by Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron
Seven in the morning, and I cradle 38 pounds of whippet in my left arm as I carefully climb from the boat to the dock. I have lifted Leo on and off the boat more than 1200 times since he and Marjorie and I sailed from Cape Breton in July, 2004. We have sailed 4500 miles together.
He has had a terrible night, his breath trembling, his heartbeat chaotic, his frail body unable to lie in comfort. I carry him a few steps, and he gives a little twist. Put me down, he is saying, I want to walk. I carefully set him on his feet, and he trots jauntily up the wharf – ears up, head high, a dog on a mission.
He jumps down the two wooden steps to the grass, does his business, and then stands very still, eyes narrowed, sniffing the air, orienting himself in the new day. Ah, yes. Bird-song, and the smell of fish. I’m in Hampton, Virginia. I have friends in these shoreside townhouses. Fine.
He turns back toward the dock. At the steps, he halts. Help me, he is saying, I can’t manage this. He is two months short of his fifteenth birthday, and he has arthritis, congestive heart disease, fatty tumours, cataracts and hearing loss. He is not the light-hearted, speeding bullet of a dog that he was when I met him, a decade ago.
I lift him, and carry him down the dock to the boat. And this time he doesn’t object.
The small house in Fort Langley, BC had a river of baby whippets flowing through it. There were three, four, no, five of them falling off couches and tumbling together on the carpeted floors. There were so many plump puppy limbs tangled together, I couldn?t tell one animal from another.
“Jocelyne,” I whispered to my five-year-old niece, who stood in quivering delight by my side, “how will we ever choose the right one?” It was 1991, I was 32 years old, and had never had my very own dog. My heart thudded. This was a forever choice.
Thump, kersmack, thump. It sounded as though someone had vigorously rolled a five-pound bag of potatoes down the staircase that led to the living room. Instead we turned to see a sixth puppy careening around a corner toward us. His body, like the others, was short-backed and ended in a wind-milling tail. Unlike the others, this one had a pronounced black mask on his white face. He hurled his tan and white body onto the puppy pile of his siblings.
“That’s Bandit,” laughed the woman into whose home we had come. She was a full-time equestrian judge and a part-time breeder of dogs. “Just his kennel name, but I couldn’t call him anything else with a mask like that, could I?”
Perhaps not, but I could. I wanted my dog to live up to his name, not settle down to it. I didn’t want a thieving dog, no matter how cute the name. I wanted a dog who would be a co-adventurer, with a heart as big and brave as a – – lion. Leonine. Leo. That’s what I’d call him.
Bandit streaked by us. Jocelyne and I locked eyes. Yes.
From that day on, there was never any reason for me to be apart from Leo. Two weeks earlier, I’d quit a salaried job and begun working at home as a freelance writer. When I worked at my computer, Leo snoozed on a near-by couch. When I drove hither and yon to do interviews or take photos, Leo came with me, and waited in the car.
When the work day was done, we’d hightail it to the many paths and parks alongside the Fraser River, or to the lowlands of Vancouver’s Southlands, where I rode horses and Leo reveled in being a barn-hound. On weekends we’d hike the North Shore mountain trails or drive to Whistler Mountain. I’d pack a picnic for us – sandwiches for me, canned food for him – and we?d find a pretty water-side spot to have our lunch along the way.
His mask had faded. But his mercury-glinting eyes were still thickly outlined with black, like a kohl-eyed Egyptian of long ago. Friends share, said those expressive eyes. I wasn’t very good at being strict.
“All right, all right. Egg salad or chicken?”
Once I took him bushwacking near Pender Harbour, north of Vancouver. No trail, only a thick lattice-work of sword-ferns and the high star-bursts of uprooted dead-fall. Leo threw himself at these immense, felled Douglas firs. If not for their sodden, crumbling sides, he would have scrambled up and jumped clear. He submitted to my help– a gut-wrenching heave over the top – though not before I could prevent numerous, ill-fated leaps of his own. When the day was over, I cried to see his bloodied belly.
Leo thought the steaks that night were just fine.
And so we worked, lived and played in Richmond, BC, a contented duo surrounded by family and friends. There was no reason to change anything, unless the change suited us both very well.
“A whippet?” asked a wonderful man I’d just begun corresponding and talking with in 1996. “I’ve never seen a whippet. What are they like?”
Where did I start? And how to say, love me, love my….
“They’re like a greyhound, except smaller,” I answered inadequately. “They’re so….” Long pause.
“Hello? Are you still there?”
“Well, they’re so whole-hearted about everything. Everything you can do, is just more fun with a whippet. They love the world so much, they make you love it more, too.” I closed my eyes and saw Leo as I’d seen him earlier that day, on the beach: “When you see him run, your heart hurts. It’s that beautiful. ”
I didn’t tell him, then, how soft a whippet’s ears are — like a chamois cloth — and how sadness can be banished by holding a whippet close. These discoveries came to him later.
When Don and I married in 1998, Leo had spring flowers interwoven in his collar. He and many other dogs belonging to friends thronged into the church’s courtyard after the wedding. Leo found us for a brief, reassuring moment, then whirled away back in the crowd.
The days of three forever had begun.
Nine in the morning, and two gentle, kind women are aboard the boat – a veterinarian and her assistant, recommended by friends. For the first time ever, Leo did not jump out of the berth to greet his visitors. He is utterly spent, too weary to stand. The vet confirms what we already knew. His vital signs are very feeble.
But he comes sharply alert when Marjorie produces four strips of bacon. We take turns breaking them up and feeding them to him – a feast of bacon, the most bacon he has ever seen. He wolfs it down eagerly.
I pick him up and stretch him out on a towel on the galley table. He raises his head in momentary consternation, but lies down when we ask him to. I hold his head, gazing into his eyes, telling him how he is loved. Marjorie wraps her arms around his body, muttering Thank you, Thank you, over and over. The vet lifts his foreleg and slips a needle into a vein.
Nothing happens. His eyes don’t flicker, his body doesn’t twitch. He just lies there, with his eyes half-open. The vet slips a hand under his leg.
“He’s gone,” she says. The two women leave us with the mortal remains of our gallant companion. The days of weeping begin.
Nine-thirty in the morning. I lift Leo from the table. The vet positions his limp neck across my shoulder. His head hangs down my back. He does not feel like Leo at all. Blinded by tears, I carry him up the wharf for the second time this morning.
And for the very last time, ever.
– 30 –
Copyright, Silver Donald Cameron and Marjorie Simmins. This article was published in the Sunday Chronicle Herald, May 7, 2006.