It’s the little things . . .

Jack in Brighton 2005 . . . and not always the good ones, either, which bring us close to someone in our hearts. Monday next will be the fifth anniversary of Uncle Johnny’s death, at the age of nearly fifteen. A splendid beast and friend, only two failings marred an otherwise steadfast and reliable character. The first was his chronic susceptibility to gastric incidents, an affliction common in golden retrievers – known for their intestinal sensitivities. From a relatively young age he would, from time to time, but on a regular basis, be afflicted by an upset stomach and it usually struck in the middle of the night, when he would summon Kemo Sabe to the back door – where she would find him standing ready to go outside – with a single, insistent ‘woof’.  There followed a protracted wait, while he dawdled and dragged himself around the garden waiting for his insides to sort themselves out and he was ready to crouch and produce something. Sometimes the wait went on and on. There was no point insisting he come indoors before  he was ready, as he would only have to repeat the call to action again, often just as (eventually) Kemo Sabe had finally managed to drop off again.

Jack's blanketThe number and nature of those lost and broken sleeps are still vivid, but for a different reason. At the end of his life Uncle Johnny and Kemo Sabe developed a routine: every night she expected his call and, when it came, downstairs she went and let him into the garden. It was no bother; there was no work the next day and, besides, Johnny seemed keen to pop in and out quickly. When he no longer called her and, when he no longer could do so – having left us for a life without incontinence – the aching emptiness was acute.  Similarly his other little quirk: a devilish refusal, from time to time, but on a regular basis, to come and be put on the lead at the end of an outing. The hilarity of this defiance was an obvious and utter joy to him, though it drove everyone mad, with hours spent trying to ‘catch’ or corner him as he ran mockingly just out of reach, evading all comers. These were his ‘faults’, what made our old Uncle Johnny what he was, though it was easy when he was with us to wish him otherwise. But, when we think of him, it is these funny ways we remember first. The curious individualities which cause rows and drive our infuriated friends and family away are the lifeblood of the single soul we know and love. Dear Johnny, we tell young Nico (who knew you only before he came to us from that other world, where you grasp every creature to your furry chest, before birth and after death), all about you and your last day with us – the beef pies, the bowl of tea, the walk on your favourite bit of beach, Lucy’s kind gaze and gentle hands. And when she thinks of us boys with our irritating ways – my excitability and noise, NuNu’s vacancy and obsession with seaweed, Barnaby’s clinginess and tendency to sulk if he can’t have the baby he wants – Kemo Sabe ponders a time when all of these odds are made even, but the world will have gone awry, since nothing will be but what is not.

So, we salute you our dear, dear friend! Let us love each other and our foibles, and be glad.

A Lily lost

lily-close-upLast month I wrote in the post called  Pictures of Lily about Barnaby’s little cousin – then not six months old – who was born with a deformed left leg such that she could not place it flat to the ground. In the earlier post, I made mention of her upcoming appointment with Professor Noel Fitzpatrick, with whom British television audiences are familiar from his Channel 4 series, The Supervet, in which he treats injured animals or those with life-changing deformations, and which would otherwise have to be euthanised. Well, Professor Firzpatrick saw Lily early this month and I thought I should tell you what happened because all of life is reflected in my posts, even the difficult bits.

After all the necessary scans were done, Professor Fitzpatrick could see that Lily’s skeletal problems also extended to her ‘good’ leg; that her right shoulder was also deformed, and that before anything could be attempted to improve her left leg and foot she would have needed interventions on the right one first, but with no guarantee of success. As there was a very good chance that both legs would fail, and of course Lily simply wouldn’t be able to manage without any, Professor Fitzpatrick himself recommended as the first course of action in the circumstances putting Lily to sleep as being in her own best interests – though he would have been willing to try to begin rectifying this complicated state of affairs if that is what her breeder and family wanted more than anything, and they wanted him to put what they wanted before anything else.

lily-and-travis-close-upBut we dogs know that our best interests are what those who love us care about, and so Lily’s future happiness was put first. Indeed, that wonderful, gifted vet stayed with Lily and helped her over the rainbow bridge himself. She has had six months of happiness, managing on her three front legs, but she still had an awful lot of growing to do before she reached her adult size and weight (Uncles Newman and Barnaby weigh in at over 30 kilos). We are glad that the Professor is so strong in his love for us dogs that he refuses short-term financial gain in order to protect Lily from the pain and indignity of endless intrusions, which she could but imperfectly understand, not to mention weeks away from home, and in all likelihood to no good effect in the long run. Now she can dream of her childhood with Travis, and the family who loved her and will remember the joy this little fragrant flower brought them for the time she enjoyed their company. Bless you, little Lily: say hello to Uncle Johnny for us, won’t you?




Wilkins Micawber

Willie BWWilkins Micawber, known as Willie, was the second of the Dickens Dogs. Willie was wonderful: big-boned, furry, gentle, sweet-natured and enormous fun. Uncle Johnny told me that when he was just a little puppy on holiday up here in Northumberland with Willie they had such a great time together – running, tumbling, letting go; every day was an adventure. Although Uncle Tommy was nearer in age to young Johnny, it was dear old Willie who was fun and, though Willie wasn’t a very bright crayon, in many ways he shines brightest of all because he was simply so very good. He was a kind of saint – the Prince Myshkin of Dickens Dogs.

