Grave diggers

2013-02-11 00:00

“PHONE the SPCA and tell them we don’t want the dog,” she says.

“We?”

“You know what I mean. Besides, I am tired of you choosing dogs for me!”

I had only tried to find her a dog to match her personality. Which meant a small dog. A little teddy bear.

A few days later, she said I should phone the SPCA and tell them we would take the dog.

The weather in the Cape pales into insignificance compared to my wife, Sweet Pea.

And so on March 1, 2000, I freed Patch from the Pietermaritzburg SPCA and brought him home. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew he was the one. It was almost as if he could communicate with people. He had that smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye, and would spring in the air with that “take me, take me” expression. March 1, 2000. His first day with us.

How strange life is, though. Sweet Pea had initially said she did not want him, but from day one Patch fancied her more than me. Come to think of it, she fancied Patch more than me as well! These thoughts flash through my mind on a glorious summer’s morning as she carries him like a child through our garden. February 14, 2012. Patch’s last day with us!

From the moment he joined us, it was as though he put the Paljas on us. He brought the happiness, the magic into our lives. For almost four years into our marriage we could have no children. But six months after the arrival of our four-legged baby, we rejoiced at the impending arrival of a two-legged kind.

It is this two-legged one, Apple of my Eye, who now helps Sweet Pea bath Patch after he had vomited for the umpteenth time and collapsed from exhaustion in the mess. As we bath him, I think about the dream Sweet Pea had about five months earlier. She had seen her late father in the dream calling Patch. And I remember how she had said Patch was so happy in the dream and ran off to be with her dad. At the time, we rejoiced because we interpreted the dream as meaning her dad had wanted to see the dog, for Sweet Pea’s dad had adored Patch. Even at his funeral, we took Patch to the coffin to say goodbye. My father-in-law would always tease Apple of my Eye and say: “Patch is grandfather’s dog. He’s going to stay with grandfather.” And stay he eventually did. Almost to the day my father-in -law had passed away a year earlier. And both of them had suffered from diabetes. In all my years, I would never have guessed dogs could have diabetes.

After his bath we carry him like a child through the entire house, room by room, mapping out the architecture of grief as we let him say goodbye to a house he had called home. I carry him through the garden one last time to say goodbye to the donkeys. “You’ve been a good boy,” I say. “You were our boy. Go now and come back as a boy child. As the son we never had. With a patch of white hair like Charlie Weir. Then I’ll know it is you.”

In a few minutes it will be off to the vet where the doctor, armed with a syringe and a water-like liquid, will say: “Let the rivers take you, old boy.”

Normally, Sweet Pea would never have had the courage to go through with this. But when the diabetes whispers to Patch: “Your sweet life is up, chum,” and maybe when he could endure the insulin injections no more, Patch lets us know the end is near.

Days before he starts digging a hole behind a tree he was never fond of. We would find him, collapsed from exhaustion, next to this tree. His tree. And we would carry him inside and dust him off. But hours later, he would resume the digging, acquainting himself no doubt with the earth that will soon embrace him. On his penultimate night with us, he waits at the door. I let him out. When he does not come back, I fear the worst. Armed with a torch, I look frantically for him. I eventually find him next to his tree. He had been digging and had collapsed from exhaustion.

On his last night, he lets out a cry at 3 am that pierces the night. A cry like I have never heard in all my years with dogs. We find him with two paws on the stairs. It is a sign, we think. He wants to see his favourite room before he dies. We carry him up. He sleeps peacefully. But he does not die. He now wants to go outside.

“Let him go,” I say

“What if he dies outside?” cries Sweet Pea.

“I want him to die inside,” wails Apple of my Eye.

I am outnumbered.

But Patch has his way. He always got his way. He knows he has a grave to dig, I think to myself.

When he scratches on the door to come in at 6 am, after I have fallen into a deep sleep, I am half disappointed. For it means we must put him down. And putting a pet down is a traumatic experience.

“Patch David”, the nurse calls from the reception area of the vet’s practice. Patch David, St Peter calls ...

We return home and debate whether to bury Patch at the tree he started digging under. We decide it may be better to bury him in the rose bed overlooking the Umgeni River, or where the giant pine tree used to stand.

But just then Duke, our basset hound and lifelong companion of Patch, waddles to the avocado tree and with his knobbly legs, chubby paws and long nails, starts digging. We cannot believe what we are seeing. With tears in my eyes, I take the pick and spade, and prepare Patch’s last resting place.

I had always considered an avocado tree an inauspicious resting place. Months later, however, I stumble across the symbolism of an avocado tree. It symbolises everlasting love. In Colombia, for example, an ideal husband brings avocados as gifts for his wife. And then I had peace. For it made sense to me why our boy had to die on Valentine’s Day.

Two nights after Valentine’s Day, I have a dream about Patch. I dream I am fighting with our vet and screaming: “You are the one responsible for Patch dying. You gave him old insulin. Just look at this. The insulin you gave us has expired.”

I wake up the next morning with that upset feeling after you have had a bad dream. It upset me because our vet is the kindest person you could meet. How could I dream such a thing about a man who offered such exemplary care to Patch?

But I have a 7.45 am class in Durban and there is no time to dwell on the matter.

That evening, I lie on my bed with that hollow feeling after the death of a loved one. And it is then that I recall my dream.

Out of curiosity, I go to the fridge to check the date of the insulin — 02/ 2011.

The insulin had expired a year before.

People told me to “sue the vet for negligence”. But I felt that grave digger in the sky must have been looking to adopt a dog into his family on Valentine’s Day 2012.

To Patch, with apologies.

Darryl Earl David is the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in South Africa. He was the 2011 grand prize winner of the True Stories of KZN Competition.

He is the founder of South Africa’s national Booktown in the Karoo, the national Zulu Literary Museum at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and six literary festivals throughout SA. He is also the co-author of 101 Country Churches of SA.

He is married to his high school sweetheart, Sheritha, an optometrist, with whom he has “co-authored” one daughter, Kiara.

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