To Live With a Loss That Has No Purpose.

animals, Buddhism, death, dogs, ethics, fate, free will, human mind, kindness, Life, Meaning, meditations, Menaing, Musings, Natural Law, natural philosophy, Reflections, Religion, stoicism, thoughts

So, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.

We often use the verb ‘to stumble’ when employing metaphor in describing mishaps on the road to personal progress. For instance, ‘I was doing so well to make this dream happen until i stumbled into trouble.’ Thing is, we don’t often apply the term literally when describing the very moment that things took a definitive turn for the worse. Take this example: ‘He stumbled on the escarpment and fell to his death‘. Exceptions prevail, of course. Sometimes people stumble literally and the ensuing fall is even more consequential (and somewhat more inexplicable) than if the stumble had been figurative in a metaphorical sense. What happened the other night was not exactly a stumbling block on the road to Middle East Peace; being real and not abstract it was arguably more compelling than that.

Soon enough we’ll come back to this nice bloke for whom it happened to. It must be foretold that I’ve got this far in life without throwing the towel in by consoling myself that we inhabit an orderly, law-abiding universe. A chaotic, lawless universe is too hard to countenance. In this universe of mine watchful, seemingly benign forces act upon our individual conduct to pave our way with either help or hindrance. You might call this ‘the blind watchmaker’ syndrome. A classic call to monotheism’s central tenet that God is everywhere and judging. He maketh even that which He cannot possibly maketh. My take is more Tao of Physics, more Oriental holistic, more interconnected subatomic networks with inbuilt natural laws of justice than your run-of-the-mill divine, omnipotent Father-figure there to restore the cosmic balance of justice in favour of the kind and compassionate over the cruel and selfish among us. Intelligent design? Only in so far as subatomic matter is mystically connected to each other despite time and vast distance. Protons telekinetically agreeing that so-and-so is worthy, through honourable conduct, of synchronicity with benevolent time. On time’s elevator, the good don’t even need to punch in their desired floor. The lift knows where to take them. Whereas, the black of heart, for all their frantic prodding of buttons on the console, the elevator nevertheless spits them out precisely on a floor where only woe can find them. These we call the natural laws. You get what you give, no more, no less. Except my story betrays this as fanciful thinking dreamed up by those who need to know that behind every senseless action lurks a just reason. My story tells of how our foundations can be shaken by events that have no purpose other than to reaffirm the popular, secular belief that shit just happens. If everything happens for no other reason than to provide no other reason, then please stop the whirring cosmos for i want to get off.

My neighbour, for want of a better word, was coming home two nights ago. Now his home is rather unconventional. To get there he has to park his car by a canal bridge in a hushed little village full of fairytale thatched cottages, then walk a considerable distance through the quarter-lit gloaming along the black waters of the canal towpath. The towpath is narrow and the banks steep. On one side foliage arches over like a line of tall, bowing hunchbacks. On the other is the water, sullied and still like a river of weak tea with a dash of milk. This garden path of his is neither for the frail nor the faint of heart. Seeing that he answers to neither of these calls, he was walking home with his six month-old pup, Patsy, off the lead with shopping bags in each hand. The Irish terrier, still in that delicate stage of training, would ordinarily have been on the lead but for the fact that the shopping won’t carry itself. Learning to walk independently and by his side, she was beginning to make great strides toward obedience.

Emerging from under a small brick bridge, he put one foot in front of the other, feeling his way through the rapid darkening. As if from nowhere his toe stumbled hard against an exposed tree branch and the forward momentum of his body coupled with the weight of the bags sent him headlong into the canal. Head first he fell, scattering his shopping everywhere, disappearing under the stagnant water. When he emerged from the shallow water he panned his vision around but she was gone. The dog had hightailed it in fear. Now this ‘flight-mode’ is not unheard of in young dogs once spooked by something. Their calm demeanour snaps, leaving their primitive instinct in the driving seat.

All night he paraded up and down the towpath, calling her name, coaxing her to come back. The following morning I got wind of her disappearance and so, without hesitation, joined the hunt. We combed the coppiced fringes of the canal, straying into neighbouring fields, all the while calling her name gently. By now a proper search party had been raised. People being people, dog people being even more divided by canine opinion than non-dog people, theories starting flying thick and fast. She’s gone to ground, some said. The fear has triggered her amygdala into making her cower timorously in the undergrowth until such time as hunger snaps her out of this fugue state. Other theories centred on her terrier nature. She must have found a drain pipe. Others still wondered if she had run and run and run until, young and utterly bewildered, she could no longer find her way home to her master and their boat. I asked the owner what his instincts were telling him. She’s gone to ground, he averred. Agreed, we vowed to resume the search the following morning, though I knew his search would go on undaunted throughout the night.

