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A dog’s life

November 20th, 2015


I was telling a trainer at the gym about my dog getting sick, about how he had two seizures in a few hours and we drove him to the vet hospital. They put him on anti-seizure medication and recommended we get an MRI of his brain.

“Will you get another dog, if he dies?” the trainer asked. I couldn’t believe he was asking.

There was another trainer beside us and he did a double take as well. “Hang on,” he said, “you’re talking about your dog? I thought you were talking about a person. You must really love your dog. An MRI?”

To me there was never a question. Our dog, Illy, was part of our family. We sometimes called him our first (and best behaved) child because he was almost 13 when he died. Our daughter and son are 8 and 6, so Illy was our first shared responsibility. When Illy was a tiny pup, his first night away from his mum and siblings my partner and I argued. My previous dog had slept in my bed. Simon thought that dogs should sleep outside. A tiny puppy, his first night alone, and we were going to put him outdoors? We finally agreed Illy could sleep in the laundry. He cried half the night, and I ended up on the floor of the laundry beside him. It didn’t take long for his bed to end up in our room. I compromised, Illy never slept in our bed, just beside it, and I was glad for that when he grew to be 30-kilogram dog.


As a pup Illy would wag his whole body when he was happy. He sat and waited before crossing roads, watching you expectantly, waiting for permission to cross and then bounding, barking – flying almost – across the road. He could run for hours but lay down with a grunt and a sigh at the end of the day, content to snore until morning.

There was a time, before we had him neutered, when he lifted his leg on anything – including people, small dogs, and potted plants. I’ll never forget the day at the Glebe Street Fair when, after watching a capoeira demonstration, Illy lifted his leg and urinated on a tanned, bare-chested Brazilian man’s white capoeira pants. The man was not pleased. We were mortified, but laughed later at the expression of horror on the guy’s face, watching the spreading stain of yellow on his pristine white pants.

Another time, when Illy was just a little puppy and still in his chewing phase, we had a houseguest come from the US, travelling on a British passport. This man was not a dog person, and probably didn’t appreciate sharing space with a boisterous, sharp-toothed pup. The night before he was leaving we all went out to dinner and left Illy at home. We came home to discover that Illy had chewed the man’s passport – not just chewed it but actually ripped out and chewed up the page with the photograph and identification information. We still took the guest to the airport in the morning but the customs officers refused to allow him to travel. He had to stay another week while getting an emergency replacement for his passport. I remember how careful he was to put his belongings in a place where Illy could no longer reach them during the rest of that week.

The story of Illy’s birth is as extraordinary as he was – he was born on December 10 2002 to my mother-in-law’s dog Piglet on a farm on the South Coast of NSW, near Milton. That was day Piglet disappeared from the house. She returned several days later, her belly loose, teats hanging low. Where were the puppies? Eventually, my mother-in-law followed Piglet to a wombat hole where she had decided to give birth, where eight small, pink, squirming puppies were carefully dug out of the dry, hot, tunnelled earth.

Piglet was a good mother after that incident, and she dutifully fed them in a pen protected by chicken wire to keep out the foxes and wild dogs. At Christmas we came to stay for a week and I was given a small, red collar and the offer to choose one of the pups. I chose the fattest, greediest boy.

This was Illy, and he moved back to Sydney with us when he was old enough, carefully shredding our once lush garden at Glebe and keeping us constantly entertained. He graduated from puppy preschool at the local vet, and we joined a doggie playgroup at the park when he ran into its midst, grabbing a bag of Schmackos out of someone’s hand and wolfing it down, packet and all.

He settled down after puppyhood into an extraordinarily gentle and well-behaved dog, his only escapade when he would leap, Dukes-of-Hazzard style, through the window of our neighbour Mark’s car when he drove past the house. Mark used to take Illy for walks with his dog Oi, so small wonder Illy jumped through his car window every time he heard Mark’s car drive past. Fortunately Mark was tolerant and often let Illy join him for a drive, whether or not he had been taking Oi for a walk.

There was also the occasional incident with a birthday cake/roast leg of lamb/butter dish left too close to the edge of the bench top which disappeared, but no dog was perfect. We learned to keep temptation out of reach.

When I became pregnant I noticed how Illy became more protective of me, following me from room to room, lying as close as possible. When our daughter was born he immediately took on the same status as protector to her. In photographs he sleeps with his chin on her play mat, or sits watchfully nearby as she learns to crawl. He loved the pram because it meant we were going on a walk, and my only frustration was when he would bark with excitement, waking the baby I’d just spent ages trying to get to sleep.

When we moved to Maroubra and our second child was born, Illy took it all in stride, in spite of the proliferation of bindies in our new suburb and the tendency of our son to attempt occasionally to ride him – shouting “yee-haw horsey”. Illy endured, and enjoyed the many treats dropped beneath high chairs and by clumsy children at backyard barbecues. He knew where to position himself beneath the kitchen table and as a result I rarely had to sweep between mealtimes.

