Sorrow is a lake, fathomless and wide, but grief is always a cascade. It roars. It sweeps all before it. Grief ever threatens to carry us under.
This week I grieved. Next week if I am lucky the torrent will have slowed and spread and covered all the contours of what lies beneath with mere sorrow.
My old and most faithful friend is gone.
Her name was Sophie. A Labrador of loving mien and golden hue. As much a member of our family as anyone who walked with her, or filled her bowl.
Full sixteen summers and winters long she came with me into those imagined places where I worked every day, me at my writing, Sophie curled up at my feet, her tail thumping on the cold concrete, a metronome measure of progress through every novel and essay and column. She was patient, content to wait for some sign that I was done with nonsense and reverie and we might be free to make haste to park or river or garden, there to chase the ball or stick, but never, ever to bring it back.
It was not that Sophie was terrible at fetch, just that she had dignity, I think, and having been so caught up in the mad chase after whatever had been so recklessly thrown away, she realised in the act of capturing the far flung stick or bouncing tennis ball that none of this was her responsibility, and certainly not her fault, and if anyone should be made to cover so much ground it should be me, the idiot who lost control of the thrown object in the first place.
This was many years ago, of course. As the years piled on, the bones grew tired. The thumping of her tail slowed. But even as an ancient of the dog park, she would patter about for a minute or three, sniffing deeply of the nearest passing butt, but never deigning to pursue a sniff which somehow escaped her initial curiosity. Leaping and bounding, whereby I mean shuffling and rearing just an inch or two, she would still expect the ball to be thrown with all the might of my once-upon-a-time fast bowler’s arm.
And then she would grin and repair directly to her rest under a spreading tree while our younger pup tore about in immoderate derangement and Jane or I or one of the kids chased whatever missile we had been fool enough to loose on her behalf.
She was a fine guardian of our family.
Twice she stood her post against intruders, letting them know with hackles raised and valorous bark that none would pass. Even on her very last day with us, she sat the step where she had long rested to catch the sun, and all morning she did loudly ward off trespassers. Perhaps, it’s true, they were only random strollers in our street, but Sophie had her charge, and none would pass.
Until of course she passed.
Sixteen is a venerable age for any dog, but for a Lab it is a personal millennia. For as long as Sophie retained a gleam in her eye, a ready smile for a pat, and her injudicious appetite, we were happy to do what we could to keep her with us and comfortable in her creeping infirmity.
Even slow and hobbled by great age she would sometimes surprise with a gymnastic feat, perhaps a leap onto a coffee table where a wedge of brie had been left defenceless.
Time is unforgiving. Our loves, our hopes, our conceits all fall before the scythe. The last few years, when Sophie would amaze with some unlikely prowess or attainment—a sudden burst of speed, that unexpected vault onto the cheese—I would call out, “You’ve still got it, Soph’”, or “Like a panther!”
But the years piled on, heavier with ill intent.
I started to carry her up and down stairs.
The drugs we gave her for her stiffness and her pain, we knew would one day come around again and demand their due. When it happened, it happened very quickly. For weeks she had been slowing and straining and taking ever more care within the brief rounds she would make of all her favourite spots. The rug in the library. The front verandah affording her a captain’s view of the street beyond. The crossroads of the kitchen.
She remained happy and kind-hearted and the vet would tell me at the end that she was a dog who would never give up. She would not just want to be there, she would always want to be there for us.
But eventually we had to take her off the strongest of her medication, mindful that when she started on it they had warned us it would one day be the end of her. The beginning of the end came on Saturday. I took her to the surgery and they confirmed she probably had just a few days left.
Sunday, her last morning, she had turkey for breakfast and a little cheese for a treat. Aged Comté. Most agreeable. We sat with her on the front deck while my daughter rushed back from the beach where she had been holidaying with friends after her exams.
We took photographs.
We revisited all those good memories you can collect across the span of sixteen years.
When the time came I carried her to the car and we drove away from the house one last time, past the park where she had once been a white streak, blurring past laggard kelpies and disgracefully slow border collies. We drove east, towards the coast, the sand and the water she had loved so much. We had always meant for her to draw her last breath at home, on that rug in the library, but it being Sunday the vets could not spare anyone to make the call.
They did what they could for her, and for us.
She panted and smiled took all the pats and hugs which she was due. A bowl of ice cream appeared, and delighted with the surprise she fell upon it, feasting on Ben and Jerry’s Cookies-N-Cream and surfing a cocktail of happy drugs.
There were tears, and as was Sophie’s way, she tried to comfort us while she could. But the drugs were powerful and soon enough she put her head down for a sleep. But just a sleep.
When I left, my old friend was snoring loudly and smiling as happily as I had seen her smile in an age.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang…
… This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.