I haven't been able to write much this past fortnight. I haven't really known what to say.
I knew this moment would come and I couldn't prevent it. Now I find myself sat here thinking of what to write to do him justice when all I feel is emptiness.
Maybe it's too soon.
Eleven years ago, I drove along the winding roads of rural Hampshire in the south of England looking for a particular farm. When I found it, I was led into the kitchen by a matronly sort of woman, a breeder of labrador retrievers that had a renowned pedigree in the area. She gathered up four tiny black bundles in her arms from a crate nearby then emptied them out onto the floor in front of me.
Four tiny black labrador puppies.
Sat against the kitchen cupboards, I watched as three of these adorable puppies hid nervously behind her skirts. The fourth puppy wasn't quite so shy, plucking up the courage to approach me head-on, swaying about on his 8-week old legs and mischievously nipping on my fingers when I pulled him over for a closer look.
They say never choose the boisterous one in the pack, in much the same way you shouldn't pick the weakling or the one left behind, but I was smitten by this little guy - by his bravado and his swagger, by his lustrous jet black coat.
The breeder wouldn't let me take him then and there.
She told me to come back with my wife so she could ensure he went to a good home. I returned with Sarah the next day under the pretence that were we going for a country drive. When we pulled up at the farm, the noise of the dogs barking gave the game away. "Surprise!" I said. "I've got you a black labrador puppy for your birthday. He'll be a friend for Murphy and he's yours to take home today." With that, Sarah gave me an almighty great big hug.
Milo had arrived in our lives.
We very nearly gave him up. The stress of having two dogs in one small cottage was proving too much and those previous signs of Milo's bold character were just the start. He howled at night, he did his business in every corner of the house, and he'd nip at Murphy's ears the infuriating way that all puppies do causing the older dog to skulk off into another room for some peace and quiet.
On the fifth day, we decided enough was enough. This wasn't going to work and our life had gotten far too complicated. So I did what most blokes do in such times of stress and went to play a round of golf, leaving Sarah to take Milo back to the farm.
As I pulled up to the house in my car later that day, it dawned on me how much I was dreading the moment I'd open the door and realise he was actually gone from our lives. Walking into our home, a black ball of fluff and sharp teeth came barrelling towards me, its tail wagging furiously and its underside dribbling urine all over the carpet.
Sarah had backed out of going to the farm and Milo was here to stay.
From that point, we didn't look back. When we decided to move abroad, the thought of leaving our dogs behind never entered our minds. They would come with us as our family, whatever the cost and effort. And so Milo and Murphy joined us on this remarkable journey, from one country to another, crossing Canada, over to Australia and a short stay in quarantine, and then a life by the beach where Milo could swim in the lagoons and roll in the sand.
He never wanted for much. Just a paddle in the water, a tennis ball, a marrowbone biscuit, perhaps even a chew. But mostly he was content to simply be with us, by our sides. No more, no less. And for that, I loved him like my very own son.
Eleven years after I first laid eyes on him in that English farm kitchen, I stroked the soft fur on his head over and over as he died peacefully in Sarah's arms, his poor gentle body wasted by a vicious cancer that took him from us over the course of a few devastating weeks.
I can only hope he knew how much we adored him.
At home, his presence fills every nook and cranny of our house. I sit at my desk in the back room and look for him in the garden. I catch myself going to fill up his water bowl. If I wake in the night, I'm careful to avoid stepping on him before I remember that he's not here anymore.
My computer is filled with his pictures, his face appearing at every click of my mouse. I find myself holding a much-loved toy or blanket of his and I press my nose deep into it, inhaling his smell and searching for his presence.
When I eat my dinner and accidentally bang a knife or fork into my plate, I look up expectantly to see him trot over so I can indulge him and let him lick the plate clean. But he never comes. He never trots over. He never gets up to greet me at the front door. He never sleeps on our bed. He never follows me around. I no longer hear him move around in the night. I don't hear him bang through the dog flap or let out an almighty wolf-like howl in the midst of an epic puppy dream. I no longer walk him around the block or take him to the beach to watch him flop hard down on the ground.
Because he's gone and he's not coming back and I can't protect him anymore.
It may seem soft to write about a dog in this way because a dog is just a dog, a family pet and nothing more, but I can't accept that.
If ever a dog was so much more, it was my Milo. He travelled with us around the world, sat by our sides as our hopes and dreams were realised, shared in our grief at losing Murphy so young, was a loyal companion to Sarah throughout her pregnancy, and showed nothing but affection and patience with our son, Elliot.
Milo was an extraordinary dog and he led an extraordinary life. He was my wife's best ever birthday present and we struggle to accept he's truly gone.
Russell Ward View Comments
Posted in: Expat Transitions and Change,Expatriate Living,Family,Life Changing Moments,Living in Australia,New Beginnings