On Friday 19th May 2023 at 11 am, my little sweetheart Phoenix died in my arms in a veterinary clinic in Cabarita in the Northern Rivers region of Australia.
I cannot write of his last, terrible day. The emotions are still too raw for me. It is enough that I have flashbacks, that I wake crying from my sleep, that his last moments come to me constantly as I make food, shower, go about the so-called routines of my daily life. Suffice it to say that he had fallen badly, yelling with pain, as he tried to toilet that morning. I scooped him up and ran with him inside as I called for my husband to come. We laid him on a blanket, pillowed his head, tried to calm him as he cried. Got dressed, ate a piece of toast, gulped a few mouthfuls of tea. And then that final drive.
The day my life changed.
The night before he died, the Thursday night, I knew with absolutely certainty that on the next day things would never be the same again. I’ll never know why I was so sure. Call it prescience, intuition, whatever you like. There was no alteration in Phoenix, his ability to walk had not changed overnight. On that night my husband helped him to go outside as usual. He enjoyed his dinner and I gave him a little parmesan cheese afterwards as a treat. He was full of good cheer and played a game with me as we settled onto the couch amidst our blankets. Normal bedtime is around 9 pm for us, but I did not want this night to end. I asked my husband if he minded that we stay up late and so we watched movies until 11 pm. Phoenix rested his head against my outstretched arm and looked into my eyes for as long as he could stay awake, and I kissed him over and over and told him how much I loved him, that I loved him forever and my love would never end.
Grief is a strange and terrible thing. I know now all of the classifications, the descriptions, the attempts to put into words the raw horror of this emotion. Grief is love with nowhere to go. Grief is a way of cleansing the body of toxins, the path that leads to healing. Grief can be measured on a curve, it has five stages, no it’s a repeating zigzagging thing, it’s a wave that you must ride to an end, or not an end, or to some state of being that will endlessly redefine you in a way that will only end at the moment of your own death. You cannot have this intensity of love without this level of grief. Grief can be complicated, it can be untethered, it can be unexpected, it can be out of world. But until you have experienced it yourself, you cannot imagine just how truly profound and awful it will be.
I did not feel this way when my father died in December of 2022. He was 87 years old, suffering from Parkinsons and then finally from the inoperable brain tumour that would eventually kill him. His last year was hard, for him, for my husband and especially for me, his carer. He was bitter and angry and had no kind words. He refused to walk and he refused to talk, snapping his fingers when he wanted my attention, scrolling on his phone and endlessly asking to go on shopping trips to assuage his loneliness and boredom. I know now that the tumour living at the base of his skull must have affected his ability to reason and think. And that he was frightened by what was to come. That must have been hard for a strong and independent man who needed no one throughout his life, who could never express his feelings in words, who loved the challenge of untamed travel and had built a wonderful, exotic retail business from scratch.
When my father died, my first feeling was one of relief. I did not always have good memories of him, not at the end and not from a life growing up under his harsh and dictatorial style of parenting. Then came profound sorrow, but it was tempered with the knowledge that he had lived a fulfilled life and that he had chosen his path to the end. Now as the months have passed, the traumatic memories of his final year are fading from my mind, replaced by kinder and happier memories. And with that has come a gentle grief. A wish that, for all his difficulties, he was still here, that I could show him a new piece of jewellery made or have him recount the details from one of his trips of old. That we were unloading a container of exotic goods together, or painting and fitting out a new store, or that I could hear him say “well it can’t be helped”, his universal panacea for the acceptance of something that cannot be changed, just one last time.
My grief for Phoenix is nothing like this.
Grief, as I have discovered, is also the path to existential horror. The universe didn’t care when my beloved dog died. The world did not stop, as it should have, on that terrible day. And with that has come the absolute and irrevocable understanding that it will not stop on the day that I die, or the day that my partner dies. Our lives will come to an end, and the world will keep turning, and sooner or later the hole we leave behind will close over, and no one will remember our good deeds or thoughts and the love that we had for a small black poodle who brought me a shoe whenever I was sad.
Phoenix is a puppy, barely twelve weeks old. He comes into our world in a way that is to absolutely define the next fourteen years of our lives. It is January 6th in 2009, and my husband and I have been out on an extended series of celebrations to see in the new year. When we finally surface with hangovers and cup of tea in hand, I announce that it is time for a dog to join our lives immediately, that day, no further questions asked.
And this is how we meet our little sweetheart. He is one of two puppies left in his litter, we have the choice of him or his equally intractable sister. He is totally unimpressed with us at our meeting. He makes no attempt to seek our attention or do any of things that puppies are supposed to do. In fact he sits back a little way, fixes us with a steely and unwavering gaze…and then he barks at us.
I have never been barked at by a puppy before. Got anything else? I ask the breeder. Not for another six months, she replies. But you can have him at a discount. And so our fate is sealed.
We have come home from the vet. We stayed with him for almost two hours while his little body cooled. I held him and stroked him and cried myself to exhaustion. I told him over and over that I loved him, that he was my world, that I was so sorry. I ask our vet what we must do next. She tells us that we can take him home to bury him and we laugh - he hated the farm, it was too a big a space for him and he was clever enough to know that the long grass held hidden dangers that little poodles could not navigate on their own. Instead we arrange for a funerary service to come and pick him up. Leaving him there alone on his blanket is the hardest thing I will ever do in my life.