He was born in the Black Country, in Tipton, laughingly called ‘the Venice of the Midlands’, one of ten pups, out of which litter one died. I expect he used to think about his lost litter-mate: I would have done.  When he was collected in the spring, and was being lifted gently into the car, Old Noggsy (the original Newman Noggs) gave a look of resignation and generously made room in his world, thereafter allowing the new family member to have whatever he wanted. He was like that. In fact, I have noticed how all golden retrievers share this exceptional open-heartedness. They are very kind dogs.  Very content in their essential dogginess; very centred.

Willie and Newman became a good team, moving around the country as lives changed: as a duo they were a by-word for reliability. Indeed, like all goldens, they were always there! When Willie was two he took a funny turn and the vet said he had had an epileptic fit (I said he was like Prince Myshkin). Though he went on to have more from time to time, he didn’t need medication until he was about six. As it turned out he was really suited to the pills and the rest of his life passed without incident. He lived until he was nearly thirteen and to this day is the only Dickens Dog to have died in his own time: he had a heart attack and dropped down dead in his garden.

Willie’s greatest love was swimming and he was terrific at it.  This was discovered when he was really young, on his first break away at the Devon seaside, one winter’s day when the wind was wild and the waves were rolling in. Because Uncle Noggsy didn’t like getting into water much, and certainly wouldn’t have ventured in under such appalling weather conditions, they were staggered when Willie became incredibly excited as they descended the steep path to the little cove. He gathered pace and began to bark in anticipation as the smell of the sea drew closer, much to everyone’s amazement, and when he finally got on the shingle he ran into the water, into the massive waves, as though fulfilling his destiny.  Astonishment! The size and ferocity of the waves concerned him not a jot: it was love at first sight! After that, though he didn’t live by the sea himself, whenever he got the chance he was straight in there, and was never happier than when joined by one or other of the family.

Newman and Willie (2)
Old Uncle Noggsy and Willie

Willie had a lovely temperament, ever gentle and loving, ever happy and positive – his simplicity and goodness are a lesson to us all: in no way could being more intelligent have improved him one little bit. Right to the end of his life, when his back legs had failed miserably and the arthritis made running an impossibility, he still leapt out of the back of the car ready for anything, having forgotten he’d only get about ten yards before his rear end gave way. It didn’t matter to him as he lived every moment to the full. He was a glorious golden boy and we will always remember him with enormous love. Once towards the end of his life, when his hearing and eyesight had deteriorated, a person who didn’t know him well got annoyed that his big frame was in the way in a narrow corridor and they smacked him for being there. There was much dismay and the person concerned eventually left the Dickens Dogs’ lives. Uncle Johnny never forgot that. He said it was a betrayal and one of the most indefensible acts he ever witnessed.

Lights, camera, Johnny

IMG_0168Today is the fourth anniversary of the passing of Uncle Johnny. As if in awe of this terrible day, the winds have been blowing ferociously for the past twelve hours, literally threatening to raise the roof and keeping us all awake with worry, and the skies are as leaden and unpromising as they have been all week. This is the worst weather we have had up here in the north east since our Johnny died. Moreover, we are promised yet another twelve hours of this frightful gale, which has brought the railways to a halt, closed the A1, raised the waters in creeks and rivers alike, depositing it on the fields and golf courses, and kept the lobsters uncollected in their pots at the bottom of the sea.

The picture above shows clearly how different things were the day Uncle Johnny went from us: here he is on the left, wearing his jaunty but ill-fitting Barbour waterproof, and barking in joy at the blinding December sun which greeted him, Newman and Barnaby on the beach that morning. Despite the pain in his tummy, despite the slowness of his gait, he stretched his neck in joy as he always did and, when he returned home to tell me about his walk – I being then a boy of only a few weeks – the sun shone on me too. After all, he said, he had a couple of Alan’s home-made beef pies to look forward to, and a lovely sleep on the sofa before Lucy the Vet was due to come; so cheer up, everyone, it’s a sunny, wonderful day!  Uncle Johnny, like Mr Dick, always set us right.  Whatever the weather.

IMG_0227Another member of our family died last week, so another funeral will soon be taking place. No matter what death and the wind are doing, though, we hold firm to the fact that tomorrow is the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, when from the one light many more are generated; it is also the feast of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, on the celebration of whose day many cultures give and receive their seasonal presents in recognition of his generous goodness. We all keep in mind, though it is often hard to do, that though illness, misery, loss, division, cruelty and darkness of all kinds stalk our days, goodness and light endure and increase, and that ever nearer comes that miraculous turning point in the calendar when the sun moves closer to us again: when symbolism and faith are rewarded in actuality. And in our hearts we remember our dear Uncle Johnny, of blessed memory, whose love of shortbread fingers and the day he stole them makes us laugh still, and whose love for us burns as deeply as ever.