Once upon a time, we were young.
We’d just fallen in love, just moved in, just moved across the country to live in an alpine city, just rented a house together.
We fought a lot and had sex a lot and we cried a lot and we laughed a lot and we had young, ridiculous, broke adventures.
We were broke and didn’t own a couch or table for many months.
When we had visitors, we would gather assorted desk chairs around a large cardboard box with a table cloth over it.
Every night, we would eat soup from a can with toasted turkish bread on newspaper on the floor as we watched TV.
We got jobs in the city, cubicle jobs, office jobs, “big smoke” jobs, jobs that made us feel positively cosmopolitan.
I bought suits on credit card and brown boots with reassuringly clacky heels.
He wore silky shirts and dark pressed pants.
Once we saved up enough money, we bought a cheap-as-chips eye-gougingly lime green couch to sit on instead of the floor, we thought we were the fanciest people on the planet.
We felt like a Couple, doing Big Adult Things in the world. We had started our life together.
Still there was a space between us on the couch between us.
Still there was a restlessness that made us get homesick for our “real” homes, our “real” hometown, our “real families”.
This created one was just that – created.
Flimsy and new.
Our rented house seemed so very big compared to our two bodies.
There wasn’t enough family of us in there.
One day, I convinced him.
“Let’s get a dog”
“Are you sure? They are a lot of responsibility honey. You’ll need to take care of him.”
“Of course I will!”
(Said I, indignantly. Let the record show over the next 13 years, I did not. Not in the practical sense. I provided cuddles and backyard picnics. My love provided everything else needed to keep that dog alive and thriving.)
“Okay, but only a small dog.”
“Hooray! A Labrador! Or a dalmation! Or maybe a German Shepherd? I LOVE BIG DOGS!”
“No, a small dog.”
“A SMALL DOG IT IS THEN!”
We found him at the pound.
We’d wandered past the stalls of other dogs.
First – the big, unruly dogs with a glint in their teeth, that threw themselves unabashed at the metal in their cages.
“We can save them! We can HEALLLLL THEM!”
He shook his head.
“No, Leonie. We are soft people. We need a gentler dog than this.”
And then the tiny dogs – the quivering Pomeranians who looked despairingly out of place in those concrete cages.
“That one looks like it needs to be on a velvet pillow! LET’S GET HER!”
He shook his head.
“No, Leonie. We need a dog who is more rugged than this. We need a dog that’s okay to be in the world.”
I rolled my eyes.
Just as I gave up hope, there at the end of the stalls was Cage 50.
And in it was the happiest little dog face we had ever seen.
A ball of fluff on sturdy little legs. A curly tail.
He jumped up to lick our fingers through the mesh.
We took him for a walk.
Chris clipped him off his lead and he immediately ran, ignoring us, and began exploring every crevice of the paddock with great joy.
“He doesn’t seem to come to being called,”
“He’s a bit disobedient,”
“He likes to run away,”
But when I looked at Chris, his eyes were sparkling.
“This. This is the dog for us,”
“This dog is a happy soul.”
That right there is probably all you ever need to know about Charlie.
He rarely listened. He ran for the hills at every opportunity.
He had a wild and free heart.
And he was ours.
We waited seven days before we could collect him.
Seven days to make sure he was a stray, that there was no family out there searching frantically for him.
He was a purebred (or close to it) Cairn Terrier.
We didn’t understand how anyone could give him up.
But maybe they didn’t.
Maybe they just held him for as long as they needed him, and then gave him to us.
Chris took the day off work to collect him.
Chris, the one who had held off from getting a dog.
Chris, the one who was head over heels in love.
He came to pick me up at work, Charlie in the car.
I convinced my two dear work friends (still two of my closest friends now!) Deb and Lile to tramp down the street in sleeting, sloshing rain to meet him.
Charlie’s pink tongue panting at the glass. His whole body alive with joy.
They laughed and cooed and congratulated us, then huddled together against the rain, walked back to the dry warmth of work.
It makes my heart happy that they were there.
There the day we became a family.
I jumped in the front seat.
In a split second, Charlie threw his body between his seats and leapt onto my lap.
he seemed to say.
This is where I belong.
And that’s where he stayed for the next 12 years.
As close to me as humanly possible.
Beneath my feet as I painted and wrote.
Curled up in the crook of my legs in my bed at night.
He was a ridiculous dog,
filled with magic and humour.
He played like a puppy long after he had ceased being a puppy.
He played endless games of soccer with a flowerpot for years.
And long after his desexing, he continued to romance blankets.