As soon as we get home, we bring all of his possessions, his things, out from their places. There are so many of them. We dismantle the ramp that allowed him to move freely up and down from the bed. His drugs from the fridge are thrown into a bag in a drawer. We create a pile of his things out in the open where the sight of a bowl or toy or blanket will not cause me to start screaming. But worse is yet to come. Our next two days are working days. Will we go to run our market store or will we cancel? I know that everyone in this situation faces the same horrible choice. Is it better to distract yourself with the absolute banality of life or force the world to stop in its tracks as you yourself have been stopped? We decide to go. We must restock, pack our van, make our preparations for work the next day. This is surreal.
The first night without him is the worst. We see him out of the corners of our eyes. We hear him at his water bowl, his only possession I have not allowed my husband to remove from its place. We spend hours looking at his pictures and videos over and over, comparing them, sharing his stories, laughing and crying. In bed Ian feels the weight of him settle for sleep against his legs. I wake up shouting as if I’m being strangled. And in the early hours of the morning I hear Phoenix moving about, returning from a trip outside. It is simply impossible that he is not there.
As soon as we arrive at our Saturday market, the stall holders around us know what has happened. Phoenix was such a little force of nature. The moment he was let out from the van, he’d make his visits to surrounding trees and people, with a constant accompanying narrative from us both - come right back here, don’t you dare, honestly this is where you choose to sit while we’re setting up? And then it was time for his first round of drugs. And breakfast. Then second drugs. And lunch. And so on…our working day was measured in laughter and visits from other dogs and all his antics and so many special moments, although I did not know then that they were special at all.
Fellow stallholders give hugs and let me cry endlessly on their shoulders throughout the next two days. A friend comes on the Sunday to sit with me for hours and listen to me rave about the unfairness of life and the impossibility of his death. She has been through this herself only eight months earlier and tells me what to expect. I tell her that I want to end it all and go with Phoenix into the night. There is no surprise, no shock. She simply tells me to wait.
After this weekend of work I collapse in a heap. I don’t get out of bed for three days except for when I must. I have not showered. Food is impossible, either to put in my mouth or keep down. There are just the endless cups of tea my husband makes, the panacea in our home for comfort and love. I wail, I howl. I cry so much I become dehydrated.
The neighbours are bringing us food - lasagne, soup, brownies and cookies. Flowers arrive and texts and phone calls come. These things are of immense comfort. We have no children and are not close to our families. Our friends and community are everything to us and they know how important that one little dog was to our lives, how the three of us formed a family with a bond that nothing, except death, could break.
The pet funerary agency handling all the arrangements call us. Phoenix will be cremated on Wednesday. Would we like to see him beforehand? We did not even know this was possible and hastily arrange a viewing for Tuesday. He is presented like an angel on a deep blue sheepskin fur, his head pillowed and his eyes closed as though he is simply sleeping. Only his body is cold, icy cold. We stay for an hour, talking and crying and stroking his beautiful fur. I leave him some special things. His favourite toy Blue Bone, the only toy he couldn’t destroy. A small pile of his favourite treats. A letter from us telling him how much we love him. Some photos of us all together, happy. And finally a tissue covered in my snot and my tears, so that our essence can mingle in the fire and forever afterwards. And then we must say our final goodbyes and leave.
I do not think of myself as an emotional or superstitious person. I am a rational being with a reasoning mind. I have a BSc and a PhD in science and am closest to atheist in my beliefs, as is my husband (although I have recently come to believe in the quantum existence of the soul). But Phoenix’s death has changed all that. Making sure these special things travel into the beyond with him is now as important to me as my trust in rational science ever was. At home I keep his water bowl filled with water in its usual place in case his spirit is thirsty. His doggy door stays unlocked in case he needs to go outside. I will not question the logic or absurdity of these thoughts, I know only that they bring me immense comfort and I hold an absolute certainty in my mind that he is still close by.
Thursday comes. It is a milestone birthday but there will be no celebration. A dinner party planned or the following evening has been cancelled. Friends drop by to sit and grieve with us, more flowers arrive. Messages are sent, although everyone we know is aware of the difficulty of the situation, and they ring much more out of condolence than celebration. The funerary agency once again surprise us with their intuition and compassion. Phoenix’s ashes were not supposed to be returned to us until the following Wednesday. Without really knowing why, they altered all their protocols and made arrangements to return him to us a week early, today, on my birthday. A box with a brass plaque inscribed with the words “Our beloved Phoenix. Until we meet again”. And two silver lockets with his ashes so we can keep him close to our hearts forever.
Phoenix is six months old. He has become inseparable from me and never leaves my side. My little black shadow, people joke, but this a typical trait of poodles to bond themselves so closely with one member of their pack. This is not the way I saw a life with my dog. I have grown up with several who did their own thing, stayed home alone when they had to, slept by choice at night in other rooms and very happily in their own beds. But Phoenix is different. At first we try to keep him out of the bedroom while he scratches endlessly at the door. And then inside the bedroom, but only on his bed! And then finally when he is big enough to make the leap, he waits till we are asleep, then jumps with ninja stealth onto the end of the mattress. After a year of ordering him off and constant sleep deprivation we finally gave in. We spend the next fourteen years all sleeping together, not always comfortably. I am a light sleeper and they snore. I learn to wear earplugs. They learn to leave my side of the bed alone.
