My first vivid experience of death was when my Uncle almost fell into my Nana's grave. She'd been cremated overseas, her ashes flown home with my Aunt in a small tin box. Overlooking this fact, perhaps, a standard, coffin-shaped hole had been readied in the cemetery where she'd long before bagsied her spot. Battling horizontal rain and caustic winds, my favourite Uncle tipped carefully into the trench - right leg lifting behind him, left knee quivering under pressure - focused only on not dropping the small tin box from a height. There was one moment - an upper body lurch, a frenzied kick - when we all thought he was a gonner and I lost it; full-on nausea-inducing hysteria. I was eleven, so old enough to know that laughing uncontrollably at a funeral was not a vibe, my shudders and deep-breath yelps mistaken for upset. I'm sorry, Nana!
I am, in fact, one of the lucky few who hasn't yet experienced paralysing grief. And, I say this while clinging to the wooden leg of the stool I'm sitting on.
So, when our adored family dog died of a disease so rare our local vet referenced a video she'd seen sixteen years ago in college, I never anticipated how devastated I would be.
It started with a gastric bug, or so the vet thought, and ended three weeks later at a specialist veterinary hospital, with me bawling into Monty's furry, little shoulder. There was hope along the way, a chance that he might partially recover, talk of an adapted feeding chair, a buggy for walks, life-long meds. I'd bagged all the bits and pieces we might need and waited for the nod to hit ?purchase?. The fact that he was so young - even in dog years - was the best chance he had.
When the worst happened, I'd already been communicating on a text-only basis with family and close friends for about a week, unable to say Monty's name without sobbing. A departure for someone who'd only ever cried at movies before, never in real life. Like ever.
We were totally unprepared for the kids? banshee wails and existential interrogation; the cries to just reach into a portal and pull Monty out for one last kiss; the fist-pounding why, why, WHYs and a what the f*ck bomb from the seven-year-old. But they're so resilient, dealing with their sadness in intense bursts and otherwise happy to be distracted.
But as I moved into a new haze of sleepless nights and choked exchanges, the world changed. The house was so empty, our little family missing the magic that bound us all.
Strange things started to happen. For one, every time I left the house or even looked out the window, there was Monty, his pointy-ness looming in the clouds. It wasn't always a perfect likeness. Once he was wearing a duck costume, his triangle ears poking out the top; another day he was standing on his back legs, dressed in a neat, boxy jacket about to lunge into a tango. There he was again in a top hat or driving a sporty convertible. Gas man, I thought.
Dogs started to see me too. I'm aware this is stretching the realms of credibility but for a limited period, I was a complete hound magnet. A day after Monty died, a blind springer spaniel lay at my feet and wouldn't budge. ?I don't know what's wrong with her,? her owner said. I wept behind my sunglasses, convinced she was paying her respects to a fallen brother.
Ok, one dog saw me, and she was blind. But still.
I cried in front of almost everyone I didn't know very well. Friends of friends at a birthday dinner (am also available for Christenings and anniversaries); a school mum who asked if I'd had a nice summer; the lovely man at the deli who said he hadn't seen the dog for a while; the Big Issue seller outside Spar who said the same; a taxi driver; a new neighbour and her daughter; all of my dog pals on the pier. I was a mess, projectile tears on tap. So much so that I texted my sister: We are f*cked when Mum and Dad go. F*cked.
And while some of my friends were confused by this emotional landslide, others sobbed with me. ?Those legends are called Dog People. My favourite Uncle, in fact - the one who nearly fell into my Nana's grave - tearfully remembered the death of a dog he had adored. Then he told me a joke: If you locked your wife and your dog in a garage for an hour, which one would be happy to see you? It was the first belly laugh I'd had in a while, despite the woman-in-the-shed situ.
I realised, via the big and beautiful hearts who comforted us, who understood the impact of losing a much-loved pet, who left wildflowers and a plant on our doorstep, that I had failed every friend who'd ever experienced any loss. I sympathised, empathised, sent cards but have never been the go-to person for emotional succour. It's happened, accidentally, and I've made the teas and awkwardly patted backs, tried to rationalise events where there was no rationale. But now I am here, tissues at the ready, arms curling into a hug. ?I know how you feel, because: Monty,? I'll whisper.
And to that special little guy - the Jack Russell adoptee who always looked after us; the fella who wouldn't eat from his own bowl until we all sat down to dinner; who never missed a bedtime story or family movie; the cat chaser and sun worshipper who buzzed on intuition but still wee'd in the kitchen sometimes - I love you.
A wise and brilliant friend of mine said that dogs ?change the air around you.? And that's exactly what Monty did.