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A Man's Best Friend

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

How does a couple go on after the death of a child? Every such situation is completely and utterly unique, so I can only speak for our own circumstance in this regard. But with three years and more having now passed since the day that turned our lives upside down, and with our relationship mercifully intact, it seems one or two responses to this question may have revealed themselves.

First and foremost we needed to, and have now many times over re-committed ourselves to each other. As the days following Ben’s death passed into weeks, and since then into months, and now years, both of us have acknowledged, by our words and by our actions, that we cannot navigate this journey without the other’s ongoing love and support. And I am confident each of us now knows we can rely upon receiving exactly that, forever.

Along with Tim’s unfaltering love and leadership, the sense of security that recommitment to one another has brought to our relationship has been the crucial stabilising influence in what has otherwise been a relentless rollercoaster ride of, not just our emotions, but our faith in what we thought we knew about our shared future.

But it has occurred to me in recent times that there has been another important factor at play in this latest phase of our journey together: namely, an unspoken understanding and acceptance that we must each allow the space and time the other needs to find their own path through the minefield that is life after Ben.

Which probably explains how and why we have both adopted forms of recreation or distraction over these past three years that we may never have gravitated towards otherwise. For Linda, golf has formed a marvellous physical and social outlet – indeed one she could not now imagine being without. For me, as you will have gathered, it is the written word that has become my constant companion and cloister.

Each to our own, but all for one, seems to have been the formula for our survival.

Touch wood.

In the months following Ben’s death our family home became a very quiet place. Almost certainly the quietest it had been since the spring of 1997. A state of quietude is often associated with a sense of peace. But for us, during the first half of 2019, the absence of noise – whether in the form of laughter, raised voices, intrusive audiovisual snippets emanating from a mobile phone or laptop, or just loud and regular burps – became synonymous in our minds and hearts with an absence of Ben. Because it wasn’t just the physical space he had occupied in our family life that was now vacant. For 21 years Ben had been a ubiquitous force of nature in our home; one whose presence made almost every single day memorable for us all for one reason or another.

So with Tim working full-time, and throwing himself wholeheartedly into his AFL training and playing regime, the house became an eerily quiet place for many hours each day during those initial weeks and months. So much so that, for Linda in particular, time spent alone at home was almost overwhelming. Every room brought memories of our beautiful boy flooding back, and the silence had become deafening.

This acute sense of loneliness was a topic that arose in conversation during a rare night out in May of 2019, when the two of us joined my best man, Simon, and his wife, Fiona, for dinner at a local restaurant. Having heard from Linda about the challenges she was facing on a daily basis, our friends simultaneously hit upon what they viewed as the perfect solution. A dog. Unsurprisingly Linda was instantly on board with this suggestion. Me?

Not so much.

Linda has been around dogs most of her life, and was very much the moving force behind the acquisition of our first family pet, Oscar the mutt from Doggy Rescue. Dubious as I was when I first laid eyes on that scruffy fluffball back in September 2003 ‑ even moreso when I heard his dreadful (but thankfully short-lived) kennel cough ‑ I could not now dispute for a moment the enormous contribution he made to our life as a family over those 14 years shared with us. It was as if Oscar’s primary objective in life was to make us all happy. Which is no doubt why dog parks were a waste of time for him. As were balls and sticks and other standard items of canine amusement. Simply because if he wasn’t within our immediate proximity, occupying our space and time, and warming our hearts, then he just wasn’t interested.

The type of devotion Oscar showed us throughout those wonderful years cuts both ways of course. And there is no doubt Linda gave at least as good as she got in her relationship with our first furred friend. Leading to a degree of mutual reliance between the two that was admired by all who witnessed it, and almost certainly envied by many. And when you see that kind of unconditional and unselfish love, you realise just how special and inspiring it is, and, equally, how rare it is to find someone who is capable of that kind of commitment, particularly in the face of all the other competing priorities life demands us to juggle each and every day.

Following Oscar’s death in June 2017 the subject of getting another dog was raised immediately by our boys, but dismissed by both Linda and I pretty quickly. Not only were we still emotionally wrought from the recent loss – one we had no desire to repeat in a hurry – but we were also, at that point in time, approaching a semi-retirement phase of life; both of us looking ahead with optimistic expectation to the increased opportunity for regular travel, be that overseas or domestically, and the chance to spend progressively more time at our recently acquired holiday home. Indeed, with the boys both now fully-fledged adults dancing very much to the beat of their own drums, we were already relishing a newfound ability to make those sorts of decisions freely, without having to worry too much about the needs and timetables of other family members.

That is to say, Linda and I had agreed, once and for all, notwithstanding the plaintive urgings from both Tim and Ben, that another dog really was quite simply out of the question.

We did, didn’t we?

The problem confronting me in May 2019 was that, with the seed of possibility having been sown by our good friends – motivated of course by undeniably good intentions, and with our very best interests at heart ‑ Linda had determined to fertilise that seed as soon as possible by raising the idea with Tim.

Now of course this was not her first rodeo when it came to delicate household negotiations. So she cleverly couched her subsequent suggestions in terms that made them significantly harder for me to oppose. This dog won’t be our dog, she assured me. It will be a present for Tim – for his upcoming birthday. A pet that will live with us in the short-term, sure, but who will become Tim’s full-time responsibility in due course; you know, when he leaves the nest in the not-too-distant future. And, of course, in the meantime Tim will willingly and equally share the burden of the feeding and the walking and the bathing and the cleaning up – won’t you Tim? Tim (without raising his eyes from his phone, where he is scrolling through online puppy adoption sites, already on the hunt for a likely contender):

“Yeah yeah, for sure, no probs”. (Wait - what?)