He has a morning ritual. At first light of dawn, Phoenix creeps stealthily up the bed and settles himself between our pillows. As soon as I make my morning turn towards him, I get the smallest of licks, just a touch, and a puff of breath on my face. Ian therefore gets the other end, a joke that never grows old. Waking up in our house with these two is a constant source of joy, and a buffer to the depression I suffer, and that until now, has never been far away. I love them both so very much. I am complete.
Life, apparently, must go on. But not for me. I stay in bed, no food except for sips of soup and the cups of tea my husband makes, only getting up to visit the bathroom or see friends. I cannot be alone. If I can’t hear my husband somewhere in the house, I start to panic. I realise that this is because I have not actually been on my own for fourteen and a half years. There has always been the patter of little paws somewhere close behind me.
I scroll obsessively through posts on grief, loss, death and coping with loss. I join a pet loss support group. The comments are always the same. I did not know it could feel like this. I don’t know what to do. I’ve never experienced pain like this. This is unbearable. I am devastated.
I did not feel this way when my grandmother died. I did not feel this way when my father died. Nor did my husband when his father died. This pain is visceral. I think my heart will burst, not in some metaphorical way, but actually burst. My heart has become huge in my chest and sometimes it flops and I cannot catch my breath.My breastbone aches all the time. The crying is loud and ugly, I have not cried like this since I was a little girl. I am absolutely exhausted. There are moments of peace until the cycle begins again.
The experts of psychology and counselling will say that the loss of a beloved pet or companion animal can only be compared to losing a child. Losing a child through death is called “out of world”. It does not follow the natural order of things. A child is supposed to outlive you. You grow old, you die, the next generation, the generation of your children, lives on. When you bring a puppy or kitten home, you know that their life span will be shorter than yours and therefore they must, with few exceptions, die before you. And yet, whenthat terrible moment approaches and then finally comes, there is nothing that can prepare you for the ending. As though you and you alone could have outrun that fate, as though you could somehow be the exception to the rule.
Why must this loss be so terrible and profound? A pet loves you unconditionally as no human can. They understand you, they comfort you when nothing else can ease your pain. They accept you for who and what you are. They assuage loneliness, sadness, feelings of depression and despair. They are there to share your moments of joy and happiness. No judgement for your sins or your failings or your weaknesses. But most of all, they occupy the little spaces of your life, all of the quiet moments, the in-between. When you wake up or settle for sleep, they are there. Food time, walk time, play time, couch time. They are woven into the very fabric of your consciousness. A part, if you will, of your soul.
A child grows up and moves away from home. Your parents live their own lives. Even a partner might grow distant and a relationship fail. But a beloved dog or cat - now that is a love that lasts forever.
Phoenix is one year old. He has a very strange relationship with his bowels. Since puppyhood he’s been shy of public pooing, always waiting until he is home before doing the deed.And he has a fascination with all of the things that humans do in bathrooms. When one of us sits on the toilet, Phoenix is there to watch. When we flush, he is stands at the edge of bowl staring intently at the water swirling down. He gives up this habit one day with a snort as though he’s finally worked out that a human toilet is not for him. But from that day on, when he is in public he chooses to relieve himself on human-made objects. Down cricket pitch holes and over drains. In flower pots. On the ends of raised garden beds. And his absolute favourite, on the memorial plaques found dotted all over Centennial Park, to the memory of much loved human beings. It’s no mean feat for a little poodle to straddle these things but he is fiercely independent in this matter and will not be convinced otherwise. And I so take pictures, and post them on social media to the eternal amusement of our friends. It is a habit he keeps up for a decade until we move north to the farm. This is the time that he also stops accompanying me on my own trips to the bathroom, instead staying in his place on the couch and simply raising his head in greeting or wagging his tail when I return. A greater sense of maturity, a putting aside of young dog things? Maybe, in hindsight, he was simply growing old.
Another weekend of working at different markets, with all of the pain that brings. Endless questions from market neighbours and regular customers - where is he, what has happened, why so sad? We are incapable of doing any work on the farm, even though it builds up around us - there are fences to be repaired, an errant cow to be brought home, the grass grows long and tick medication must be administered. The fridge is empty and we have no food, even as I begin to eat again. Our vegetable beds and orchards are choked with weeds, no seeds have been started for winter crops. I don’t trust myself to drive or operate heavy machinery, I make only necessary pieces of jewellery that customers have ordered, our market stock has not been replenished or replaced. The house is silent, I cannot stand for music to be played. All the flowers sent to us by friends are dead. We decide that another week of bed and couch, constantly seeing a small black poodle from the corners of our eyes, is not the right path for us now to take.
