Billy is sixteen and a half, a fine age for a dog and he has outlived all his peers: his mother, Trixie and father, Buster and all his brothers and sisters who scrambled over each other in the box when we came to choose him. He stood out, bold and independent and that, and his pretty markings and intelligent face meant that he was the dog for us. He was a lively and intelligent dog who chased balls and birds and dug for stones and could rip open Christmas presents faster than any five year old. He accompanied John on countless runs over the Kent Downs and reliably covered twice as many miles because of his pursuit of rabbits. The sound of his frantic barking getting fainter and fainter as he ran over the hill and a long way off after phantom bunnies is the sound of my children’s childhood. That and my equally frantic calling him back.
He has outlived both the other dogs we acquired after him: neither of them got to grow old. They were put to sleep because of weariiness and disease and, while they were weakened, both were steady on their feet until the day they died.
But Billy isn’t. He sometimes slips and staggers. When I lifted him out of the car for his walk this morning ( he makes as if to jump but can’t actually) he didn’t brace his legs to meet the ground and ended up limbs splayed in an undignified fashion like Bambi. Do dogs have a sense of their own dignity? I don’t know, it pained me to see it but he scrambled up and limped on. And he does limp. He limps and hobbles despite the medication we secrete in Milky Ways and turkey ham. He is deaf and his eyesight is failing. He will stand behind an open door waiting for someone to let him in.
He doesn’t walk far and is picky about where he wants to go. Nowhere with long grass or hard pavement. Uneven ground doesn’t suit him either. He has a favourite walk which we call the Afghans – because of a kennels nearby which seems to house a lot of Afghan hounds. The Afghans is an out and back walk through beech woodland. It’s pretty but can get dull day after day. He likes sniffing and loitering round trees, but he walks very slowly and some way behind me and when I turn, he stops, as if we are playing Grandmother’s footsteps. If I walk back to him, he turns round and heads back to the car as if he’s pleased that at last the walk is over, and strangely he then picks up the pace and looks quite sprightly. You wonder, (I wonder), if it’s worth it.
Tricky isn’t it? But then what is left to him?
He still enjoys visitors. He can’t hear the front door bell but when he sees old friends he is still waggy and excited. He remembers. He doesn’t like new people much unless they have a dog treat in their pocket in which case he can fix them with a meaningful stare and even bark at the pocket until they get the idea and cough up. We have a steel bucket which has some stinky dog treat in, not jerky but tripe or something vile, he sits by that until I open in and reach in to give him some, holding my breath all the while.
He loves John and tries to play chase. It’s like watching a slow motion game, John ever so gently running round the garden and playing peepo behind the trees. It doesn’t last long and then he goes for a long lie down, Billy that is.
He is still a whizz with wrapping paper despite wobbly teeth and fewer of them.
When he’s finished his dinner, he goes for a good long roll and rub on the rug, or if it’s warm he’ll roll on the lawn.
More and more of his time is spent asleep in his bed, he rarely sunbathes these days. He snores gently and twitches, whining, dreaming of chasing those rabbits and sometimes is so still that I wonder if he has gone. This would be my best hope for him, that he drifts away one afternoon with his tummy full of chicken and rice.
The part in Watership Down when the black rabbit comes for Hazel still has the power to make me weep.
We have had an entire narrative of Hazel’s adventures and discovery of wisdom. When you have a dog from a puppy it’s the same, your life bookends theirs, you know their whole history, all they were and are. It will be horribly sad when that day comes to say goodbye to Billy: his life is the last link to my children’s childhood and witnessing a creature move from young to old is profound. In the same way as the Black Rabbit changes from being an object of fear to a welcome friend to an ageing Hazel, so I can see and have seen that when their lives hang weary upon them our animals’ peaceful deaths come as a relief and release.
Perhaps that’s why God saw fit to put us together on this earth, that we could observe their quiet dignity and acceptance. They are not, so far as we know, aware of their own mortality and they naturally live to the fullness of their powers every day. I belong to a generation addicted to their own youth and vitality and yet the inevitable happens, of course. Inch by inch and little by little our strength diminishes. To face this with grace is part of life’s work, I believe.
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
(Don’t worry, I’ve not bought a rocking chair yet.)