We’d decided we wanted a dog. Heather was a German Shepherd fancier whereas a Boxer would have been my choice. Then Heather went to a friend’s for dinner and said that a Golden Retriever was an ideal family dog. Ok, I thought, a dog is a dog.
His pedigree papers said “Visions of Summer”. But he was really named by little Yael Wollstein in 1997. We were in the Wollstein’s tiny Jerusalem flat. Yael was showing Ronit, her mother, her childish drawings to which Ronit would distractedly praise “Yoffi! Yoffi!”, Hebrew for Great and Beautiful. So Yoffi it was.
He was close to the runt of the litter, certainly small for a male. We picked him up from West Sussex in my cherished Lancia Thema Turbo. He was sick on the way home. It wasn’t for many months that he would turn left out of our gate. Ben was 13, Kate 15, Heather’s mother would die within weeks. His presence was formative, guiding our children through their teenage years, soaking up their grief and angst, as only a dog, and a Golden Retriever, can do.
From those timid beginnings he grew to be a great hunter. Our vet said he’d become a lion by two – and he was right. He caught and killed many a squirrel. I had to lift him off a baby deer once. And yet he wouldn’t bite hard enough to squeeze a squeaky toy.
As for Boozie, he knew who was boss. In their younger years she would herd him back to us. He’d run our way, at full pelt, eyes rolled back in true terror, and often knock us over. We all know, women rule.
Mind you, he couldn’t retrieve for toffee. One passerby described him as a Golden Leaver. And as good as Boozie’s timing at catching was, his was disastrous. He might jump before we’d thrown a stick or after it had hit the ground. But he loved our joy.
For most of his life his daily walk was Richmond Park. What more could you want? Rabbits, squirrels, deer, other dogs and people we only knew by their dogs’ names, “You know, Poppy, the collie, her owner”. In his prime we’d walk for hours, with our greatest fear him rushing into the six-foot high ferns to chase out deer. As the ferns shrunk in the autumn he’d become our springer retriever, jumping my chest high, legs up, tail quivering, to gain height to look for quarry. He didn’t enjoy the heat, over 14C was warm. A few degrees and frozen so that he could break ice was perfect.
Aside from walks his greatest joy was a new toy. He would wander around the house for hours showing it to you, giving it to you and then, ever so gently, taking it back. And he was so gentle with his toys and with us. We still have his first ever toy, a caterpillar.
He adored visitors. As Boozie intimidated them, he’d rush to his basket to find a toy and bring it to them. His favourite people were Roger, Peter, Monika, Karolina, Barb and Terry. Anyone who spent time qualified, anyone who had a biscuit was instantly won over. Even Jo Wickham, a cat lover, became a Yoffi-phile. For a few months his favourite evening stroll was down to Richmond Circus to visit Barb. Barb always had biscuits. Retriever logic is impeccable.
Yoffileh, in the diminutive Hebrew, grew older, calmer, more distinguished.
Almost immediately after Boozie’s death in 2010 he had two cancers removed and lost all his hair. Within months he had a newer, more luxuriant, coat. He went through a brief second childhood, including multi-mile walks. But we knew he was on precious, borrowed, grace time. We were privileged. We decided that, for the remainder of his time, he’d be the King of Dogs – no new puppy for us.
The last few months his walks became short strolls. He lost quite a bit of hearing and sight. So he revelled in sniffing. We’d walk, a mile an hour, and his nose would be stuck into something. He had a penchant for urine soaked leaves. Don’t we all?
Still, until just three days before his death he provided structure to our day. He’d stamp his feet at us for the first walk. Noon was lunch, plus or minus a couple of minutes – and weekends that meant a pig’s ear too. 6pm and it was dinner – and a second walk since Boozie’s death. 10pm it was biscuits. When he didn’t want to walk or eat we would know the time was nigh.
A couple of weeks back, Ben came over pre-Glastonbury and gave Yoffi extra attention. Ben doesn’t make it back all that often and it was worth an extra insurance cuddle.
Sunday, the 26th of June 2011, we had Kate over for a barbecue. He was slow but happy. He could still manage the step from the garden to the kitchen. He was particularly adept if food was being moved. And he still could manage the stairs as he followed us to bed.
I thought we might get another year still.
Monday he was in such pain, not rising, that Heather took him to the vet. He was put on an opiate. He never truly recovered. Heather slept downstairs with him Monday night. Tuesday morning, 5:00 am, I awoke, I just stroked him for half an hour. We took him back to the vet, thinking he’d reacted badly to the opiate. That may just have been the catalyst. He rallied a bit on Tuesday – more stabilising than recovering. Tuesday afternoon there was hope, so he stayed overnight at the vets. He had arthritis and suspected spinal damage, possibly a slipped disc.
Wednesday morning Heather and I visited him. He wasn’t eating. He couldn’t stand. When we knelt beside him he would just put a paw on our arm, his most intimate signal of trust. Wednesday afternoon not even the paw moved. It was time. He died in our arms at 2:00 pm. Our friend, Tim, the vet, handled us well.
It’s very poignant. We’ve been in the house since 1999. We had two then one, now no, dogs. Our life was built around weekend walks, dog walkers, dog sitters. We’ve put away blankets, towels, leads. We’ve given away medicine, food and treats.
We’re free from the constraints of a dog. Right now, I’d have them all just to have Yoffi back on my office kilim so that I could rub his tummy and listen him issue his low gentle growl of needing attention. I’ve lost my excuse to experience Richmond Park in all its seasons and weathers.
We are numb and lost and free, free to be lonely. We were family for over 5,000 days. It isn’t since 1976 that Heather and I have been without animals or children in our house.
Now it’s time to consider where to spread his ashes. We have a couple of weeks. Is it to be the pond he loved to break ice in? Is it to be the tree where he had the deer pinned. Is it to be the “squirrel trees” or the woods near the pond or the rabbit patch near the ballet school? Should I put a handful in the recreation ground near our old house? Maybe a bit in our garden?
Ultimately we decided that his should be spread about, near the Boozie tree, but not in one place. He’d lean against trees with his front paws, willing squirrels to descend, so some is by his favourite leaning tree. He’d be a Springer Retriever, so some is in the ferns. He’d chase squirrels up oak trees – so a couple of gnarled oaks have been dusted. And some is mixed in with Boozie’s ashes, by her tree, in Conduit Woods. There we were family together. I’ve dropped a smidgen on the new kilim in my office – it was his favourite spot in his twilight months.
I don’t know where old dogs go. I just hope he has cool, bright days, a toy, squirrels to chase and someone with a biscuit in their pocket for him who strokes Yoffi’s ears for us.
And I was wrong. A dog is not just a dog.
Some photographs are here, on Flickr.