We arrange to go to Sydney, our home town, for a week. This is a risky strategy because we spent so much of our lives there with Phoenix - he is woven in to every memory we have from the past fourteen years. But we need very much to connect with friends and chosen family. The farm can go to hell, or at least take care of itself for another week. Or do what ever it wants. I simply don’t care.
An eight hour drive is difficult when one of the drivers cries constantly. I have a panic attack when leaving the house - it suddenly seems so wrong to try to put distance between ourselves and our sorrow. And there is another, deeper pain. Phoenix adored road trips. He was the best of travelling companions, always overseeing our preparations with a practiced eye. When it was time to leave he’d take a long drink of water, visit the garden for a final poo, then take his place lying comfortably in the back or standing balanced between us, leaning in to every curve as though he was steering the car himself. The back seat, or as much of it as we could spare (we often bought stock from Sydney suppliers home from these trips) was always reserved for him, his bed and blanket, and a box of snacks for us all.
The trip to Sydney is cathartic. We walk through his favourite park, and the memories come thick and fast. It’s a joy to spend time with people who have known Phoenix since puppyhood and who all have their stories of him to tell. It’s probably not quite the same joy for those who are out dining around us because I cry through every single meal we eat, no matter how public the space. But Phoenix’s death has bought a deeper meaning to this trip, this connecting with friends. There is a compassion in our conversations that was never there before. We talk of losing parents and friends to illness, other beloved pets, regrets and concerns, all our plans for the future as we move forward with our lives. And there is joy, contentment and even acceptance in living in the moment with these people, these good friends. A sunlit terrace, a glass of wine, some music, a long close hug. Just living in the moment. A feeling of total peace.
Phoenix is two years old. We are attending an event in Sydney University Park, a picnic for thirty thousand people that is held every year as part of the festivities of Mardi Gras Week. We have set our picnic basket down and are greeting our friends, who have brought their own dog Buddy to the event. Buddy has always deferred to Phoenix as the older dog, and Phoenix, our little monster, makes sure to take advantage of this particular dynamic. But in the weeks since we last saw them Buddy has grown much bigger. Phoenix scolds Buddy but this time Buddy snaps back. He never touches Phoenix, not even coming close, and I know this for certain because the two of them are playing out their little game of dominance right in front of me. Phoenix eyes Buddy off and decides on a change of strategy. He screams at the top of his voice (so loud that thirty thousand people stop what they are doing for one perfect moment) then raises his paw and limps over to me, crying piteously. Our friends all stop to run over, and everyone assumes that Phoenix has been bitten by Buddy, most heinous of dogs! But no, he is simply up to his usual tricks, as I am quick to inform everyone present. In years to come we share this story at dinner parties to much laughter. It’s certainly not the last time he’ll try to weigh the odds in his favour by use of strategy and cunning. We have so many nicknames for him. Monster, poodzilla, black silhouette of doom. And always…little sweetheart. Our favourite name for him to the end.
I am better. I know I am. As terrible as it is to come home to an empty house, the trip to Sydney was a good thing. Grounding. We go to work on Saturday and Sunday and I get through both days without collapsing in a heap. But on Sunday a customer asks me if I’m ok. I try to answer as a normal person would - I’m good thanks, how about you? But she holds my gaze and says no, you are not. Yes, I insist, I am. All good here! I don’t think so, she says. And she is right. Outside I am calm. But inside I am screaming over and over and over again. I am screaming so loud that, if you could hear me, you would call for help. You would have me committed because you’d think I’d gone mad. There is still no rest for me inside.
And if there is rest, it comes in small moments of forgetfulness. When I lose myself for a few minutes at a time, as you do in real life and the minutiae of your day. But then I look for him at my feet, on his bed, or as he moves from room to room. And then the loss is as raw again as it was on the day he died.
I manage to cook dinner once this week from scratch and am proud of this achievement, this milestone. We go food shopping to the supermarket and as we move through the aisles and pick things from the list, my feeling of dread grows. I don’t know why…and then I do. Food shopping was a ritual for us, the most enjoyable of tasks. Because always, it meant coming home to him. Shopping was an important word in Phoenix’s vocabulary. He understood from an early age that our return was something that the entire pack could share - the greeting, the excited examination of what was in our bags, perhaps a small piece of steak cut from the packs prepared for freezer or fridge. And always then his most favourite part, some hot BBQ chicken straight from the bag, the wings for us and some breast meat for him. Today is the first time I have come from a shopping trip in fourteen years and he has not been there to see our ritual through.
The most terrible thing about the death of someone close to you is the firsts. Because it’s not just the immediacy of the death and the horror of those moments that are etched into your mind forever. It’s the first time you realise that something you once did together will never, ever happen again. No more setting off on car trips. No more greetings when you come home. No need to buy chicken wings or treats when you’re out shopping. You put your hand out to him and he is simply not there. In this way, the loss is relived over and over again.
Phoenix is three years old. He is the cleverest of little dogs, I have never met an animal more intelligent or possessed of greater composure. He has little time for other people or even other dogs, although he loves to socialise with them for a while in the evening at the park. He comes to our shop with us every day, sitting on his bed behind the counter or at the front door. He judges people relentlessly, even our friends, although he knows these people are special to us, and he never submits to pats or cuddles from others unless we insist. When it is time to go home and shut for the day, he makes his feelings clear, more regular than an alarm clock. And always the constant dialog - alright, we’re going, just one more minute! God help us if we get a late customer. His disapproval is immense.
