Grief, a dog and sunburnt skin

My dog died and I’m bereft. So I got drunk and took my clothes off.

I’m a well-known vampire. In my youth, I had a shot at fitting in with the cool crowd which involved donning the smallest bikini I could squeeze my triple-a cup “breasts” into, slathering myself in reef oil, unfurling the alfoil reflector to aim at my face to increase the uv rays from blistering to radioactive and then laying out under a high white Australian sun until nicely browned. Except I didn’t brown. I turned a mottled purple, peeled like desiccated coconut and eventually reverted to a blinding shade of white that would rival the late Shane Warne’s smile.

I accepted my fate early on and went Goth instead. It was so much better for my complexion and I didn’t have to try to smile at boys. Even in the most sweltering of heat, I’d clad myself head to toe in black, including my well-soaped sticky hair which was teased into a Sideshow-Bobesque spiky cloud that doubled as a sunshade. I walked in shadows like the night all through my teens and subsequent years thus avoiding, until now, even a coy flutter of sun on the palest parts of my person.

Then my dog died.

I don’t know what you do when your dog dies. What are you supposed to do? Coping with death has happened before and it is not a case of practice making anything more than its own perfect kind of hell, frankly. I miss him so much. My husband is heartbroken. In the last two years, both of our beautiful dogs have left us and we are not ok. We have become a household without dogs, a soulless, grim, too-quiet affair without smelly beds and barking for no reason at odd hours, without grime marks on the wall or hair all over the sofa. Without the weight of a purposeful steady gaze at precisely five to four every day just before dinner. Without a wet nose pushing under our hands to artfully guide us into a pat, without the clatter of claws on the floorboards at night, without the scrape of a paw at the door to come in, seconds after we had let him out.

Our Huey sunk into a deep depression when his brother Jo went first a couple of years ago at 17. Huey aged quickly then, he slept a lot and struggled to walk any distance. But he still loved the beach, he still visibly perked when he saw us get into our bathers, he still erupted into the water like an arrow from a bow, he still swam in circles around my husband then rested in his arms in deep water, staring calmly into the blue as he had done every single swim since he was a puppy. He still dug for his ball or carried it into the shallows to drop it in water only to snatch it up, drop it and snatch it up again, over and over in a game only he understood. He still waited in studied nonchalance on the shore with his ball in his mouth, ever hopeful another dog might try to steal it away so he could thwart them with a clever feint and dodge. He still loved us. He still sat at my husband’s feet, gazing up at him, chin resting heavy on his knee or his foot in an enviable satisfaction with his lot in life.

When Huey got sick, it was fast. A terminal cancer. We made the terrible decision quickly, without too much doubt. We are both of the opinion if your dog has an incurable disease, is facing any prospect of suffering and you try to keep them alive then you really have to ask yourself who you’re trying to protect. But certainty doesn’t help. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t help the guilt, and it doesn’t stem the grief.

Both of our boys died in their later years, and I know we should be thankful. I know to nod or try to smile in agreement when someone well-meaning tells me he reached a good age or even sounds surprised he lived as long as he did. I feel so savage when I hear it. There is no good age. There is only this age. There is only his absence. There is only our grief.

We did not cope. First, we took ourselves across the country to inflict our sorry selves on friends celebrating significant events. A 50th birthday, a belated 50th birthday, a wedding. So much joy and our hearts were full for them. And these were real friends, who take you even, especially, when you’re broken. I’m glad we went, even if we weren’t great company. But you always have to come home, and that’s where the shadows lay in wait. We have been like dogs in pain ourselves since, turning in useless circles, pacing, restless, bewildered, snappy and impatient with each other and ourselves.

We have a lovely love though, even or especially when adrift. However wretched we might feel we can always fall back on this truth. It’s a love that allows for imperfection, it offers room for sorrow and all the various uncomfortable and ugly ways it can manifest. We tread softly when we need to. And we have needed to a lot. Often we have to stop and remind each other, but it’s been the spine of our love for such a long time now, once we remember, we find our way back to what matters pretty quickly. I am very grateful for that.

So, after a stretch of uncomfortable manifestations and no small amount of imperfections, one recent Saturday coincided with the first sunny day Perth had seen for some time. We’d had a long winter, bleak, grey, relentless rain. We had a couple of days with no commitments and the sun emerged, shyly and with perfect timing through cloud like a friend.

Gosh it felt like a long time since we’d had any fun. (Though in reality, we had a very good time at the aforementioned parties even if we did frighten the horses now and then.) We felt renewed, hopeful, like the light could wash us clean. Obviously this called for champagne. And a lot of it.

Maybe it was the sun, maybe it was the company, maybe it was the three (or was it four) bottles of champagne, who can say? But suddenly it seemed like the greatest idea in the world to whip off our dacks and sit there in our respective glory, listening to music, soaking up the rays. How we drank, how we laughed, how we cried, how we sang, how we barely ate a thing to soak up the booze, how we didn’t consider the precarious state of our grandchildren’s mental health should they arrive unexpectedly and come round the back. It was, insomuch as I remember, a wonderful, wonderful day.

It was not until the next morning when we woke with piercing headaches, my love arose to make me a coffee and I repaid this gesture of merciful devotion with a wild shriek of mirth. “You’re burnt,” I said, charged with the righteous confidence of one who is so sun-conscious and self-conscious, they never take off their neck-to-knee swimming costume or their wide-brimmed hat even in the dead of winter. “So are you,” he said in return, oily with the glee of one who is handed immediate and welcome revenge. Was I ever. The only parts of my skin spared the sear of the sun was the underside of the rolls of fat on my menopausal belly. I looked like a previously undiscovered species of striped sea slug.

A week or so later the blinding glare of the tomato hue has faded to an unattractive dull magenta and the stripes remain. But worth it. I am reminded there is joy in the ridiculous, peace to be found in speaking your heart aloud to someone who loves you, and that given that I am female, over 50 and invisible, I can wear what I like. Including nothing.

I still miss our dog. I miss our dog. I miss our dog. I love you my boy.

6 thoughts on “Grief, a dog and sunburnt skin

  1. So raw and real. All the emotions we felt when we lost our Portia this year. My son is pestering for us to get another dog, I’m still in turmoil, do I have the mental energy to let another fur baby into my heart ?☝️🤫❤️

    Like

  2. Our dog left us in December. We still have his basket under the coffee table, hopeful by some witchery or magic he’ll return. We share your sadness that is captured so honestly in your writing.
    I’m glad you said goodbye to radio to share your writer’s voice with us all. Thankyou

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Growing up in a similar era and district to you Gillo, I can totally relate to this story and the evocative and raw way you have written it . Thankyou for reminding me that having a dog in an empty nest house is a fleeting and precious thing. Our 4 yo Groodle does all the things you describe , and it became apparent, in reading your wonderful story, that it is not a matter of IF we will experience the crushing empty loss, but WHEN . Thankyou for gently reminding of this fact .

    Liked by 1 person

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