Long story short, it became apparent very quickly that there was no point whatsoever in me attempting to swim against the king tide of family opinion that had appeared on the horizon in relation to this issue over a period of just days. Both Linda and Tim are such dog-lovers, and the idea of having another hairy member of the family to love and spoil had lifted their spirits so quickly and tangibly, that I simply could not bring myself to be the one to stand in the way.

And so it was that a few brief weeks later we found ourselves wending our way north late on a Sunday morning to Bells Echo Animal Rescue on the Central Coast with the stated intention of purchasing a dog for Tim for his 24th birthday. After a searching and arduous interview process, during which we compared the credentials of numerous can(ine)didates, we found ourselves, in a collective state of blissful ignorance, signing on the dotted line for the undeniably cute Lola (soon to be known as Zali).

Having been informed that Lola/Zali is a mixture of border collie, kelpie and bull arab I had found myself pleasantly surprised at just how diminutive she appeared to be. I would soon learn she had not only lied on her application form about her anticipated size, but she had also managed to keep her numerous behavioural idiosyncracies successfully concealed throughout our meet‑and-greet.

Two weeks later, having experienced major issues with Zali’s toileting, and having witnessed a growing penchant for destruction, Linda announces she is ready to take her back from whence she came – not least of all because she knows Zali’s behaviour is driving a wedge between us; a wedge we could well do without at this, the most formidable time of our lives. Against my better judgment, and for reasons I did not, at the time, fully understand, I talk Linda out of that proposed course of action.

What we failed to take into account when acquiring Zali is that we have no prior experience of the very specific demands associated with handling and raising a puppy – Oscar having joined our family at the ripe old age of eight months ‑ particularly one with as much energy and doggedness as Zali has. And of course, as we should realistically have anticipated, the overwhelming burden of responsibility for her maintenance has fallen to us, most especially Linda, rather than to her “owner”.

As time passes some issues – eg toileting, and the destruction of personal items – resolve reasonably quickly, however others – eg digging up the back lawn, a marked reluctance to respond when called in any public space, and a feverish and all-consuming obsession with various forms of wildlife (especially possums, lizards, rabbits and bush turkeys) – emerge.

Some of these problems remain to this very day, and have been a persistent source of aggravation and exasperation for one particular member of the family. So much so that he has, on a number of occasions, given careful thought to ways and means by which Zali’s departure to “a more suitable environment” might be achieved. And of course one of the hardest adjustments we have been required to make as a family during this period is that almost every decision we now take about what we do, and when we do it, is required to factor Zali’s needs into account.

But it is only as the months following her arrival have transitioned into years that I have come to realise there is an awful lot about bringing up Zali that closely reflects our experience in raising a young Ben.

Like Ben, she is absolutely gorgeous.

Like Ben, she gives us hours of amusement each week with her quirky behaviour and fun‑loving cheekiness.

Like Ben she is extremely social, and has a propensity to make friends wherever she goes. (Although, like Ben, she also has an occasional ability to annoy others less exuberant and outgoing than herself).

Like Ben, she is generally fearless, sometimes to the point of foolishness – a characteristic which is almost certainly related to the fact that, like young Ben before her, she has been no stranger to illness and injury over the past couple of years. (Including, for example, the occasion when she ended up spending a night at the local vet after locating someone’s cannabis stash in the park behind our house, and deciding to test the merchandise –

nice one Zarls!).

Like Ben, particularly when he was a young man, Zali can be extremely stubborn, and self‑absorbed. And of course, with that single-mindedness comes an acute reluctance to accept the word “No”. (Funnily enough, one of Ben’s pre-school teachers used virtually that exact description for our youngest when he was about four years of age).

But you know what? Ben would have bloody well loved her; and so, as it turns out, do we. Yep, even old Grumblebum here it seems. And who knows; notwithstanding her rocky start, given time, and love, she may just become exactly who and what we needed her to be.

Quite some time ago a person who I greatly admire brought this quotation, or perhaps an abridged version of it, to my attention. Poignant as it is, I have never been entirely sure that I agree with it. You see it has been of enormous importance to me these past three years to feel that my love for Ben, which remains, of course, undiminished – and indeed is almost certainly greater now than it has ever been – does have somewhere to go. The Beniverse itself has been a crucial factor in allowing me to maintain that conviction.

So perhaps the conflict with which I have been wrestling in this regard can be resolved in this way. It seems to me there are (at least) two kinds of love. There is the love which manifests itself in how we feel – the way our heart skips when we see that face, or fold into that familiar embrace, the pride we experience for our loved one’s successes and achievements, just as if they were our own, the way we physically ache when something or someone hurts them, or when they leave us, be that for a week, a month, or forever.

And then there is the love expressed in what we do – the willing donation of gifts and support and time, the sharing of plans and intimate thoughts, the selfless performance of duties and chores and favours, often without recognition or acknowledgement, but nevertheless without hesitation, day in and day out, year upon year.

Self-evidently these are two very different forms of love. Some specialise in one, but may not be so well-versed in the other. After many years of close observation and wonder I have reached the conclusion that my wife and life partner has an almost limitless capacity for the second kind of love. And it is this love for Ben that has, for her, had nowhere to go since he left us.

What I also now understand ‑ and I confess it has taken me longer than it should have to reach this state of enlightenment ‑ is that Zali is the very necessary outlet for Linda’s unspent “doing” kind of love. The love that might otherwise have remained unexpressed, at least in part, but which forms such a fundamental element of the extraordinary human being she is, and has been for as long as I have known her.

How could I deny my best friend that?

I can't.


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