By Jiaying Lim
The first time I truly felt that bone-deep dread, I was curled up in the loft of my childhood home in Singapore on the last winter vacation of my life. It was different from other sunny carefree breaks I had whittled away. It was my last year in college, the precious last few months before starting my first day at my first full-time job in the United States, and my mind, my body, my soul were slowly cranking into gear for the jarring lurch from reassuring dependency to adulthood.
As I lay in bed alone in a room that no longer felt like home, a deep melancholy enveloped me. I had affixed the Cone of Shame around Sally's neck just a few minutes prior, just as I had done on the past four days since her visit to the vet. It was a temporary necessity for her minor injury to heal. She had squirmed helplessly as I twisted the plastic tie through the loops, futilely pushing aside wisps of her fur to prevent them from getting snagged. I murmured little platitudes the whole time in the soothing, lilting voice she liked. She calmed, but it would take more than that to ease her discomfort, of course.
I lay there, laptop abandoned, sobbing rather pitifully. I hypothesised that perhaps this was a monthly hormones-induced category of sadness, which would usually be wiped clean by a good cry. After all, Sally was almost definitely wedged under the sink in the bathroom on the floor directly below me at that moment, her belly rippling with scratchy snores. It all seemed quite irrational this melancholy but it wasn't. I knew I couldn't keep invalidating my emotions, and avoiding, delaying, obscuring and ignoring my dread of her imminent death. I imagined life without her and drew a blank. It was the anticipation of future grief, but why did it feel so real?
An owner wields such absolute control over her pet, but also, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, so pathetically little. Sally is 14 years old, and 14 times seven equals a century in dog years. I found, from a frantic 3am visit to the petMD website, that the average life expectancy of a Pomeranian is 10 years. Sally is a pudgy little overachiever. But she is not immortal.
We don't choose family: they are assigned to us with ties sealed and branded with biology. We also expect our family members to exist for the regular span of human life. But we deliberately bring pets into our lives, share our most uninhibited moments for their perfectly forgiving eyes, forge all these relationships with the knowledge that none of these would last beyond 15 to 20 years. One or two decades of unadulterated bliss exchanged for an aftermath of loss and a gaping hole in your heart. "There is sorrow enough in the natural way / From men and women to fill our day; / And when we are certain of sorrow in store, / Why do we always arrange for more?" To Rudyard Kipling, this is (borrowing the title of his poem) "the power of the dog".
I don't remember when I decided I wanted a dog. But I remember having to endure weeks of my mama pointedly reading out various articles on abandoned dogs, and how I had to promise, repeatedly and earnestly, that I could never be so irresponsible.
The next thing I remember was waking up in one of the leafier, more remote parts of Singapore, and clambering out of the car tingling with excitement. I didn't know that I'd need a cage, a collar, specialised dog food according to size and jaws, and a bowl for said specialised food according to size and jaws. I had also assumed that all dogs looked like golden retrievers, and was stunned by the sheer variety of breeds that confronted me. I just remember crouching at the edge of a fence as this short little cutie wagged her tail and licked my hand. I dimly recall my mama asking the unkempt keeper what breed this dog was, in the colloquial Chinese she was perpetually trying to make me speak. The dog sniffed and licked my hand, and I patted her on the head, delighted. I can't quite remember the other dogs I must have also approached or evaluated Sally against. I used to think Sally would get jealous if I thought of or patted other dogs, so perhaps I have systematically obliterated every other dog from my mind.
But I seem to remember, somewhat fuzzily, that soon-to-be-Sally had a mother as well a larger, plumper, slower dog in the same pen. As a child, I didn't think of launching a crusade to bring back two dogs instead of just one. In bringing Sally into my life, I ripped her apart from her mother's. I had bought her. It sounds crude, but it is true that I (or rather, my mother) had exchanged a certain sum of currency for a trembling little bundle of fur in an overly large cage.
She was six months old then, a little puppy; I struggle to recall what she looked like. I christened her Sally. I have been explaining the origin of her grandmotherly name all my life as the name of the dog in the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, where four young children and this dog spend their holidays gallivanting and partaking in various rural adventures. I've recently realised that Sally is, instead, a little poodle owned by a minor kidnapped character in a single Famous Five book, while the main recurring dog is actually named Timmy. My Sally is decidedly more similar to a poodle than the boisterous Timmy, so maybe that was for the best But I wonder what else I've misremembered.
I never thought I would be the owner of a small dog, the type that could nestle into one's purse, which caricatured ditzy celebrities flaunt on late-night television. I had hoped Sally would elongate and fatten, and eventually I would be able to ride her like a pony. Unfortunately that was not meant to be. She has only fattened. Her tail is distinctive, a plume of sparse brownish-orange fur, like the spray of a fountain frozen in time. Bright, black eyes occupy half her face and frame her stubby, wet nose. It's hard to catch her gaze: she is chronically distracted. Her ears are triangles and velvety; they obediently flatten, whenever anyone she trusts approaches, as an invitation to be patted. Whenever she pants with her slick, soft tongue half-draping out of her mouth, I would habitually recoil to avoid the aroma of her mouth, which smells as one's mouth would if one hasn't brushed his/her teeth for 14 years.
