The mastiff and I went out to visit a grave today. This is Luciano, technically the sometime girlfriend’s dog, who has been living with me for the last few years. He’s getting on a bit now from when this picture was taken, but he’s still a wiggly boy. And he was great company and a life sustaining force for a very special dog-my totem spirit, the dingo Gyp, who’s buried in one of the loveliest places I know-as befits a life of adventure, courage and dignity, right up to the end.
16 dog years is a lot of human living, but Gyp was always a soul of both greater and deeper experience than her years-and always a dog that embraced and barked at tomorrow. Snouty, feisty, loving, prideful, caring, devoted. A model citizen of the spirit, while retaining a contrarian, female, individual sense of attitude and joy in being.
She had survived an early brush with a fast moving car and being tied up on a short rope and left abandoned in the pouring rain to be rescued by the local ranger who brought her into my life at age 1.
She would go on to survive a brutal spike thorn that threatened to blind her in one eye, a fall down a mine shaft, getting lost in the deep bush, two dislocated legs, a painfully dislocated jaw, a bite from a red-bellied black snake and a close call with a huge and deadly brown snake (one of the most subtle and yet fear-inspiring creatures you can encounter in the Australian landscape).
She would also endure and triumph over one of the most vicious and aggressive lymphomas on record. In the space of two hours, a lump the size of a ping-pong ball became a heated lump the size of a baseball-and kept growing. The emergency surgery was massive, delicate and traumatic. As were the two years of advanced chemotherapy that ultimately saved her life.
She is now in the international veterinarian scientific literature and has helped inspire hundreds of people around the world to invest in the best treatment possible to protect the lives of their companion animals.
She prevailed in that crisis through strength of spirit and the will to live, insisting on the regular but slowed down walk even with the drainage tube from the surgery still in place.
At this point in her life it was like a great athlete struck down. She could catch a line drive tennis ball 9 times out of 10. It was impossible to get a ball past her on the ground-she was the ultimate shortstop. She could outrun every other kind of dog except a pure racing greyhound and could easily outswim any breed of dog, including the water savvy hunting dogs. She literally hydroplaned in the water-a particularly amazing feat in that she was more than a year old before she learned to swim.
At the beach she was an intrepid surfer, hurling herself into the waves to retrieve a ball and then with some real deftness, riding the waves back in…always barking vigorously to have the ball thrown once more. And once more. And again.
Her tremendous level of physical fitness no doubt aided greatly in her battle with cancer, but it was her spirit that pulled her through. I still recall too vividly, the glow of her puddles of bile in the moonlight in the back yard, when she got sick from the drugs. The trembling that would set in. The endless thirst. The fits that came and went, dismissed it would seem by a more powerful imperative to persist and thrive.
Against all odds and to the shock of the specialist who treated her, she went on to have several more lives. Together, we literally walked ourselves into the landscape in several different areas. I’m sure with the right eyes, if you were to go there now, you would still see us…part of the rocks and the trees. A golden-red dingo blending in with the sandstone, and me following behind.
She adapted to a new environment when we moved from the town out onto the farm, my country property called The Chimneys, in old Australian gold rush land. She learned how not to disturb either free-range hens, the Anglo-Nubian goats, or the rather plump and overfed Suffolk sheep (who turned out to be a financial disaster)-and was in fact protective of them, keeping the local foxes at bay.
She was good with horses, children of all ages (except one little girl whose shoes smelled of her pet hamster), and she wisely never chased the kangaroos, although she could leap the fences with ease.
Post-cancer, her native athleticism returned with force. She ran down two rabbits (just try it, those little fluffs are fast)-and she caught mice-on pine floorboards no less. How many dogs are good mousers? Her strength of swimming was undiminished, such that I could take her to our local lake and have her torpedo past me-as I swam with the aid of fins.
Always calm in canoes and kayaks (knowing sensibly that she was being transported like a queen on a Nile barge), she acquainted me with what will forever be the best smell of all…the gorgeous scent of wet dog in the back seat on a summer afternoon.
She did however, have a weakness for marsh fowl, rather silly looking black birds with spindly legs and orange feet (that make an unfortunate squeaking whistle). Once that whistle was heard, Gyp was uncontrollable, more than capable of leaping off a six foot river bank in pursuit-and once on the Loddon River we thought she was a goner when she ended up in a maze of dense reeds-a place where many other dogs would have drowned. She didn’t of course, and returned with a look of delight as if wanting to relive the adventure immediately.
Over the years, she weathered emotional human conflict too. When the separation and divorce proceedings began, she loyally stood by me, keeping up the routine, providing solace-and then doing all she could in greeting and intermingling with the social situations that the awkwardness of my dating experiences led to.
She laid out nearby while I painted in the garage, she leapt on the bed when the massive thunderstorms would rock the windows, she walked with me in the mist of the old goldminer’s graveyard. (I would be curious to know how many miles I walked with her over the years.)
She went on, late in life, having been “the” dog and “the only child” for so many years, to integrate happily and totally with the large (and huge-hearted) mastiff and a conniving but forgiving, uncoordinated cat with an enormous sense of confidence but a curious psychological confusion about being a cat-as opposed to a dog.