The following day came and, well, nothing. So again we theorised as to where a panicked puppy might go. We covered a radius of maybe five kilometres in all directions. Meanwhile, other kindly souls had mounted a search and rescue effort. Word was out. Even a local drone pilot wanted in on the action. By the end of the second day I could see his facade of bravery start to crumble. It’s all in the downward sloping of the eyebrows, exposing these two vertical furrows leading up from the bridge of the nose. Again I asked him, what do your instincts tell you? She’s in warm room somewhere beside an old lady who’s picked her up. There and then, a crack appeared in his sixty-eight years of tough stolidness: English passion, I call it. I don’t want to entertain that thought, he said. I have to stay positive. Granted, in such a rural area, where could she have got to? No main road for miles. Only a mainline from Bristol to London, but she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, clamber through the thorny brambles, scramble up the track ballast and onto the lines. Too gnarly, too steep, too pointless for even a pup with no sense of anything other than love for every living soul.

He kept a vigil, returning precisely to the spot where the stumbling had taken place two nights previous. The owner even left a scent trail of his socks, his t-shirts, her basket, blanket, every last little clue he could muster to coax her back from her ‘safe’ place in the undergrowth to their safe place on the boat. I watched as his initial optimism turned in on itself. Two days cowering in a damp bush without food? This theory was beginning by now to sound wishful. By the end of the second day, my thoughts turned to the likelihood that a six month-old Irish terrier, a rare and desirable pedigree, had been snaffled by a lucky passerby. She had to have been sequestered by someone, being such a ditsy and trustful little thing. Question was: what manner of character would this passerby possess? Would they be honest and self-effacing enough to know that this was someone’s prized possession? Or would they be a finders-keepers-losers-weepers type who justifies their deceit on the grounds that property is nine-tenths of the law, whatever that means?

This morning i awoke late. Powering up my phone i received a ping. It was him. He wrote to thank me for my help, but that it wouldn’t be any longer needed. She was found late last night dead by the rail tracks right next to his boat on the other side of a thicket of oak trees. She must have found her way back to the boat but took a wrong turn and ended up trotting along the tracks alone in the dark, afraid. She could hear him calling her but was stricken and helpless to go to him. So light and frail, she was struck by either the London train or a freight train. Her – and his – only solace was that her death would have been instant.

I told my mum, who has loved and lost dogs. She answered, life can be cruel sometimes, son.

Why do terrible things happen to good people? Why must the most vulnerable have to live in fear? Why is love taken away from us only when we’ve found it? Where is the natural justice in all this? I refuse to believe we exist in a dimension where senselessness and meaninglessness is a defining feature. That said, today my eyes are welling up wondering if my grip on an orderly reality is slipping and that, in the end, it’s shit that happens and no one knows the f&ck why.

The Buddha implored us not to get too attached as it would only cause suffering when weaning occurred. He must have known, however, that as humans our attachment to objects – both animate and inanimate – can be both profound and wholly natural. Within this paradox we must make our last stand. This is our eternal condition.

Gone But Not Forgotten

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He passed away three years ago yesterday. There was nothing could be done. Dogs cannot describe their symptoms, only in as much as their physical discomfort speaks it for them.

He had been limping badly for months. I had taken him with me to France four months prior to his death and even then it was evident that walks in the vast forest of Compiegne were not the wondrous canine adventure they had once represented. Indeed, the very sight of the tree line stretching away toward Paris had brought to those transparent eyes at best a look of indifference, at worst dread.

Initially, I thought it was hip dysplasia. The way he was going lightly on his hind quarter suggested a mechanical ill-fit or maybe rheumatoid arthritis. For a dog born in the Eastern Mediterranean, a life in damp NW Europe might well be leaving him singularly susceptible to the fraying of those Aegean bone ends. A visit to a vet confirmed the hip theory. A shot of cortisone later and Harry was bouncing on a new set of shock absorbers. To my dismay and his quiet disappointment, this spring in his step soon ran out of tension. Within a week he was back to his old moping, hobbling self. He walked through that beautiful forest as if each and every step was shot with pain, his likeness stabbed with pins by juju witch doctors in a far away forest. His pain was my pain, and much as i did not want to accept the fact, he was going downhill rapidly.

When neither relationship nor job failed to satisfy, i took Harry home to England. I remember well him sitting serenely on the back seat of my VW as we boarded le Chunnel in a freight transporter. I swear, it was as a passenger in a car that Harry loved best. Sitting on his haunches, watching the world go by with the sort of knowing one associates with a previous life. That’s how I remember him three years after he went from my life.

Back in England, his condition deteriorated, his mobility reduced to cinders. The woefulness in his eyes could have melted the heart of the iceman. Unable to bear this rapid demise I was witnessing, Harry was taken for a second opinion. Within minutes, the trusted Yorkshire vet located the pain not in his hip but rather in Harry’s knee. Just as i had suspected! The French vet had been wrong all along, and not only guilty of medical incompetence, he had also acted with a pomposity and peremptory manner i had elicited from no other Frenchman or woman, in spite of their global reputation for cutting off that Gallic nose despite that Gallic face.

