Many, many, many years ago when I was first married to a man whom I no longer know, I had a dog. His name was Benny, and he was my baby.
Young newly weds, we rented a small duplex where the ‘no pet’ policy was underlined – twice, in red – on our lease. The Italian lady who owned our duplex was lovely, and very easy going. But – and we didn’t know this at the time – her mother was the appointed guardian of the house, and lived just 4 houses down the road. She was about 4 foot 3, wore the Italian widow uniform of black gabardine, black stockings, head scarf and spoke no English, because it suited her better that way.
Benny was a fine little man. Black and white, a tail that spun in circles and bright eyes, his whole body wagged when he was happy, which was pretty much always.
We thought it would be easy to keep him hidden from the mafia widow. Whenever she would pass by, she would unleash a tirade of Italian directed at something she didn’t like. We would smile and nod and through gritted teeth, say “hide the dog!”
Puppies eat. And chew. And dig. Trying to keep him hidden and quiet from the mafia widow was quite a feat. He ate through the row of Chilean willow trees that lined the back fence. Lopped them all off at head height, so when we found them one day, they looked like a row of broken toothpicks standing sentry along the fence. He chewed through the gate post. Ate a section of asbestos fencing. Dug up the septic tank pit. Ate through our shoes, the door mat, a chunk of the back step. It became evident we would have to keep him inside unit if we didn’t want to look like we had a puppy and risk becoming a mafia target. Which, of course we didn’t.
So, inside he came, Sir Benjamin. He learned very quickly not to come past the laundry tiles when we were home. That’s not to say he remembered when we were not home. Benny cost us a fortune in house repairs. Benny cost us a fortune in vet bills. I have no idea how he lived as long as he did. Once he resided indoors, where we holed him up, hidden like a member of the Frank family, he went to town on what he could find. The carpet. The chair leg. A curtain. A whole roll of chux cloth for an entree followed by main course of an length of industrial strength steel wool cost him a large chunk of his large bowel. And us a large chunk of our dwindling savings. A bike tyre, screwdriver handles, the door jamb, the dust brush, the rubbish bin. The garage remote. The Dustbuster. The dog food dish. A paint can.
We were on first name basis with the emergency vet hospital for a long time. It became evident we would need our own home. Benny came too.
The new home was fun. And there was no mafia lady. We had chooks for Benny to chase. That was his favourite pass time. The chooks were tolerant of him, he never hurt them, but he did eat their eggs. We had ducks, who were less tolerant than the chooks. We had park where he could run. He still chewed everything in sight. But the strangest thing slowed down that chewing. A sibling. Benny was blessed with a sister, splotch the cat. Instantly he became a caretaker, and although he knew better, he let splotch grow up thinking she was the boss.
10 years on, and a divorce later, I moved onto the land, where I had 2 acres to roam in. Benny came too. We were a team, Benny and I. Where she goes, he goes.
Fast forward, and along comes current husband, and a move across the other side of the country. Of course, Benny came too.
Imagine, if you can, a 4 wheel drive, a trailer, a cat in a cat cage and a dog on a leash and a suitcase as we set off for a weeks travel to our new home. From Perth to Brisbane, holing up at night in motels, smuggling the animals in to rented motel rooms when no one was looking. In the middle of the Nullabor somewhere, I can still recall Benny chewing his way off the leash one night, and letting the cat out of the bathroom where we had her shut in tight while we escaped for some dinner. A meal, a glass of wine, and we set off to retire, only to return to the motel unit to see a pair of yellow green eyes staring at us through the motel room window. A little mouth, opening and closing, showing a pink tongue obviously protesting her prison. How the hell did she get there? What has that bloody dog done now? Cautiously open the door and spy a chewed up pillow. Foam and feathers everywhere. The lamp upside down, the sheets on the floor. Sensing freedom, the cat suddenly bolts for the half open front door. Sensing fun, Benny bolts for the cat. Current husband pounces on the cat as she hits the freedom threshold, snaring her by the tail. I grab Benny’s leash, effectively strangling him as his legs keep on peddling even though his body was stopped by the strangle hold I have on the leash. Both animals are yelping and wailing, legs peddling. Both adults are laying on their bellies, arms outstretched, restraining the illegal guests. The door is open the moon is shining and we are thinking “What the fff… are we doing?”
Funnily enough, we left that unit very early the next morning, in the still dark. We find a truck stop with big bins in which to stuff the chewed pillow, and eat a can of tomato soup for breakfast. Benny was let free. Finally. Blissful freedom. The cat, relegated again to her cage, was put on a rock quite some distance away so we could ignore her baleful stare. I still have the holes in my back. Benny, off his leash finally, runs and runs as dogs should. Until he sees his first emu. You could see that little brain churn. “Big Chook! I remember chooks!” Food! Always up for a bit of fun, off he goes again. Funniest thing I have ever seen, Benny running down the desert flat chasing the “big chook” and then, about 3 minutes later, the big old chook chasing Benny back towards the truck stop, Benny’s tongue hanging out with the biggest grin a dog can have.
Arthritis came to Benny when he was about 15. Due to a shark cartilage supplement we added to his food, we are able to help him manage a pain free life (as much as we could tell). It slowed him down but didn’t stop him. Apart from having to lift him in and out of the car, he ran and played and walked and snoozed as much as ever, just not for as long as in his hey day.
Benny moved house with me no less than 7 times. He saw 2 husbands, several affairs, 7 different houses and got to know a whole of of vets. And, in his 18th year, he saw me get pregnant and give birth to number one son. I was dubious. I had heard so many stories about babies and pets, especially pets who had been in the family for so long.
I need not have worried. Benny treated the baby like gold. At the first introduction, Bennie gave a low whimper, looked at me then the babe. A sniff, lick, a gentle head butt, and he snuggled under that cot and did not move from that babe’s side.
When my son was 6 months old, Benny could no longer be cured by shark cartilage. His arthritis was so bad, and one day out of the blue, his back legs stopped working. The flies plagued his rear end, and within 3 days he had an abscess that the flies used for their own breeding. It just was not fair. My old friend deserved better, much better. It was the hardest decision I had ever made, but it had to be done.
I remember hanging out the washing, pegging up nappies and trying not to cry. Benny looked at me as current husband prepared to carry him to the car. He knew, he knew. I found it hard to meet those big old eyes, which were now rheumy and covered with a soft bluey white film. But they could still see me, and they could see right into my soul. He said goodbye, without words, the soul of human and dog acknowledging what had been, what is, and what had to come. My soul thanked him for being my best friend for so long. My soul thanked him for the type of unconditional love that only an animal can give. My soul said goodbye, and cried silent tears.
Afterwards, I looked back at my washing and my 6 month old babe, and I swear to you – through my tears I saw little black and white puppy running through the bushes by the fence, a shoe in his mouth, a smile on his puppy face…
It must have been the light and shadows.