Dogs, bats and memories

Look at this dog. See how he’s aged. I got a shock the other day when he came back from the clippers with a summer coat. To see how thin he was underneath his thick winter overcoat of the past several months. 

The other day, I took both dogs out for their morning walk down the road to Fritz Holzer park, which my family prefers to call the Rose Street tip, this park of reclaimed land that forms a swamp and was once used as a tip for the cast-offs from Hawthorn and surrounds. 

Over the years, I’ve watched the park turn into a green oasis in the middle of our suburb one that now attracts visitors and dog walkers in their droves, given the constraints of life under Covid.

When my girls were young, we used to cut through this park on Friday nights on our way to dinner nearby at a Thai place and on our way home in the evening twilight we took to counting the bats that flew through the sky. 

The bats were such a novelty but soon they became a nuisance and people resented them for the way they stripped the fruit trees and buds, looking for food and they all but destroyed fern gully in our city’s Botanical Gardens. 

Our governments soon introduced policies to deter the bats and drive them off course away from the Botanical Gardens a well-manicured museum of plants, to the edges of the Yarra River where the gum trees and willows could better cope with the burgeoning colonies of bats. And as far as I know they’re still there. 

When the dog first came into our lives, I was resistant. I did not want this dog. I did not want the additional pressure of another vulnerable creature in my house, a creature whom I would undoubtedly need to take some responsibility for. I had forgotten the pleasure that animals can bring even in an over full household.

It’s taken over a decide to adjust to life with this dog and two years ago another dog to turn me around. I’m not an official dog person, one who cares about dogs, about breeds about their antics, their personalities and the struggles dogs endure with us humans as their carers. It took some work for our daughters to persuade us to take one on. I’ll try to attach a pdf to prove the point.

I’ve written before about our back garden which when our children were young became a grave yard for dead rabbits, birds, frogs, ad guinea pigs. We still have gravestone plaques dedicated to one cat, Tillie and to another cat Pickles. To the mice Frida and Alexandra. 

The naming of pets, the chance to go through a lifetime with a creature is good preparation for the fact of death. But it’s never the same when a person goes. At least not for me. 

I was going somewhere with this story when I talked of the other day, but every other day that lies behind me merges into another, even more so these days under the weight of lockdown, I wish I was able to delineate one moment from the next and create a clear storyline that goes up and down, creates that narrative arc so beloved by story tellers that has people on the edge of their seats only to come down the hill slowly at the other end through a satisfying epiphany and sense that something’s changed.

It’s not so easy when things can seem so much the same and yet they’re in constant flux.

I realised this when I turned forty and looked back on my life as if I’d only just realised I was in one. 

Now twenty years plus later, I look back and see things more clearly and yet my memory is not what it was when I first reflected on the meanderings of my childhood. Once I took to writing down my memories, they changed in shape. They lost their intensity. It’s as if a memory when first encountered shines with brilliance but then on revisiting again and again it loses its lustre and potency. And yet more and more I sense the bodily flash of the newness of things when I was small, in a smell, or a photo or a flash of colour on a walk.

And the look of the dog now. His visible rib cage, his sharp shoulder blades where his upper leg meets his hunches are a reminder of death. The skin and bones of our humanity that is lush and full at birth only to fade as we age. 

No moral compass

When my babies were tiny, I worried about the possibility each in their turn might be carried away in cot death. It kept me awake even after I had checked and rechecked. Until I told myself there was nothing I could do to stop it, other than take all the precautions we knew about in those days: Not too many blankets, a sturdy regulation cot, lie them down on their sides – these days a no-no. 

I checked their breathing in the middle of the night with a mirror to look for the tell-tale fog of their warm breaths when I could not hear those whisper soft sounds and then beyond a certain age, I stopped worrying.

I felt again last night the angst of those days in the form of my worries over the dog. She’s tall enough to stand on her hind legs to reach the kitchen bench.

Last night before dinner, my husband had left out two pieces of salmon to breathe before coooking. He left them in a sealed plastic bag on the bench top. A mistake we know because while he was elsewhere, the dog must have snuck them from the bench and eaten the lot.

‘Where’s the fish?’ my husband asked when he returned to the kitchen several minutes later. I had only just arrived. We looked in the fridge and the penny dropped. 

‘I found a plastic bag on the floor before’ my daughter chimed in from the stairs. ‘I thought it had come from the bin.’

My husband was furious about the stolen fish but calmed down in the knowledge you can’t blame a dog.

Dogs have no moral compass and there’s no point trying to discipline after the event. It would not make sense to the dog who can’t put two and two together. Nor can the dog realise the gut ache that follows excess consumption of fish is a consequence of stealing. 

‘They don’t learn from experience,’ I said to my daughter who rang the vet worried about her dog who tends on the sensitive stomach side of life.

The vet told her the dog might suffer some pancreatitis at worst, and at best we should anticipate some diarrhea. 

So, all night long I expected the dog’s paw on my face. The dog is learned enough to know to let me know she needs to go outside. And it was hot last night, so much so I found it hard to sleep alongside the hot breathing nearby of a dog who might at any moment be sick.

She was not sick though, and beyond two am after I took her out for a pee and nothing more, I settled into sleep.

There’s this burden to worrying about others seemingly more vulnerable than me. The children, the dogs, the people in my care.

I try to apply the same principles that let me go to sleep when my babies were tiny. I’ve done all I can, there’s nothing more I can do, dispense with the angst. Breathe deeply and let my mind rest.

But the thoughts rush back in.

I’m part of a research project on dreaming during Covid, which asks participants to record their dreams as best they can over a fourteen-day period and also every day, preferably towards the end of the day to allow themselves to stop for ten minutes and let their minds wander.

I have no trouble remembering my dreams, especially those in the morning from which I wake, but this ten-minute exercise of letting my mind wander is tricky.

I can stop and sit, then close my eyes to let my mind wander – up to a point. But I soon get caught up in thoughts of how I will remember where my mind has wandered. I need to repeat in my head where I’ve just been in order to record as best I can its meanderings. And this process interferes with the idea of letting my mind wander.,

I was telling my children about it and one suggested that I record as I let my mind wander but that’s a whole other exercise. That’s writing, and not musing. 

Over the course of the past week – I’m half way through my part on the project – I’ve noticed my preoccupation with things Covid as well as my increasing concerns over matters of life and death.

When my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother an older brother put together a photo album of our family, a page per child. On the last page he wrote a big question mark. That question mark comes back to me now. The thought that this question mark became a still born girl who never saw the light of day. A little sister who died in utero as my mother’s placenta withered away in the last days of pregnancy because of my mother’s age, the doctor said. Though how true this was I cannot say. 

I feel the ghosts of all the lost babies in my ancestry knocking at my brain, rattling my awareness of how fragile life can be.

The lottery of pregnancy, the ultrasound doctor said to me after the scans showed my ten-week-old foetus had stopped breathing. A private grief that I carried with me for the next several months until I fell pregnant again with my last baby. The relief of feeling ill in the first trimester a sure sign my baby was holding on unlike the last.

The pain of loss stays with me, and shifts my moral compass.