One day in the shop I give him a raw lamb chop for lunch. He doesn’t want it, so he takes it upstairs to hide amongst our Persian carpets. There is a customer at the counter, a well dressed older lady with an immaculate Louis Vuitton leather handbag. She takes her time with her purchase, we are both engrossed and therefore do not notice what a little black poodle is doing with her bag. As I am wrapping her jewellery, she puts it on the counter to extract her wallet. And shrieks. Phoenix has decided that, since she is spending so long with us, her handbag is the proper receptacle for his uneaten lamb chop. He has removed her wallet, placed the chop inside, then put her wallet back over the top of it. She pulls it out, her hand all covered in blood, and shrieks again. Needless to say, tissues and apologies follow, as well as a sizeable discount on her purchase. We never see her again.
On another occasion, a very young couple come into the store to buy a present for a friend. They bring with them their little black terrier Alfie, who is extremely well behaved and on a lead. As they select their jewellery, Alfie stands happily behind them, looking innocently around the store. Phoenix approaches and proceeds to mount him. What happens next is uncomfortable to describe. I can see everything as it occurs in front of me but our lovely customers only feel an occasional tug on the lead. As they take their time selecting a pendant and chain, I make furious covert gestures to Phoenix to get the hell off Alfie. Just as they complete their purchase and it is being wrapped up, Phoenix ejaculates all over their dog’s back. She says oh no! and picks him up, then immediately puts him down again because he is soaking wet. Everyone looks at Phoenix, who honestly could not be happier. I think we better leave, the boy says gravely. I’m so sorry, I say in return. And then, please come again, to their retreating backs. I groan. We will never see them again either.
We leave the shop early one day to visit our accountant. Joseph is dressed in an immaculate suit and Phoenix decides to jump up on his leg. I start to scold Phoenix but Joseph says no! in a commanding voice, and Phoenix immediately sits down in front of him, like some sort of good boy, which he most definitely is not. I am suspicious and lean down towards Phoenix. True to form he is glowering and growling softly under his breath.
Phoenix is four years old. It is late in the shop, almost 8pm, and we are rough-playing together to pass the time till close. Phoenix jumps up and smashes into the knuckles of my right hand. Nothing bad, I laughingly tell Ian, but in the morning I’m not so sure. When I describe all this to a doctor friend a few days later, he insists I visit the hand hospital in Macquarie Street. A waste of time I think, but no, my carpal bone is smashed and the doctors discover that there has been a tumour growing in there for years. Surgery and six months of rehabilitation follow. And now all fixed, thanks to the antics of a small black poodle, the best of little dogs.
I get out of bed. I shower. I make necklaces and prepare lunches and cook our dinners, although my engagement with reality is perfunctionary at best. Phoenix sat with me always when I created new pieces in my workshop and he loved to watch me cook. In earlier years I'd sit him up on the counter top where he could observe and oversee all proceedings. In later years I worried too much about his mobility, the stiffness in his joints. Instead he’d lay just a little off to the side on a blanket, out of the way of my comings and goings. When it was time to prepare the meat or chicken of the meal, there would be a little head raise, a sniffing of the air. An invitation to let him sample, if you will. And so I’d cut him off a piece, which he would accept with great grace as though he were doing me a favour just by tasting it. And always the ritual of talk and banter - are you going to eat it or look at it, just one piece or you’ll spoil your dinner, what do you think, do you like it? My little sweetheart, I love you so much. These were some of our happiest times.
My memories ebb and flow like the tide. At least now sometimes I can laugh, although much more often I cry.
I can tell you now exactly how long you are allowed to publicly grieve. Four weeks. More than that and your constant sadness is considered unseemly. The world has moved on, your loss is almost forgotten. Get another one, my mother says. As though you are simply replacing one spent commodity with another.
The grief felt after the loss of a child is called “out of world”. But the loss of a beloved companion animal is called disenfranchised grief. The grief that is not allowed, not permitted, thought of by the world as somehow less important because it involves the loss of an animal and not another human being. By comparison to others, I am lucky. My friends, my husband recognise just how important Phoenix was to me and they give me all the space I need. But even so…four weeks. Surely I still can’t be this sad?
There is another kind of disenfranchised grief. The loss that a mother feels after the miscarriage of a child. It seems that when a woman discovers she is pregnant and the child is wanted, in her mind she is already a mother. She sees the child growing strong, the laughter and the tears, the cut knees and the broken hearts. She sees the school years and perhaps beyond to marriage and children of their own. When a miscarriage occurs, all of this is taken away. Her grief holds the promise of a life lived fulfilled, and the loss is profound. She is not comforted when she is told to get back up and try for another. The loss of a dog or cat, especially if they have lived out the natural term of their life, is not like this. But it is a disenfranchised grief nonetheless because we are rarely allowed to give this sense of loss its full expression. And then how are we to ever truly heal?