When the children started school I was glad for his companionship while I wrote, the sense that the house was not completely empty and I had an excuse to get out for little walks frequently. He and I shared companionable silences, and when I had to read a passage aloud he was kind enough to keep his eyes open, most of the time.

Besides the usual hearing loss, arthritis and stiffness, Illy seemed to be ageing well, until the day when he began fitting. We had all the tests run to make sure he hadn’t been poisoned. His MRI did not show a brain tumour, so his seizures were assumed to simply be late onset epilepsy and he was medicated. The medication made him thirsty, hungry, and weak in his back legs. He had always been well behaved (within reason), but suddenly he was sticking his head in the trash bin, grabbing food from the kitchen table and weeing in the house. The medication never fully controlled his seizures, it just made them less severe, so we were woken at night once every week or two by the guttural sound of him fitting. It was a low, throat constricting sound, something between a growl and a howl.

Simon and I would stumble out of bed to find him downstairs, on his side on the wooden floorboards, his legs paddling spasmodically and his body shaking. He would be completely unresponsive to us. We would surround him with towels. Along with urinating on himself, he was often foaming at the mouth with drool, sometimes blood because he’d bitten his tongue.

For a while, a teaspoon of peanut butter with a half tablet of his medication hidden inside was the magic cure to bring him out of these seizures. We’d place the teaspoon beside his nose, speaking gently to him, and after a minute or two he would start sniffing rather than groaning. Then his eyes would blink, focusing, and he’d struggle to sit up. He’d devour the peanut butter sloppily, still groggy, sometimes trying to eat the spoon as well. Then he would struggle to his feet and start stumbling around the house like a drunkard, bumping into furniture, glassy eyed, barking at nothing. His hyperactivity after a seizure was often as distressing as the seizure itself, since it was generally 1 or 2 in the morning.

Still, when Illy wasn’t having a seizure he enjoyed his walks, particularly taking the children to school in the morning, and he loved mealtimes and ear scratches. He wagged his tail and curled up at my feet when I wrote. His ability to hold his urine was deteriorating, but we let him wee on the balcony and flushed it out with water, or he would bark at the front door. The children were patient with him and learned that since he couldn’t hear any longer, if they wanted him to come they had to stand somewhere he could see them or pat him to get his attention. They loved it when he still rolled around on their carpet on his back like a puppy, all four legs in the air, head askew, tongue lolling out in a doggy grin.

We were away for a weekend and Illy was being looked after by my brother and sister-in-law when we got a call on Sunday. My brother-in-law said that Illy wasn’t looking well, he was refusing to take his tablets. They tried it with bread and butter, cheese, lamb, crushed in raw egg, and still he was not having it. Also his tail was between his legs and his back legs seemed particularly weak. We hurried back from the Blue Mountains, and he seemed glad to see us. He came upstairs from the garden and urinated on the balcony. He ate a little bit, took his medication, and fell asleep on the floor.

He did not eat his dinner that night and through the night he was restless, going outside, trying to wee and unable to. In the morning I realised that he was dripping urine everywhere as he walked around the house. I followed him with a towel and I tried to put him outside but he just barked at the front door, so finally I gave up and let him in, convincing him to lie down rather than drip around the house. The kids were ready for school and I told them to say a nice goodbye to Illy before they left, as he was sick and might have to stay at the vet for a few days. They gave him gentle pats under the kitchen table, he licked their faces in gratitude. After dropping them off at school I came back and took him to the vet.

It was our regular clinic but a vet I had never seen before. He was kind and listened carefully. He took one look at Illy and seemed very concerned, and then asked me to come back to help them get x-rays. I calmed him while they x-rayed his bladder. They couldn’t find any kidney stones but it was uncomfortably full. I told him of Illy’s medical history, and he said he was worried. “We have to operate right away, but I can’t guarantee that it would fix this problem,” he told me. “And that other problems wouldn’t come.”

I told him we’d been thinking about when would be the right time to euthanize, and he told me he thought this might be the right time. I called Simon. He agreed with the vet, and I asked him to come. Twenty minutes later we were in a consulting room with Illy, who had just had a needle to relax him and make him sleep. He fell asleep while we stroked him, after feebly munching a few last treats from my hand. Then the vet came in and inserted a cannula, giving him a last overdose of barbiturates, which would stop his heart. We watched him take his last breaths, snoring a little then stopping forever. It was one of the hardest things, leaving him. His body on the floor of the vet clinic, completely still. His tail which would never again thump.

There is little to prepare you for the passage of such a dear companion, as much as you might have come to expect it and know it will come. I had told myself many times that Illy would one day die, I had told the children as well, but I still feared and dreaded the day. That afternoon the house seemed empty. I sent out messages, posted to Facebook and was grateful for all the calls, emails and texts I received in return – people around the world had known and loved this dog. I sorted through photographs and picked out ones which showed him in every stage of his life, often they were photographs of the children or other family but he was there, sticking close, always in the background.

