Jordan, my beloved friend, is dead. The lines from Wordsworth are perhaps a little hyperbolic, but seem to fit. The insult of death, especially when it’s sudden, has a melodramatic aspect to it.Surprised by joy—impatient as the WindI turned to share the transport—Oh! with whomBut Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,That spot which no vicissitude can find?Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
Jordan (a pseudonym) was the ginger-coloured spaniel of my elder sister and her family. Only seven years old, he had a tumour on the liver. It wasn’t diagnosed until a few days before his death – he'd stopped eating and had no energy. My brother-in-law rang me on the Tuesday night at about six pm and told me that Jordan was going to be put to sleep the following day. Would I like to come over and say goodbye?
When I got there an open fire was burning in the lounge room and a lamp cast a soft light. Jordan lay on a rug in front of the fire, surrounded by his immediate family along with another of my sisters and her two daughters. At the sight of me he lifted his head and his bushy tail wagged for a second or two. I sobbed into his fur. But he was not the playful puppy I loved. He was a very sick dog who was focused on the business of dying, and who had to be stroked carefully for fear of hurting him.
For the first few years of his life I walked him twice a week, usually in mid-morning, at the nearby Ainslie Park. This was the source of the intimacy we shared, when we revelled in the wind and the trees and the feeling of freedom. I wrote a few blog entries on our fun times and travails, and the ongoing conflict with my sister and her husband over their treatment of Jordan.
I taught him to heel and to stay, and unsuccessfully tried to teach him to return the ball. Whether he would do the latter was conditional on whether you had a treat ready to give him – he’d have ‘a bob both ways’, throwing the ball down with his mouth and then quickly nosing at my hand for the treat, then picking the ball up again if the hand was empty. ‘Jordan, the point to giving the ball back is that I can throw it again!’ But all my efforts were in vain. Still, he heeled and stayed like a true champ.
On one of our typical walks, we stagger along the picturesque walkway with its crunchy white gravel, cross narrow Ainslie Road and we’re at the park entrance, Jordan pulling at the leash and frantically sniffing any dogs arriving and departing (his heeling skills would manifest in inverse proportion to our closeness to the park). Passing under the winding avenue of large elm trees, I tell him we are nearing the oval, knowing that dogs understand some English (the average number of words is apparently 165).
When we get there I lean down and unclip the leash from his collar, feeling the little torso quiver in anticipation. ‘Free!’ I yell like a demented army sergeant, wanting to make the distinction clear between the discipline of the paths and the liberty of the oval. He dashes off for a while as if I’m his sworn enemy and then slows down and seems to lose focus. He is caught by the rich cocktail of smells locked in the grass. From now on he will alternate between a complete absorption in these messages and a focus on me and the other dogs.
He is always a little lost, a little confused, a bit ADD. I don’t think he’s dumb though – I think it’s a case of overstimulation. There are too many messages pinging across to those extraordinary olfactory nerves. One of his favourite things to do in the park is to roll on the grass, bathing himself in the scents of manure and whatever else he can smell (apparently wolves do this in order to bring information back to the pack). He always has a far-off, blissed-out expression when he does this.
Under my uneven supervision, Jordan cheated death a couple of times, disappearing in the direction of busy Wattle Road on one occasion, and dashing across the quiet street at the back of the park on the other, when there luckily happened to be no cars on it. (The risk I took in regularly walking someone else’s dog – I shudder at it. There were other incidents too – dogs, people and sometimes kids and babies make for scary combinations and I was out of my depth sometimes.)
The saddest thing – which I don’t want to write about but must – is that I had abandoned Jordan before his death; put the relationships with my sister and her husband in the too-hard basket, and therefore my friendship with him. It was part of my growing ‘maturity’, to accept that I wasn’t close to the family and therefore couldn’t hope to be close to their dog. (Meanwhile my interactions with the neglected puppies in the semi-detached next door were childishly passive-aggressive towards their owner.)
But it was true, I didn’t feel welcome at his house. And his life was sad; he told me as much the last time I took him to the park. I think it was January, I don’t remember exactly, when I decided on a whim to ring up and ask to take him on a walk and the answer was yes, of course. He wasn’t getting enough exercise at this point and by the age of about six had become portly, as well as stiff from a disc injury. We had a lovely roam that day, but at one point he grew sad and we sat on the grass and he looked pensive, slowly blinking those impossibly long eyelashes.
That walk was the last time I saw him well, as the Jordan I knew and loved. I found his life hard to witness; easier to stay away and whinge about the way our society treats dogs and congratulate myself on not having one myself.
How much did my early support make his loneliness harder to bear? Did he wonder when I was coming next? How much did he suffer and how much of that suffering was related to me? There are no answers to these questions.
Yet it’s not guilt I feel exactly, just regret. What this has taught me is that you cannot simply sever a connection of longstanding with someone just because they aren’t human. The connection remains. I have no doubt that Jordan remembered me and regretted my absence from his life.
My initial grief was quite bitter and full of despair for the loneliness of his life. But now, less than a week later, I’m able to take a more balanced view. His life wasn’t all sadness. There were family holidays to the New South Wales coast, walks with my sister, and pats in the evenings in front of TV. He had wormed his way inside the house from being an outside dog, and for the last six months of his life slept in my sister and her husband’s bedroom. Also, various renovations of my sister’s house have been going on for years, and the builders often brought their dogs along with them (tradies often seem to have strong bonds with their dogs). And even though he was alone too much, he lived in the moment, and could rise to puppy excitement as soon as the prospect of interaction presented itself.
One impediment to the grieving process is that no memorial service is planned. In the absence of that, my perfect funeral for him is played in my head, a mixture of inspiring songs and stories about his escapades.
I sit at my computer and play those songs on YouTube. The following have provided much comfort: ‘Short note’ by Matt Finish, ‘I sing the body electric’ from the film Fame, and ‘The valley’, soulfully sung by the inimitable KD. Leo Sayer in his early emo period has been helpful. The soppiest Barbara Streisand standards have been inevitable.
The absence of a funeral also sent me on a return visit to the park last weekend, to see what it was like without him and to understand. I sat alone on a bench at the edge of the oval in my sunglasses, melodramatic as a movie star. The dead leaves from the elm tree above me tinkled down a few at a time. The sky couldn’t decide what it was doing – there were long brushes of cirrus as well as bits of cumulus cloud. The light felt wrong – overcast and glare-y at the same time. The few dog owners and their dogs seemed a long way away; the dogs looked like yearlings, just overgrown puppies. I didn’t know any of them. None of the people I had got to know at the park were there. The sense of time having passed was excruciating. I realised that the park and Jordan and I had long finished – and I was mourning that period of my life for the first time.
It’s the very physicality of dogs that makes it harrowing to mourn them. Our relationships with them have less cerebral content than those we share with humans, and are based on the shared experience of the moment. I find it hard to picture Jordan’s face, and although I hadn’t seen him for ages until the night before he died, part of the reason for the lack of a mental image is the sense that his essence was expressed in motion rather than speech. Jordan's essence - that of a sometimes daffy 'people person' with a stubborn streak, who knew his own mind, was loyal to a fault and endlessly optimistic - is still with me and I hope always will be.
Farewell, my darling. Thanks for the happy times. Your aunty misses you so much, but she knows that you're no longer suffering and is endlessly grateful for your loving friendship.
PS: The photo above isn't of Jordan, but is an uncanny likeness of him as a puppy from the Dogs Trust website.