Phoenix is five years old. He is beyond his puppy years and the three of us have settled into a life of such happiness. It’s not always perfect, I still suffer from bouts of depression, but they trouble me less and less. A walk every day, rain or shine, which benefits us as well as him. I sing to him, which he loves. My dancing, not so much.
Life is so busy. As well as the retail business we share with my father, we now own a cocktail bar in inner Sydney. These years are harder on Phoenix, he is left at home far more often that he was ever used to while we both work in the bar. But he still comes every day to the shop with us and he always has his daily walk. Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon we sneak him in to sit under our table and chef makes something special for him to eat.
Phoenix has begun a new game. When I go into the bedroom in the evening to put my comfortable pants on (fat clothes as a friend insists on calling them), Phoenix is there to pull them out of my hands and toss them high in the air. How the game started I can’t remember - he did it once, I laughed, and from that moment onwards, without fail, Phoenix would come running at just the right moment and take those pants out of my hands. He doesn’t do it for himself, although it gives him great joy. He does it because he thinks it makes me happy. We continue this game until his very last night on earth. Even when he’s frail and can’t toss the pants without falling over, he comes into the bedroom, I place them on his head, and he goes through the motions of rending and tearing. And I laugh and tell him how wonderful he truly is.
Phoenix is nine years old. For the sake of a better life, we have decided to move from the city to a farm in rural NSW. The reason we can make this tree change is because of Phoenix. Before he came into our lives we lived in a tiny apartment in inner Sydney. Dogs were rarely allowed to live in strata appartments in Australia in those days, so we stretched ourselves thin and bought a house. It’s the sale of this house ten years later that funds our shift to the country and changes our life (as always with Phoenix) for the better.
Phoenix is twelve years old. There has been a major setback to his health. He was diagnosed with Cushings Disease and a heart murmur when he was eleven, but now he has a heart attack brought on by mitral valve failure. He spends 24 hours in an oxygen tank in a veterinary hospital, and they tell us it is unlikely he will ever make it out. But he does. Three months, they give us. Six at the most. Phoenix recovers, but it’s a whole new world for our little family. We begin a strict regime of medication that requires us to get up at the same early hour every day. Our working day is clipped short so we can walk him sedately through the only park our town has to offer. But we manage. I know we are on borrowed time, living beyond the life expectancy of a little dog whose heart is bigger than it should be. We have been on the farm for three years, working to make a living from writing, the website and our craft market store. We buy a small tractor, improve the land, learn how to fence, begin our house renovations and get five cows. These are Covid years, but that is just fine because Phoenix is always by our side. And who could ask for more? He is in every picture, every video we take. As we build and plaster walls, cut new driveways and plant our orchard, then take our rest on a deck built with our own hands, our little sweetheart is always close by.
In these weeks following death, his little ghost is everywhere. You can’t just erase fourteen and a half years of daily presence. I see his imprint, his memory, in all of the places I expect him to be - settling on his bed, in the kitchen waiting for breakfast, walking beside me from room to room or outside inspecting his favourite trees. There are places I will never visit now. I will never again go to the park in town where he walked every day for the last two years of his life. I will never visit the park behind the strip of shops in Cabarita, where we loved to walk and then sit for coffee or breakfast afterwards. I feel sick every time we drive the road that took us from home to the clinic on that last day as the sunlight flickered surreally through the paperbark trees, and I think from now on, we must find another way.
In our house, the bathroom is worst. Our beautiful new bathroom, the pride and joy of our renovated home, finished only three months ago. It is the room in which Phoenix dislocated his hip, that final injury that sealed his fate. I hate this room that killed my dog and I hate myself. I left him alone in there, unsupervised and he had tried to get up. Only a moment before I went back in. Long enough to bring his fate that little bit closer.
Hindsight can be a terrible thing. But there is another, even worse thing called hindsight bias. It’s more than the 20/20 vision of looking back and saying, I should have done this or that or I should have understood the signs. Hindsight bias is when you start to cherry-pick from your memories, choosing only those that lead inexorably to a conclusion of guilt and self blame. It’s not long before you go to thinking that it wasn’t just that you could have managed things better, but that it is your fault that he is dead.
And this is the place where my mind now comes to rest, no matter how hard I try to move on. I am lucky. I have a husband who tells me it isn’t so. I see my psychologist and a doctor and I take valium when the pain in my chest gets too bad. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be alone, as some people are, in this time of such grief.
My father’s ashes sit in a funerary jar on a lower shelf in the bookcase of my office, tastefully covered over by a bright coloured drawstring bag. They are far away from the hustle and bustle of the main house in which we conduct our daily lives. Phoenix’s ashes are contained in a dark oak box, engraved with a plaque on which is written his name and a message of love. When I am writing, they are with me on my desk. When I’m in the main house they sit in a makeshift shrine with his picture, a lock of his fur bound with red ribbon, and a bunch of flowers that is always refreshed. At night his ashes join me on the couch to watch tv, and when I go to bed they sit between our pillows, as he did in life. He is also contained in two sterling silver lockets that we wear constantly around our necks.