Not just that, but he would drag them out in front of guests,
roll it tightly into a vaguely dog-shaped lump,
and Casanova the stuffing out of it,
all the while panting
and staring deeply into our guest’s eyes
his wide dog smile laughing the whole while.
He was a dog who created his own friends.
All in his strange, obsessive, happy kind of way.
The very first weekend I met Sone, my BFF and my now-COO, I fell in love with her.
From the moment I saw her, I knew we had been best friends in other lifetimes, and that we’d finally found our way back together.
My dog also fell in love with her. He also believed he shared many lifetimes before with her.
And it was very, very obvious that he believed they were beloved soulmates.
He gazed at her as only a lover would.
He gazed at her in a way I have never seen a dog look at a human before.
Whenever she would come to visit then over the next 12 years, we grew to expect the same routine:
Sonya would appear. And our dog, our companion, our little mate would disappear from our sides. Instead, there would be a prince stuck in a dog’s body, patiently waiting for his beloved princess to recognise him.
In the mornings we would find him, head on her pillow, gazing at her sleeping face.
When he met one of Sonya’s boyfriends, the rage and jealousy was palpable.
When she visited us twice in two weeks, he was so overcome with joy that he, cradled in Sonya’s arms like a baby, pissed himself.
Not only that, but he set up a great arch of piss across the room, which soaked my jeans through from 2 metres away.
I thought our ceiling had collapsed in the rain, but it was just his tiny, excitable bladder.
That. That right there was how much he loved Sonya.
That right there, was love.
One day, on a message board, my very very very favourite author appeared.
SARK is my Beyonce, my wind beneath my wings, my lighthouse who showed me the way.
(If you haven’t read a SARK book yet, go. Go NOW. Life is not complete without reading a SARK book! They are a goddamn revelation!)
And she asked:
“What can you see right now?”
I thought about writing something poetic.
I thought about writing about the trees, the sunset, the way the alpine sky danced against the lavender mountains.
Instead, I decided to tell the truth.
And the truth was, in that moment, that Charlie had dragged an old bedsheet out into the backyard, and was making sweet, sweet love to it, while staring up at me through the window.
SARK howled with laughter. She proclaimed him her spirit animal. She mentioned him in one of her books. She included a photo of him and me in another of her books.
The photo that was published in Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper.
Another friend named her son after him.
I know you’re shaking your head right now.
Why on earth the fuss over a silly, blanket-fucking little dog?
And I can’t even begin to explain it.
My words are failing me.
How on earth do I ever tell you what Charlie is? What he was?
That he was special, that he was magic, that he was more alive than I’ve ever known a dog?
When I was sick, or when I was sad,
he was my Happy Healer Dog.
I cried into his fur more times than I could count.
He would curl up on the parts of my body that hurt.
He would remind me, again and again,
that I was loved. That everything would be okay.
It was amazing how much space he filled.
One tiny dog,
made twice as large by his expansive aura of fur,
made eight times as large by his personality.
Our quiet house was loud and warm.
It was a home.
At night, he
sprawled wide across that tiny space in the couch that no longer was a space.
It was filled.
It was complete.
We were a family.
We took him with us on holidays.
He went on road trips with us across the countryside.
He was the sun our movements orbited around.
Eventually, after many years of being a trio, I convinced Chris we needed another dog.
That they would be best buds.
That it would be glorious.
We found Angel the next day.
Her family needed to rehome her.
As soon as we heard her name, we knew she was ours.
And then, as we drove home, I realised suddenly:
Fuck. Charlie and Angel. Charlie’s Angels.
Now people are going to think we’re really into those movies!
But we couldn’t change her name. It was hers. And we couldn’t change his. It was his.
And nobody really put it together.
Just as we discovered we couldn’t actually put them together either.
Our old pound dog and our younger needed-rehoming-from-abuse dog did not love each other.
They didn’t like each other. They barely tolerated each other.
Not in the first day, not in the first year, not ever.
They weren’t dogs that would cuddle together. They were dogs that would growl at each other testily for the audacity of daring to intrude upon their (very wide) personal space boundaries. They were dogs that would, on special occasions, attack each other and draw blood.
We would joke that at least when one of them died, the other one would not pine. It would be victorious as all get out that it had finally won the competition to be the Only Dawson Dog!
I tell you this lest you ever think it was all happy families 24/7!
My sweet little Cairn terrier and my sweet little Maltese-Shitzu decided the only way to exist in each other’s company was to choose sides.
Charlie became very much my dog. Angel decided Chris was the only being on earth worthy of her love and attention.
And we became a family of four.
