I Shut All The Doors Now: Our dog died

Velma the dog with a large stick, standing on the edge of the wood walking into the sunlight

This is becoming a bit of a sad blog – death and grief and loss.

(But first of all, anyone who hasn’t owned, and loved, a dog simply has no idea how it feels when they die. So don’t roll your eyes and mutter “it’s only a dog” or “it’s not like losing a child or anything” because you simply have no bloody idea.)

Danny Baker says a pet is the heart of a home. I didn’t understand what this meant until the heart of our home died.

Velma the dog looking into the camera

She was our dog

A dog is the thing you always come back to – they are at home more than anyone else, they never go on city breaks or spend the day in Meadowhall or the evening in Pizza Hut.

They are the living part of the house, the part that is always welcoming, always thrilled you are back, and never has any recriminations. They are part of your home and family’s rhythms so intimately that the shock when they are gone is incredible. Suddenly you are unmoored, adrift without any ballast.

In a million different ways I am reminded of Velma, our one-of-a-kind dog. The thump of a tail when you come downstairs in the morning, the trot to the kitchen when she hears you unbolt the back door. The sound of blackbirds shrieking as she swooped onto the lawn. The way she went to the door whenever she heard the washing machine finish its cycle, knowing I’d be going outside, her angry excitement at the postlady and the teeth-punctured envelopes. They way she hurled herself out of the front door whenever she heard the latch turn and jumped up at the fence looking for next door’s cats. The irises I foolishly planted by the fence will now get the chance to grow properly and I couldn’t be more gutted.

Velma the dog asleep in her chair

Never totally asleep when there may be a postlady to bark at

I worked from home for many years and one of the reasons we got a dog was for the company. Homeworking, especially in a village, doing a solitary job, can be depressingly isolating. On work days she would follow me into the study, jump onto her chair (always very light on her feet for such a heavy dog) and snooze, checking the window for passing dogs, postladies and wheelchairs (she hated them all). I didn’t know how valuable this companionship was until it was gone.

Now, as I move from room to room I shut all the door behind me. When I leave the house I close all the doors, and when we go to bed we do the same. No need to leave them ajar so the dog can wander about. This is a home without a dog, and the house feels so much bigger, while our lives are made so much smaller.

She has been gone a week, and while those final, terrible days seem to have happened in another universe, the hole her death has punctured through our lives shows no sign of getting any smaller.

Velma the dog close up

A constant presence

When the delivery driver pulls up I still jump up to shut the study door so the dog can’t bother him. He will never know we used to have a dog, and I still can’t believe I am writing the words ‘… we used to have a dog…’.

I clean the house, automatically wiping the places where her paw marks would be, or the bottom of the doors made grubby by her nosing through them, even though they are still clean from last time I automatically wiped them.

I prepare my lunch and go to the cupboard where the dog food was kept, ready to fill her bowl.

Even though it would be much more convenient, I can’t bring myself to leave the gates open, kept tightly shut so she wouldn’t go bowling off into the road. The spot on the drive where she used to sit and watch the pavement, sweeping the gravel clean with her tail when she saw one of her favourite passers-by, is just that – a nondescript piece of drive. There is nothing to show it was once her spot. It is just a piece of ground now.

Velma the dog walking through a rapeseed field

So many walks, so many thoughts

The time I would have spent on a dog walk, mulling over writing ideas or listening to podcasts or planning the week’s menus, is now spent writing this blog post. The dog never realised we only went on walks for her – she thought we had some important and regular business in the fields or woods and that she was tagging along.

But of course, we didn’t go on walks just for her – they were a vital part of our lives too. And now that precious hour will be filled in with emails, or ironing or Twitter, and we are made lesser because of it.

The outside space she left will be quickly filled up like sand washing into a hole on the beach. But not the space in our hearts and our thoughts. She’s gone and the door is closed forever.

Velma leaping over snow-covered ground in the twilight

Just a silhouette

Chucking memories in a skip (Home Is So Sad)

Ivy covered gravestones

I’ve been clearing out my Grandmother’s house. She died 20 years ago, but my aunt carried on living there until she recently moved out and into sheltered housing.

It was never properly emptied and dealt with when Grandma died, and oh my gods am I dealing with it now.

It isn’t a big house but it is crammed with a lifetime of things. What the hell do you do with them?

Mirror set above a fireplace

Three generations of my family have peered into this mirror. Now someone I have never met looks into it

My sister hired a skip and it has broken my heart a dozen times to see stuff tossed into it, stuff I remember from my childhood, stuff I know Grandma used and valued.

She used to bake us tiny loaves of bread to have, warm and fresh, with our tea. Discovering the bread tins, made useless with rust, in a kitchen drawer, reduced me to tears.

Cream jugs, glasses cases, ashtrays – all useless now, but how can you throw them out when they are so heavy with memories?

Collection fo glasses, vases and crockery on a table

There is a story for every single of these items, and I’ll never know what it is

I looked online to see what people do in these situations – clearing out a close relative’s house happens all the time, no? There must be strategies for coping with it, yes?

Apart from suggestions to ‘save one or two special pieces and send the rest to a charity shop’ it seems the advice is to just bin it all.

But I can’t bin the homemade needle case with the rusty needles in it, and a charity shop would look at it askance. The same goes for the address of my first house, written on the back of a Christmas card in that familiar handwriting that no-one will ever write again, or the battered tobacco box of elastic bands, or the Scrabble game with the charred tiles where my sister (as a toddler) gleefully hurled them on the fire and they had to be raked out, amidst much hysteria.

Beige tiled fireplace

The fireplace where Scrabble very nearly met its end

On top of that is the the eternal, unanswered question that underpins every bloody thing we do. How can someone be so very much alive – alive enough to cut out a dress pattern, cast on some knitting, start a shopping list – and then not be there? How can you reconcile yoursef with the fact that everything is futile, because one day, not so very far away, it will all stop?

Everything that was them – their dreams, their unvoiced opinions, their memories, their knowledge, their plans for next week, their future selves – all comes to nothing.

There is no download, no backup on Dropbox, no reboot. They are gone and it is irreversible.

Philip Larkin summed it up.

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Light shining through the coloured glass in a front door