I remember an older lady in our store many years ago. She and her brother had been inseparable in life and travelled the world together on great adventures. When the brother died, his last wish was to always continue to travel with her. Our business specialised in very unusual things, and so she had heard of us and came looking for a secure casket to keep him safe in her luggage, one that could also be placed on her bedside table at night and not disconcert the hotel staff too much. Her sense of humour was immense, as apparently his had been. I loved talking to her and thought, well, one day this will be me. And I hope that when my time comes to deal with the death of a loved one, I can approach it with as much dignity and love as has she.
A couple used to visit our store. They were kind and gentle people, practicing Buddhists, and they loved to buy special, spiritual pieces for their home. One terrible day she died after a long illness. He came back to us weeks later to find some pieces for a shrine he was building for her in a nook in a sandstone wall at her favourite beach. A small statue of buddha, a vial of her ashes, a letter telling her how much she was loved. He came months later to say that the shrine had been repeatedly vandalised. I cried a little that day at the unfairness of it all, but he was so very calm. Human nature he said. Not to be helped. She would have laughed. I learnt a lesson of humility that day. The world does not revolve around you and your wishes. I try very hard to remember that now.
One cold and rainy Friday evening, just before closing time, a woman came into our store. She was agitated, moving about quickly from isle to isle. She told me that she was looking for a special box to house her mother’s ashes, something beautiful and hand carved. Thinking that she was concerned that it was our closing time, I reassured her and told her to take as much time as she needed. And also, sorry for your loss. No, she said, her mother had been dead for eighteen months. But she had to catch the 6:45 pm train that evening out of Central Station as she was going to her father’s home to right a great wrong. She had only just discovered that he was keeping her mother’s ashes in a Tupperware container and was using it as a doorstop to hold open the kitchen door. To make it worse, her mother had hated cooking and spent as little time in the kitchen as she possibly could. We laughed at that and then she was on her way. I could only picture how the evening was going to play out when she finally got to her father’s home, but I think there might have been some discussion about honouring the wishes of the dead and preserving a legacy for those left behind.
What do our remains, mementoes, and keepsakes really mean? To be honest, I don’t know what to do with Phoenix’s ashes, or all of his other things. For the moment that little oak box is as real a reminder of him as his pictures and his dinner bowl and that sweet smelling lock of fur that I touch every time I walk past. I know that as time passes, I will feel differently. I won’t need the constant reminders of his presence, this need to keep him bound to me as I move inexorably into my future. Or perhaps this is part of a greater ritual of binding, one of my own devising. God knows we have few enough of them to give us comfort in this world, where death is rarely mentioned and when it does occur (as it must), the grief associated with it is something to be overcome and vanquished, as the heroes do in all of our favourite stories and tales. I suppose that one day Phoenix’s ashes will sit on a table or a shelf with his picture and his hair. I will have photos of him on walls around the house, but private walls that visitors cannot see. I might bring another dog home into our lives. But no one will ever take the place of that unique and amazing spark of consciousness. I have bound him to me and I believe that one day we will reunite in the quantum universe, and there will be no pain, and together we will stride once more through fields of green.
I am a writer, and this is what writers do. It is vital for me now to pin these words to the page so they can’t torment me, swirling through my head endlessly and driving me mad. There are few social avenues through which to express this kind of grief out loud. Many people, even good friends, are dismayed. My anguish cuts some to the bone, either because they have already lost someone beloved and have experienced this trauma, or because they know that it will one day be their fate.
In my deepest moments of despair, when I say to my husband that the memory of ending my sweetheart’s life will drive me insane, he tries to reason with me. He tells me that euthanasia is the greatest gift we can give or receive, and that when our own time comes, it’s what we would wish for ourselves and each other. I take no comfort in this. The truth is, I could not tell Phoenix that that day would be his last. I could not hear his wishes, or ask him if he wanted to stay a little longer. I could not measure his pain through words, to make my justifications and cold plans. I will not be comforted by talk of dignity. This is now my burden to bear for the rest of my life.
I will always think of our last six months all together as both the happiest and the saddest of my life. Phoenix’s health was deteriorating and we knew the end was coming, but we did not know when it would come or what form it would take. Phoenix also knew this as truth. He was a clever little dog, he understood that he now depended on us for everything. He was having more and more trouble standing and walking. First went his ability to jump, then to use his ramp, then to navigate even the shallowest of stairs. And we couldn’t pinpoint a reason why. A year ago he had been so vital, so limber. It’s true that he had never come out of that oxygen tent, two years ago, quite the same dog as went in. He sometimes stumbled and fell. He developed a limp in one forepaw, osteoarthritis of the wrist. His eyesight deteriorated and his hearing too. But everything was manageable. Everything was fine. His mind was perfect, as sharp as ever. His medication was working, his heart condition stable and we had already beaten the odds of death from heart attack by an extra year.
And then in those final months, the problems came thick and fast.
We devoted all of our time to being with Phoenix, made much easier (if truth be told) because my father had passed away at Christmas and I no longer had to spend as much time from home. We moved back into the house even though our renovation was not over, just so Phoenix had the comfort of air conditioning through the unbearable heat of our Australian summer. We laid non-slip matting down and bought him toe grips to aid his walking, we tried laser therapy and new pain medication and everything we could think of to stop his seemingly inevitable slide towards death.