Not long after that, I decided, actually, that it was time for a baby.
Maybe my wish to get another dog was actually just the beginning signs of me wanting to expand our family.
Chris was excited – he had always wanted marriage and kids, but had been waiting for me to give the thumbs up that I was ready.
(He is nine years older than I – and we got together when I was 18. He knew there was a lot I wanted to do before I popped ze babies out, and was respectful of that. He is also very hot. Have I ever mentioned that?)
I became pregnant, and as nausea swept over me, I longed for more space. After six years of sleeping all cocooned up with Charlie dog, it was time to move him off the bed. I missed him and he missed me, but my belly began to bloom and my hips began to ache and Charlie was no longer my baby. My baby was cradled up in my womb.
There’s kind of a grief to that, you know.
To the changing of something you loved for so long. Letting go of the closeness of one relationship so you can experience more.
And it sounds so silly to say:
But I really, truly missed my dog and the sweet, quiet life we shared together before babies began.
I don’t wish my babies back – of course I don’t. Two feelings can exist together.
I’m glad they are here. And I was also sad that by them being here, I wasn’t as close with my dog anymore.
“It’s just a dog”
people say sometimes.
It’s never *just* anything.
Our animals are relationships.
And all relationships are sacred and special and life-altering.
That is the very nature of relationships.
When I came home from the hospital, there was Charlie, sitting beside me as I nursed for hours on end.
And there he was, beside us, as our lives continued to revolve and grow.
There was Charlie as we moved to the 100 year old cottage my grandmother had lived in, in my hometown.
For hours, he and baby Ostara would sit by our front door, looking through the screen to the busy street outside.
He would sit in the garden with us, and we would chase away the large eagles that swooped too close to him and Angel.
There was Charlie when we moved to an acreage in the rainforest.
He spent his days staring down from the verandah to the pademelons (small kangaroos) that would emerge from the rainforest to eat our back lawn.
On special occasions, Chris would take Charlie for spins on the ride-on lawnmower. Charlie couldn’t work out if he loved it or was appalled by it.
There was Charlie when I became pregnant with my second daughter and was horrifically ill with hyperemesis gravidarum.
He’d lay beside me on the grass as I vomited my guts up. He’d wait for me while I went to emergency again for IV fluids. He waited for Beth to be born.
There was Charlie when we flew across the country to live on the most southern island of Australia.
He felt thoroughly flummoxed by that whole snow thing. WTF IS THIS WHITE SHIT FALLING FROM THE SKY? WHY SO COLD?
Mostly, he nestled up by the fire.
And then there was Charlie when we decided at long last to move back to the city we become a family in, the place we had found him, and found Angel, and given birth to our first daughter.
He was checked over by a doctor to make sure he was healthy to fly.
By this stage, he was 14 years old.
He was in perfect health.
In August, we arrived back home and moved into the home with the fairy garden we’d bought on the internet.
It’s a strange thing, you know.
I’d always known, in my heart, that Charlie would only die once we had found our right place in the world.
It was always ticking over in the back of my head. He was 9 when we first moved across the country – moving to places filled with poisonous cane toads and venomous snakes.
At first I thought: “He’s got me back to my hometown in Proserpine… maybe he’ll die now.”
And then: “Oh no, he was waiting for us to get our dream house on the rainforest acreage.”
And then: “Wow, I didn’t expect this… Tasmania is our forever home! Maybe he’ll die now.”
Not to say that I was excited about him dying. Not at all.
Just in my gut, I believed Charlie had a soul contract with us – that he would only leave us when he had returned us home – wherever that was.
Back in Canberra. All of us.
Within a couple of months of moving back to our beloved Canberra, however, it was clear that his work was done, his light was waning.
He had come full circle. We had come full circle.
At first we noticed he was becoming crankier, especially with our kids.
We became worried about their safety, so we decided to let Charlie stay in the garden, hidden away from prying toddler hands, during the day.
Soon, his epilepsy came back with a vengeance (or so we thought).
He’d always had canine epilepsy, and had taken medication for it when he was younger.
It had eased off once he turned 10 and didn’t need medication anymore.
But now it was back, and worse than ever.
During one seizure, he became partially paralysed. It took weeks for him to regain his mobility.
“Just one more Christmas”, Chris would whisper to him.
His days became filled with nursing our silly, fluffy, old, frail dog. He helped him stand back up when his legs gave way. He helped him out of the garden when his legs refused to work.
He tended to that dog like the gentlest, most devoted nurse on earth.
He couldn’t bear the idea of a life without him.
Christmas came and went.
