of two weeks has moved in. And we’ve just brought a Staffy home for Christmas.
Only the dog would last.
She came from a backyard breeder in Morwell. The runt of the litter. The last one left. We named her Bridie.
We shared chaotic houses – parties, booze, arguments over nothing.
Bridie let us know if things got too
wild – pissing in our bed, chewing the furniture, ripping washing from the clothesline. But only my black jeans ever got the treatment. It was personal. My girlfriend left after five stormy years.
While Bridie stayed with my parents, I paid poor tribute to Jarvis Cocker and Irvine Welsh: a flat above a shop, heavy substance abuse and the worst toilet in Melbourne (or Scotland). There was no room for a dog, or much else.
By the time I hit 30, I was mostly stable, clean and with a new partner. Bridie rejoined me. So began a peaceful time of spacious backyards, long beach runs and endless games of fetch in Princes Park. But there were troubles along the way.
At various times she was crushed by a P-plater, savaged by a Husky, and – most seriously – sliced by a vet, who found malignant cancer. The surgery worked, but we always felt the lingering fear of its return. As the vet said, “It will probably get her in the end.”
In the end, though, after 16 years and four months, her little body had just had enough. Her kidneys were failing. There was internal bleeding. Her organs were giving up. They could treat her, but... then, those words. You have to decide if it’s the right thing to do.
In the awful fluorescence of the surgery, I held her close. The vet left the room. We debated the choice. But there was no choice. We had to let her go.
I told myself I was lucky to be with her at the end, but I didn’t believe it.
I told her she was a good girl, the best girl, the one who had seen me through. And I said it was okay to let go.
We held her in our arms while the vet injected the lethal dose, her body weak – but then relaxed – on a blue cotton towel on the linoleum floor.
Later we sat in silence with wet cheeks, red eyes and raw throats. Her empty basket in the corner, her water bowl half-full. Sleepless, I walked the dark streets to the vet where we’d last felt her warmth, just hours before.
I went to the back of the building, guessing where she might be resting. And I placed my hands against the cool, brick wall.
The next morning I rose early. The sun filled our living room with soft yellow light, and I ate my breakfast mechanically. Her basket was on the floor beside me, still empty in the warm sun. I felt a cold twisting in my stomach and heaving sobs rose fast in my chest. The pain was immense.
It was only later I began to understand – I had felt something of her in the house that morning. It was as though she had come home with me the night before. She was back. I could feel it. But I didn’t say anything.
The next morning my partner woke late and left in a rush, forgetting her phone – a necessity in her job. I drove fast through rain-slicked streets to the courthouse where she works. She met me outside. I handed her the phone. She studied it, quiet for a moment, then said softly: “This morning... She was there.”
She explained how, while she made the coffee, the hallway door had suddenly opened. Then, maybe ten seconds later, the bedroom door. “She was going to wake you,” she said, choking back tears. “Like she always did.”
Every day since, I have seen her. Rising slowly from her basket while I make my coffee. Waiting for me in the front seat of the car. Chasing away the doves in the backyard. But it won’t always be like this. We can’t hold on forever.
They say grief transforms us. But
so does life. And now, looking back, I realise I was never her owner and she was never my pet. I was her companion, while she was my guardian.
This Friday we pick up her ashes. It will feel good to bring her home. And we will let her go, for real this time.
» Mark Brandi is a Melbourne-based writer. See markbrandi.com.
This article first appeared in Ed#487 of The Big Issue.