We don’t know why he deteriorated so quickly. His joints just simply gave out. Both knees at the same time, sub-luxating patellas that we had to pop in whenever he needed to stand and walk.Two weeks before the end, a dislocated hip. The death knell, because after that walking was so very hard. And then that final day, when there was pain. Real pain, most probably in the form of a snapped ligament. And still we considered operations - two knees and a hip all in one go. The veterinary clinic said they wouldn’t do it, that he couldn’t handle the months of rehabilitation if he didn’t die outright on the operating table, although this was a risk we were now willing to take. A specialist might, they said, but it was unlikely. The cold hard truth was, his time had come to an end. We didn’t have the option of wheelchairs and casts and catheters and colostomy bags and all of the things that humans have. I wish I had more answers, because they would give me at least some of the comfort I now crave.
These last months will be some of my happiest memories. Living in the moment. Carrying him out to my workshop and settling him into his blankets while I made jewellery and Ian pottered about restoring handicrafts for sale. He loved his food to the end, and although some days his appetite would fail him, he’d make up for it by eating twice as much the following day. I pan-fried chicken for him and fed him rump steak. He was in good spirits, always trying to play his favourite games - blue bone and wrestling. He loved his couch time in the evening, looking deep into my eyes as we lay nose to nose and I whispered nonsense to him or sang. That was his favourite. We took him everywhere with us in those final months, settling him into the back seat of the car, taking turns to go into shops so one of us could always sit with him. He even walked in the park the day before his death.
He was never in pain. But when he did those terrible, final injuries, he looked into my eyes as I picked him up and comforted him, and he cried and licked my nose. And I knew that he knew that each injury was a step closer to the end, and we were so very nearly there.
I love to write. For me it has always been a luxury and a delight, never a chore. As I settle myself now into a day of writing at my computer, in my mind Phoenix positions himself under my desk. I take off my shoes and endlessly run my toes over his fur. This is how I picture myself now at my desk, Phoenix forever at my feet.
Linda has a Honours degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Ecology from the University of NSW, Australia. She has travelled extensively and is a passionate writer on subjects as diverse as the role played by women throughout history, tribal communities and their customs, symbology and ethnology, talismans and their history. Occasionally she also writes about her travel experiences, her new life on a 25 acres in the Northern Rivers region of northern Australia and her black miniature poodle Phoenix. She is currently writing her first book on talismans.
In 1989 my father Bernard packed in his house painting business and set off for two years on a backpacking trek to the remotest corners of the world. When he finally arrived in the oasis city of Kashgar, China, he was so impressed with its history that he decided to start a new life collecting and selling exotic goods from all over the world. For 2000 years the legendary city of Kashgar was a melting pot of ideas and a key trading post on the historic Silk Road. It was this unique combination of philosophy and trade that my father wanted to recreate at home.
Starting in markets in 1991, he opened his first store in the Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1994. I gave up my own career as a government scientist to join him in 2000 and soon convinced my partner Ian to join us in what was to become the Family Business.
Today our version of Kashgar stocks a hugely diverse range of furniture, rugs, textiles, antiques, handicrafts and jewellery sourced from over twenty different countries including India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Our collection includes contemporary and tribal silver and gold jewellery, a unique range of headhunting curios, antique Buddhist relics and a collection of one-off necklaces, earrings and bracelets that I design and create myself using the beads and jewellery making techniques of ethnic minorities from around the globe.
Kashgar is a philosophy as well as a store. We are committed to supporting traditional artisans and small village communities by selling authentic handcrafted goods which are personally collected by us. By supporting traditional methods of design and production we hope to encourage local cottage industries which have a low impact on the environment and help ethnic minorities maintain their self-sufficiency into the 21st Century. We are particularly committed to assisting women around the world and to this end have worked with several organisations including the Hua Bin Women's Union of Vietnam, the East Timorese Women's Association and Tikondane in Zambia. Time honoured means of craftsmanship and traditional ways of life are disappearing as people all over the world give up their identity in favour of jeans and T-shirts. We see our trade as a means of staving off the inevitable encroachment of the 21st century, assisting communities to decide for themselves which parts of the western world they wish to incorporate (medicine, education) and which they wish to reject (prostitution, drug production, begging and servitude to warlords). We encourage our customers to think of the handicrafts and artifacts they buy from us as an investment: a piece of history and a way of life that may soon be gone forever.
Kashgar has recently closed its retail outlet and gone completely online.
In the past our pieces appeared in many movies including The Hobbit, Mission Impossible 2, Queen of the Damned, Scooby Doo, Moulin Rouge and Wolverine, and in many televisions series, as well as in plays, commercials and exhibitions. We've found special pieces for individual customers as well as for film sets, event management companies, hotels, businesses, consulates and embassies. The uniqueness of our stock means that we are also very appealing to interior and fashion designers with a taste for the exotic.
There is something for everyone at Kashgar - collectors, the curious, those looking for a special present or for something unique to adorn the home. Most of our items are one-off specialties; other pieces we only stock in small quantities so as to continuously offer a wide and ever-changing range of interesting products. We are also packed with ideas for decorating home and work premises that will challenge your established concepts of design and storage.
Please enjoy - Linda Heaphy
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