Charlie continued losing weight.
His seizures became longer and more damaging.
I worried. I could see how much this dog was suffering despite all the care we gave him. I felt the kindest thing to do was euthanasia.
“Please don’t make me put him down,” Chris would tell me.
“Please. I can’t bear it. I can’t pay someone money to have my dog die. It goes against everything I am.”
My husband has the softest heart. Especially when it comes to animals.
And I couldn’t bring Chris more pain.
So I agreed to wait and let nature take its course.
In February, as the summer sun continued to blaze its way across the Southern Hemisphere, the day came.
I was on a work call when Chris walked in.
“Honey, I need your help. Charlie has been having a seizure for an hour. I don’t know what to do.”
I hung up the phone, and we barrelled our way to the closest animal hospital.
He was immediately placed on a sedative with an IV drip. Tests were run.
They sent us home so they could monitor him, help him, end the seizures, see how he could heal.
Our house was quieter without him there.
The vet called in the afternoon.
Her voice was soft and sad.
“We’ve been unable to end his seizure. He is now irreversibly brain damaged. We believe he has a sizeable brain tumour causing these seizures, not epilepsy. There is nothing more we can do for him. The only alternatives from here are to admit him to animal hospital overnight to continue sedation for as long as we can, or euthanasia. We know this is a really painful decision, and we will support whatever your family wants to do.”
We drove back to the vet, crying all the way.
“I think this is his last day on Earth, honey. This morning when he started having his seizure, I took him outside and I knew it was his last piece of sunshine. I talked to him then and told him all the things I needed to say. I can’t go in there. Can you please go in? You don’t have to stay there while it happens.”
And I also knew I wanted to be there with Charlie as he died.
That I would midwife him into the otherworld.
That I would be by his side, just as he had been by mine for his life.
The vets and nurses were kind. They pushed tissues into my hands.
They let me hold him as they prepared.
I told him how much I loved him. How much we all did.
I whispered to him all the adventures we had been on.
All the moments we shared.
How I would always love him. How he would always be my dog.
His body rigid still quaking with seizures, I looked into his eyes.
He was gone already, I knew. His spirit had already left the building.
We were only ending the inevitable.
It happened within a moment.
A needle, and then
Tiny orange paws stopped circling.
The rise and fall of his stomach.
She left me there for as long as I needed.
I sobbed into his mop of fur.
I would miss this.
This, his little body.
His fox tail. His sweet paws.
The furry tips of his ears.
His white blazed chest.
Every inch of that dog.
I’d known and I’d loved.
He was the start of our family
and he was a constant home in our constant moving
and he was 12 years of my life
all wrapped up in a small body
and I was saying goodbye.
It’s just a dog,
I walked out of the vets without the warm bundle in my arms.
I was missing something, I’d left him behind.
The first few weeks were the hardest.
Each time I’d return home, I’d dissolve into tears.
There was no laughing dog face out the window, eager to see me.
At night, there was the missing click-clack of his walk down the hallway.
There was no warm curled-up body beside my bed to trip over.
My studio is empty during the day.
Nothing sits beside my feet.
(Custom dog portrait of Charlie I ordered from this Etsy store)
It gets easier, and softer, the grief.
Well, it did for me.
It exists on its own timeline with no rhyme or reason.
With my brother, I was grief-stricken for a year, then grief-damaged for another 9 years or so.
Sometimes, it still rains down on me in a sudden hail:
Your brother is dead. He won’t see any of this.
And the gaping hole of sadness opens up and takes me whole.
With my husband’s best friend, I couldn’t accept it for the first five years.
Still too shocked, too sad, too angry.
It’s only in the last year that it has softened some.
With my grandmother, I knew, at the ripe age of 97 that it was coming.
That kind of grief has been a gentler one for me.
But it too has its pothole moments too,
the gasping moments
when I remember
I am Grandmother-less in the world.
I don’t ever know how long it will take
how deep it will feel
how brutally it will hurt
how bereft I will be.
Grief is the unknowable one, as tied to the Great Mystery as it is.
I can only know what is right here.
The leaves have turned since he left.
Bulbous green to shrieking yellow to bold crimson out my window.
He lives in a small blue urn now,
just above our telephone.
I can only know what has been.
The truth of it is this:
We were infinitely lucky.
Lucky to have known him
lucky to have loved him
lucky that the whole thing happened at all.
Love was, and is, the Great Miracle.
(A dear friend emailed this to me just after he died. It brings me great comfort and joy. Wherever Charlie is, I know he’ll be fucking every pillow in the place.)