I was with her as she died, my Ellie. I stroked her and tried to speak to my sweet little yellow dog like I always have done.
I tried to reassure her. I tried to reassure myself. But still, she left me and I felt a part of me close down.
She was just a few weeks old when she’d careered into our lives, a bundle of industrial strength energy, all white fur and pink belly and delicate, sharp little claws. She made a bee-line for the child of the house. She had found a new playmate and so had he. The sun shone the day she arrived.
She had that puppy smell that disappears far too soon – the smell of newness and innocence. It’s glorious.
She also had a friend to coach her in the ways of family life. She had the black Lab, Brody, a few years older, who showed incredible patience and love for her new pupil. Ellie settled in quickly, wrecked a few items, chewed some table legs, made a mess and got under everyone’s feet.
I’d thought that Ellie would be one of those dogs who would go on forever. At eleven she was an elderly dog but still had the inquisitive nature of a pup. She loved a good run and if water was involved she was in heaven. On New Year’s Day this year we took her to the beach and she was in the cold water in a flash, tail wagging and running back to us before bombing off again to charge once more into the waves. She seemed indestructible.
It was shocking when she got ill a few weeks ago. More shocking still when she was diagnosed with a heart tumour, and we were told she probably had just a few days to live.
Ellie was a good girl. She was loving beyond description and although she never had a problem with other dogs, she never showed as much interest in them as she did in people. She didn’t shy away from eye contact with a human. She loved to fix you with a stare, to be sure that your attention was all hers.
She was obedient and like most Labradors her motto seemed to be ‘We aim to please.’ She tried her very hardest to be good but her hunting instincts were strong and sometimes overwhelmed her. There was no guarantee, once she had the scent of something, that she would respond to a command, or do any of the things really well trained dogs do. It was our fault, not hers.
The little boy who had been her first playmate has now grown up. He came straight over to see her on the day she was diagnosed.
Catastrophic news can propel us through the air and some survival instinct makes us retreat into a bubble. We protect ourselves.
I was in a bubble that day. The outside world became quite irrelevant. It’s like being suspended in some kind of balm. It’s almost womb like. I guess it’s shock and maybe it’s just me that experiences it, but it’s happened before and it’ll happen again.
My son and I sat on the floor in the lounge, the poorly dog between us in her basket.
We talked, not just about the dog but about all sorts of things. It was strangely calming. We chatted about his career and he spoke about the lives of some of his friends – who’s back from Uni, who’d dropped out, who was seeing who. It was nice. It was our little bubble.
Some people credit dogs with an almost telepathic understanding of our feelings. I doubt they process the information they receive about emotions like we do but I’m quite sure they empathise in some way. And that’s enough. When your heart is aching, a dog has to just be there. They don’t have to perform some kind of remarkable feat to comfort you. They don’t have to mysteriously put their paw on your knee or carry a hip flask of brandy to you in their teeth. They just need to be what they always are. Our best friends, who give us unconditional love.
Ellie did that for us. Ellie was there when my marriage imploded, when Brody died, when I had to sell our family home, when I moved house and when my father died. She was a constant. I am blessed to have wonderful friends that were with me during those dark times and they did all they could. But of course they were not around at 3am when I lay awake and my head was pounding. It was the little yellow dog that was by my side then.
My son is so mature. Considering what a cynic I can be about anything ‘otherworldly’, I often wonder if he was here before. He is too wise for his age. So he was my rock during these times too, but he was growing in independence and becoming a man and he was not a constant in the same way. And all that had happened to me had happened to him too, he also had those changes to deal with on top of doing exams and leaving college and forging a career.
Ellie was constant. She gave the same, every day. She was a solid foundation for the new life we were building.
She may have had a very bleak prognosis but the little yellow dog had other ideas. She suddenly regained her appetite and started to tuck into poached chicken and fish. She reverted to the dog she had been a few days previously; alert, curious, and keen to get out for a walk.
Because of the pressure on her heart, the vet had said that she needed to be very careful with exercise. She might collapse again and maybe next time she wouldn’t get up. But I’ve always believed that a dog should be a dog. So that evening, the day after the diagnosis we took a walk and that’s when she saw the rabbit.
She loved chasing rabbits. She never caught one but I doubt she cared one iota; it was the pure joy and exhilaration she felt as she pursued them that lit her fire.
That night, she took off after her quarry. I held my breath. I knew there was a danger that she might fall to the ground but I let her be. If her last thought was, ‘WOOHOO!!! BUNNY RABBIT!’ that would be okay with me.
She survived. She survived that chase the next night and the night after that. She even began eating her usual dog food. Her tail wagged. She’d go and get a tennis ball and bring it to us wanting a game. She looked and acted like there was nothing wrong with her. But we knew there was. Two vets had seen her scan results and they had told us that she had cardial hemangiosarcoma. I looked it up. It’s referred to as the silent killer because most dogs show no symptoms until it’s advanced. It’s stealthy and evil and snatches these poor animals away from the lives they are enjoying and leaves the owners bereft and in shock, feeling as if they have had a cherished possession stolen from them. And it has been.
The little yellow dog adjusted to her life in a smaller house without her beloved Brody as well as she could. It can’t have be much fun for her though.
And then, like something out of a dream, she was transported, with me, to a new life.
Suddenly, there were two other dogs to play with. There was lots of land to explore. There were chickens and sheep, and she loved being with them and never, never did she scare them or chase them. She had more exercise, new people to make a fuss of her. She had a new ‘dad’ who tried to resist her but failed miserably. There was always something going on. Bonfires, tree cutting, gardening and veg growing and she was always there, in the thick of it. She wagged her tail so hard it would begin to rotate and she looked like some kind of helicopter. That tail wagged so much I thought she might take off.
I’m so happy we had those two weeks with Ellie.
Her ‘boy’ came to see her a few times on those rare warm and sunny days we had this spring. We sat in the garden and she mooched about, that tail constantly wagging. We took photographs of her and gave her treats and played ball. We knew it couldn’t last forever. But we hoped for a few more days, maybe another couple of weeks.
It was only on Sunday evening that things started to unravel. She’d been fine all day and sat with us in the lounge. When it was time to put the dogs to bed, they all got up but Ellie struggled.
We hoped it was just that her legs were stiff from spending too much time in her basket. But I felt my throat tighten because I could just sense it was more than that.
She staggered out to the garden, relieved herself and stumbled back in, almost falling onto her mat in the kitchen. She looked exhausted and confused.
We knew it wasn’t good. We stayed with her a while and watched her get comfortable and go off to sleep. We checked on her at 2am and she lifted her head to look at us.
She was sleeping but I couldn’t. I came back down stairs at about 4am and saw that she was now incredibly weak. She couldn’t even lift her head. I stayed with her and watched her fade. I knew what was coming. I don’t think she was in pain. I think she was just drifting. Her new dad appeared and I hope she felt how much she was loved. And then she left. She was gone.
The day she departed, it rained. The world was bleak and colourless.
So was I.
© 2018 Linny Bartlett
In memory of Ellie, 10.5.06 – 30.4.18