When the vet’s roving hands hit the weak spot, Harry curled his lip, baring those ferocious gnashers. It was his wont when someone touched him off-limits.  An ACL – anterior cruciate ligament – rupture was the Yorkshire vet’s diagnosis. Now, this is a sporting injury by any measure. In footballers it is treated with six-months of inactivity followed by stringent rehabilitation. In dogs, however, the snapping of the ligament necessitates the same response as a racehorse breaking its leg. Undaunted by the vet’s gloomy prognosis, horrified by his offer of instant mercy, I mobilized the troops within to invade the headspace that would become the colony of ideas. What could be done? Dogs manage on three legs, don’t they? Better their three than our one, right?  Soon, it dropped like rain from the sky. The solution lay in the pioneering science of orthotics. If they could mould a stifle brace to the knee of an injured horse, by God they could do it with a dog a tenth of its weight. A few resourceful calls later, and I had my deliverance. American technology had gone Transatlantic, allowing a whole generation of dogs with mechanical injuries the chance of a second life.

Returning to the vet, I told him of my discovery. Impressed, excited by this development, he went home and read all about it. Calling me up, he seemed buoyed and ready immediately to make a cast of Harry’s knee joint. It was arranged then, to take my bewildered and inconvenienced dog boy off his comfy bed and in for exploratory treatment the following day. I had resigned to spending the next year as the dog’s de facto physio. What the hell? I had parented him for nine years, so this was the least I could do.

That evening the weather took a turn for the worst. The cold snapped, as it had nine years before, the day I found him half-drowned, half drenched, half-dead at the foot of a mountain at the other side of the European continent. My friend, and Harry’s second favourite person in he world next to my father, had come to visit. Out into it the three of us ventured. Harry loved having his dad and his uncle chaperoning him. We had his back. The snow floated down in fat flakes. The sight of it gave Harry a new lease of life and into white wilderness of the village he forayed. His demeanor had visibly improved. As always, Harry knew. I don’t know how. He just knew. This pain would soon abate and like the pensioner after the hip replacement, the old eyes would regain their youthful sparkle.

And then it happened. He slipped on ice and went down. Bang! We could hear it. Like an explosion inside his knee. Helpless he lay there, in the snow, ashamed to be collected up, afraid to be left alone. I laid him down on the sofa and for reasons I still cannot fathom, left him there with my Mum & Dad while I fled to the ignorance of my friend’s place. In our hearts we both knew that this was a fall Harry could not come back from .

The following morning, I collected his heavy self up and carried him to the car. Quite what he thought of all this I still cannot say. For a mutt with a prescience he was remarkably inexpressive about this, what would come to be his green mile. When the vet met me it was with quickened steps. ‘Yes,’ he uttered, excitedly. ‘I think this might actually work.’ When i lowered Harry onto the treatment table, the vet’s face fell almost as fast a the dog’s legs from under him. ‘The other one popped last night,’ I said. ‘He went down like a stone.’

He was dejected for me.

‘I am sorry,’ he replied. The man’s eyes said that orthotics was no longer the pioneering voyage worth taking.

Both Harry’s ACLs ruptured within days of one another. The rehabilitation, in the vet’s learned opinion, would be monumentally difficult for both owner and dog. His quality of life had now been scythed from beneath him and at the age of 9, could not be recovered so readily.

Watching him buckle and fall each time I stood him on all fours was about the saddest thing i ever did see. With a tacit nod the vet brought out the death warrant. Never had i signed something off with such a lack of flourish. I held him as my friend looked on, his eyes welling with tears. The dog never much liked surgeries; now less than ever. The vet approached with a sedative encased in a large needle, yet for each time he tried to find a vein, Harry rounded on him, snapping his jaws, flashing his teeth. Once the needle had gone in, still he would not lie and capitulate to his fate. Harry had fought death from the moment i found him as a sole survivor in a family drowning in the wilds of the Greek Peloponnese where he had been born illegitimate nine years before. When I picked him up shivering and bleating from that waterside on that cold January day in 2004, he was smaller than my hand, his heart a beat away from infant mortality. With warmth, love and condensed milk I fought for him then, yet here was me now, complicit in his premature death. For this he could not abide me. Another needle went in and like a great lumbering beast his head began to swoon. Now sedated, we lay him down on a blanket on the surgery floor and i kissed his beautiful head while the vet prepared the death serum. From the moment the heart-stopping liquid coursed through his veins, he was gone from me. Nine years on life’s journey with him and the serum had kicked him off the train as quick as that.

Nudging my head into his, still warm, I tried saying goodbye but it seemed insincere. Why farewell him when I would see him again some day? I didn’t know where nor in what guise, but I knew he would come calling again, in a daydream, in a traffic jam when least I expected it.