This was yet another golden period and Gyp savored it and contributed to it with a completeness of conviction. She got over her female jealousy very quickly and bonded with Karen, the new girlfriend, adjusting to the mixed family with great participation and enjoyment.
Before leaving The Chimneys, a place I once vowed I would never sell, Gyp showed some of her inner spirit in a very striking way one morning. A few days earlier, two police officers had appeared at the back door inquiring about a dog attack on the angora goats on the hill above me. I said my dogs were innocent-and they were fortunately asleep on their respective couch and chair at the time! But the police assured me that they weren’t pointing fingers-the culprit dogs had been seen-a “boxer” and a larger terrier. I’d never seen such dogs around I said.
Two days later, while returning from our morning walk I did see a large terrier on the overgrown side road that marks the property boundary-and no “boxer” but a large scarred, feral brindle pit bull. Both dogs were bloody from a fresh attack on the goats-and when the mastiff made a charge, he was surprised by the ferocity of the pit bull, who would’ve had his throat-if Gyp hadn’t intervened. An aging sprung legged dingo made for that pit bull at full force and gave me the chance to get in close enough to wallop the beast with Luci’s chain lead. Together, we drove them off, Gyp wincing with the pain of the exertion, but teetering to the back door under her own power. I would seriously liken the incident to an old woman taking on a Mike Tyson capable street thug in open combat. She committed totally to the fray, sensing perhaps the potentially desperate nature of the violence that Luci thought was ceremony. The pit bull was not going to back off because he was on someone else’s property-Gyp knew that. She knew it was a live fight. It was the most powerful display of raw courage and focused aggression I’ve ever seen. And she was very smart in her attack. If we say dogs behave according to instinct, we need to allow also for individual strategy.
The final phase of her life had so many sub-phases…my move off the land into a small town again, with all its small town noises and routines. Kids passing on the way to school, garbage trucks and postmen (postmen!).
Gyp sat with me on the newspapers I spread out while I painted my office in the cottage without the heat or electricity on yet. She overcame her prejudice against lawn mowers. She was saved yet again by my lovely neighbor Viv, an older Irish woman who got her off the street when she snuck out before the garage door was installed.
She embraced a whole new era in a very different environment. She put up with failing back legs, stone deaf ears (unless of course if there was a food wrapper being opened). She had one epileptic seizure that required medication that made her groggy for weeks and an operation to remove abscessed teeth, and she put up with the indignity of having to be helped into the car.
But she never once lost herself. She remained beautiful, albeit a bit snowier than in her ruddy golden youth. No one who ever saw her could guess her significant age.
From the moment I laid eyes on her, to the moment I said goodbye, she lived a seamless life of being herself. A perfect life. A life that keeps giving.
A Dingo’s Legacy
Here are some of the important lessons I’ve learned or at least am trying to learn, which Gyp taught me:
• If the car door is open, always jump in without waiting to be asked. The journey, however long it is will be better for your company, and the destination will be more memorable because you are there.
• Risk being reproached to be included, and let others feel you are being included, even though you know you are really the one leading.
• Interaction is life. It’s all right to stand up for yourself in a pack, but the pack, the connection with others is what makes us who we are. We come to know ourselves only truly through others.
• Rest and give yourself over to lazing and dreaming to gather energy for interaction. Relationships give much but demand much. In quiet moments, take the time to be quiet and store reserves.
• When caught napping, always make the other party feel like an intruder and a sneaky voyeur. Then forgive them and let them know they can redeem themselves.
• Let others redeem themselves.
• Don’t hold standards for yourself. Either internalize them and be them-or let them go.
• Resist the urge to hide gratitude. Wag your tail.
• Develop a reputation. It’s like expanding your territory.
• Don’t depend on your reputation. Your territory is wherever you feel comfortable.
• When you play with someone, you both become bigger-a composite being, which though intermittent is always real and vital, and waiting to come forth again.
• Chasing things is OK. And often, not catching them is even better.
• Crave affection-by giving affection.
• When afraid and in trouble, have faith that someone or something will come to your aid-even if the rescue ends up coming from inside yourself.
• Even if you have trouble walking-especially if you have trouble walking-remember the importance of wiggling.
• Just because you’ve already devoured two fat chicken necks doesn’t mean you should let the cat enjoy his tiny one in peace. He’d be worried if you didn’t have a go at him. Keep up appearances well enough, and substance follows. The old woman with kidney disease on the corner may draw secret inner strength from seeing you out on a walk, even if you’re limping.
• Walking ends up being limping very well. Limp well.
• Be alert to the sounds, smells and sights around you, and know that you too are part of the scene-when you bark, where you walk, the scents you leave behind-all important elements of the whole. We all should be better witnesses, but no one is ever just an observer.
• There will never be enough swims, runs, fresh rabbit and nights out under the stars beside a bonfire. There will never be enough cool fresh autumn evenings…chasing a scent amongst the tombstones…of those who had memories and dreams too.
• Be missed terribly when you appear to go. Give your blessing to those who will miss you. We all lose each other every time we’re out of sight. Who knows how near and constant we remain-all the time-for all time.
The light is suddenly so poignant
and the air so gentle, we both
instinctively stand motionless
spreading out our shadows,
becoming what we are,
mingling when we move again.
Spirits playing in each other’s bodies
even as they disappear.