"Is he dying?" my elder daughter asked in a nervous voice. Like most 10-year-olds today, she has the uncanny ability to pick up the signs faster than she should. She was staring suspiciously as I fed Disco, our Golden Retriever, some chocolate. For 12 years, barring his birthday cake, if there was one thing no one even gave him sneakily under the table it was this - everyone in the household knew sweets are a dog's poison.
The monotonous pitter-patter on the wooden floors have since gone silent. There is no longer any paw-scratching as though unearthing some buried treasure; there is no spinning around till we collapsed with vertigo and he into a crumpled bed, thoroughly satisfied.
Now my house is quiet. Too quiet.
Disco - the name comes closest to the moves my heart made at fist look - was our gentle giant, a furry, mostly overweight (are they any other kind?) Golden Retriever who would remain in afternoon slumber by the gate even when a cat jumped over it - or him. Nor did he look up when the kids and their friends together pulled on his tail. Yet, he was always present. The security on a cold night as he took dibs on the quilt with all his mighty weight, or on a hot summer day, sleeping in front of the air purifier mistakenly presuming it to be an air-con. For my two girls, he was their constant. He welcomed them when they were born - a bit suspiciously for first, with some resignation for the second - and made sure they paid for it by always sprawling in the middle of their playdates. Disco was forever their wingman.
He was also one of a kind. Disco came to us in a fruit basket on a flight from Mumbai when he was just a few weeks old and it was enough to forever kill any interest in travel. So we never had any poster pictures of a shiny dog peeping out from a car window with his ears flapping in the wind; instead he was meeker than the mildest, cowering down - all 40 kgs of him - and waiting for the travel sickness to crawl away. Over the years, he stopped hiding under the middle of the bed, with his size he couldn't have anyway, but his favourite sanctuary remained his place beneath the table, his space surrounded by his own. He also possibly was the only vegetarian dog around who loved eating karela and was considerate enough to only tear one favourite shirt as a pup.
After he turned eleven, he stopped bounding up and down the stairs; unsteady now, he would take them gingerly, one at a time. His vet diagnosed him with a heart condition giving him 6 months or slightly more. His bark became different and his four whiskers turned white. We dreaded an approaching end. After twelve and a half years, it was impossible to believe that there would be a shelf life on unconditional love and wet licks. Eventually, he proved he was a fighter, living a year and some months longer than expected by the vet.
Some days, we would laugh, saying he reminded us of the cranky old man who loses patience with age. He barked regularly only in his last year, making up for his disinterest in it for most of his life. If I thought my kids had finally outgrown banging on the door of my bathroom, there was a new drummer now. Disco would stand outside impatiently, bringing the house down till the door was open.
His condition worsened. He would find it hard to walk, often struggling on his belly to move a few inches to get some water but never drank if you brought him the bowl. He was a creature of habit. On the last evening, he came and stood by me, saying nothing. His heart was packed with so much love for us, maybe we took a lot and that's why it gave up. He never complained. All he wanted was his place around the table and us in his heart. In those 12 years, and then at the end, just the comfort of his being around made both smiling and crying easy.
It was only after he was gone that we realized how much the entire household revolved around Disco. There was an endless line of firsts. The first time nobody stirs to greet you at the door when you come home, the first time that you leave the house without anyone looking forlornly at the gate when you leave. The first time you can pack suitcases openly without ensuring the personality who it would upset was not in the room or was too fast asleep to notice. Yoga is no longer fun, there is no one to sit on my mat while I am suspended in air.
Someday it will become easier to unroll the carpets again. They say time heals but in the words of a friend, we - those who are dog families - will always be the walking wounded. And we are; something will always be urgently and immovably missing.
Once, it was the most joyous thing to see dogs on the street. Today, it brings home the enormous loss. Hopefully, a time will come when we will take another chance with love for a dog, but for now, we are still grieving and selfish enough to insist it's only Disco or bust. My distraught older daughter is conflicted, she loves dogs too much to not have another, yet realizes she isn't brave enough to handle a similar heartbreak. To my younger daughter, we said, ''He has gone to a good place." Unconvinced, she replied, "But this was the best place. With us."
(Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava worked with NDTV for more than a decade and now writes on a variety of topics for several news organisations.)
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