Together Simon and I walked to get the children from school at 3pm, dreading how we would tell them. We told them in the front garden, before we came into the house, and in the house I had the photographs out. We looked through them together, laughing and crying, telling our favourite Illy stories. They went and told their cousins  and came back telling us more stories. The time Illy had eaten someone’s fish and chips on the beach; the time on a walk where he had eaten his own poo.

Photographs and stories are all that we have now – besides an empty water dish, a dog bed which needs a wash and a frayed collar and lead. My son, who used to ride Illy and shout “yee-haw” said: “I miss him so much. I feel empty, mum.”

My daughter said: “What will we do without him?”

I really don’t know. But I had to say something, so I said: “We’ll think of him. We’ll cry, sometimes we’ll laugh. We’ll love other dogs, have other dogs, but none will take his place. He’ll always be your first dog.”

“Picture him running through a field,” a friend posted on Facebook when I wrote of Illy’s death.

This is how I picture him instead. He’s flying through the air, paws outstretched, landing in the passenger seat of our old neighbour Mark’s pale blue 80’s Corolla hatchback. Only Mark’s not driving, I am, and I turn to him. His mouth is open in a wide doggy grin.

“Let’s go,” I say, revving the engine, and he licks my face. Then he sticks his head out the window, ears flat in the breeze, and we drive off together.IMG_4937

Try to praise

August 27th, 2015


I woke up today to news of a shooting in Virginia, and it brought back sharp memories of April 2007. I wrote this piece the week of the Virginia Tech massacre, in which thirty-two students were killed by another student. Once again an angry person has taken advantage of the lax gun laws in Virginia to kill innocent people, this time on live television. This article was originally published in The Bulletin online (now defunct).

It woke me up this morning, the news. I’ve been thinking for a while that I should tune my radio alarm clock to something more peaceful, like classical music. Something to soothe me out of the dark crevices of sleep. But I can’t quite let go of the desire to know what has gone on in the world while I slept. The announcer had that calm-yet-shocked tone they save for tragedy. Biggest school massacre in the history of the United States, she said. Thirty-two dead. More after the weather.


Read more


September 11th, 2014


I long for the smell of hot asphalt in the rain.

The buzz of cicadas on a stifling summer afternoon. The sound of a squirrel darting up a tree, the way his claws sound on bark and his weight makes the leaves above shimmer. I miss the mountains, their gradations of blue. The way they appear on the horizon, gradually, and they fade in colour the further away they are. So the closest one is green, and then behind a dark blue, and then lightening shades of blue as they blend into the sky.  IMG_1597

I have been missing Virginia since returning back to Sydney, a longing that has only just begun to dampen with the arrival of the southern hemisphere spring.

Thinking about the nature of longing I have been reading Rebecca Solnit, a memoir/essay and environmental writer. She writes in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost about how she has always been moved by the “blue at the far edge of what can be seen”. She calls it the “color where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains”. Read more

Book review: The Scent of Pine

June 17th, 2014


Do you ever get the feeling that certain books find you?scent-of-pine-9781476712628_lg

I’m not trying to get all crystal chakras and magnetic healing here, it’s just that I’ve had this experience lately with the writing of Lara Vapnyar. Vapnyar is a Russian author who moved to the United States in her twenties and began writing as she learned English. I read a short story of hers in the New Yorker, “Katania”, a year ago. It is about a young girl growing up in the Soviet Union and her doll collection. The girl has a friend who comes over and plays with her dolls, and when she gets a father doll their friendship becomes rocky. As Vapnyar writes, father dolls are as hard to come by as real fathers: Read more

How not to cry

February 4th, 2014


Today was my daughter’s first day of her new teacher and classroom. She hasn’t been sleeping well with the hot, still nights and we’re struggling with early bedtimes again after summer holidays. So this morning began with a full-scale tantrum in the quad at school – a red-faced, helicopter-limbed six-year-old screaming ‘I’m not going to school!’

She ran away, I brought her back, she ran away again. Her anger was palpable – her entire class sat on their silver seats watching her rage. Other parents looked away. I began to cry. I couldn’t help it, I felt utterly overwhelmed.


This is how I’d like to look when I cry. Where’s her crumpled face, her red eyes, her snotty nose?

Thank god my daughter’s new teacher is a brilliant woman who took the class to their room, then came back and talked gently until she was calm and ready to go to class on her own steam. Actually smiling. The teacher was full of empathy and she was as kind to me – a teary mess – as she was to my daughter. Several parents came up and chatted to me afterwards, gave me a hug, but I felt so mortified. How have I gotten here: 36 years old and still breaking down in tears? Read more

Something for September

June 24th, 2013


I have a cover which I love. I keep staring at it. I still can’t quite believe it.

The book is at the printers now. This whole caper is starting to feel real…