Sally is energetic, inquisitive and flighty. She's insatiably greedy, especially for crunchy carrot sticks and crisp apple slices. My mama jokes that if we feed her an infinite stream of food, she would never stop eating I'm not about to test that. She's affectionate too. High-maintenance, to tell the truth. She'll follow my sister or me around, and settle at our feet or on our laps or behind us or next to us, silently but forcefully demanding our attention and love. She likes to snuggle, often falling asleep with her body moulded against my calf. She enjoys curving herself into things and corner like squeezing under the glass cabinet, coiling in the space between my desk and my chair, sneaking into small spaces under the spindly legs of the dining table. Perhaps this is related somehow, but she's also a coward. As if acutely aware of her small size, she strains against her leash to run away whenever a marginally larger dog (ie. almost every dog) approaches. When I gently lifted her onto the vet's table for her first doctor's visit of her life, she promptly peed all over me in sheer terror.
I remember lazy muggy afternoons in the first few years after we brought Sally home, watching her from a plastic, yellow child-sized chair in the darkened kitchen. Following my mama's instructions, I would stay there for hours on end, poised to spring at any indication that she was about to relieve herself. When she so much as lowered herself into a doggy squat, I would leap to my feet, easily pick her small frame up, carry her to the sheets of newspaper laid out in a corner, and coo in a ridiculously high-pitched voice, "Goo-ood doggy! On the newspaper, o-kay? Good Sally!" I plodded on with this painstaking process until she would trot to the newspapers on her own. She would then search through the house to present herself to me with a self-satisfied smirk, and would not relent until I followed her to gaze long enough upon her mess on the newspaper and praised her with sufficient enthusiasm.
She used to tear around the house, narrowly avoiding the legs of chairs and assorted furniture (most of the time). She used to sprint outdoors too, straining against her leash. Now she is content sitting at the porch, her eyes distant and mouth parted with contented appreciation, her fur ruffling in the breeze. I sit next to her on the ground for hours, my bottom aching from the hardness of the ledge, watching her, guarding her.
She used to scamper up and down the stairs, each step as tall as the level of her chin. Now she circles indecisively near the bottom step. She craves company at night, but cannot summon the courage to fling herself up the stairs. So every night as she patiently waits, I would carry her up, and every early morning as she stares at me, bleary-eyed with sleep, I would lift her down. My parents say I spoil her.
She's wormed her way into our hearts. My father might have grudgingly accepted the "little ball of fur" into the family in the beginning, but recently I've caught him talking to Sally as she gazed up at him, her head cocked. My favourite aunt takes care of "Shally" when we go on vacations, and every time she (Shally) would return with extra inches around her waist. My two-year-old nephew's eyes brighten and search the ground whenever someone calls "Sally!", even though he has only met her once.
In an open-air market in Brisbane this summer, I lingered in front of the cluttered storefront of a portrait artist.
"How much would it cost for a customised portrait?" My father asked.
I stared. I did not want a portrait of myself, much less in some absurd colours that this artist seemed to be fond of using, thank you very much.
"We could ask her to do one for Sally, you know," my father explained. "Like an accurate one. In remembrance of her, for next time."
Next time. The unsaid future (After Sally) that lay behind his words haunted me, rudely yanking me from my vacation-imbued state of bliss. In Primary Three, I had sobbed my eyes out in an empty classroom after my Brownies leader passed away, for reasons that I never quite understood. Right before I started secondary school, my strict, stoic grandfather was whisked away by terminal lung cancer after a record-setting seven-year struggle. Those were influential moments. This anticipation of Sally's death, though, felt a little different in the uncomfortable proximity. After all, Sally is more like a close family member to me, and I could barely remember life before her. And within the intertwining memories involving Sally were pieces of myself and my childhood.
Months later, as I watched a chubby pup in miniature booties prance in the fresh snow outside my campus in New York, I wished Sally could see snow in her lifetime. As I sat in the hard wooden seats in the nearby church, hearing the pastor declare, "And on the last day, Jesus said, take this bread, in remembrance of me," Sally's image and my father's words arose in my mind, unbidden.
My mama first confronted us with the certainty of her future death when I was around 10, when my younger sister and I were fighting over who would get to live with Sally in the distant future, "when we grew up". As we argued vehemently over whom two-year-old Sally loved more and whose potential future career, working hours, hobbies and romantic life would be best suited to accommodate Sally, my mama interjected, sounding almost gleeful, "But are you sure Sally would still be around then?" Stricken, my sister and I burst into tears.
My parents seemed to think that the best way to tackle this prickly topic was to rip the Band-Aid right off, and they would casually comment on Sally's impending death over the next few years, as if we needed timely reminders. This was arguably a decent strategy, as it at least prepared us intellectually for the possibility of her departure. But we resented their nonchalance, and my sister and I appointed ourselves as Sally's protectors. When Sally had spent several nights with an awful hacking cough, my sister and I laid out a passionate, systematic case to bring her for treatment. "Of course," my father agreed easily, before we had even articulated the second reason on the list. When Sally was diagnosed with a type of heartburn that might require surgery if her medication failed to work, my sister burst into hysterical tears, wailing that my parents were cruel not to allow surgery. They were surprised and, in fact, had never been against the idea of surgery in the first place. Brokering a ceasefire in our typical sibling quarrels, we sought to wrestle control of Sally's fate as a team. As we grew older, we realised that our parents, too, had grown to love Sally fiercely. They were on our side, in general, and it was just my cruel (the way so many children are instinctively cruel) obstinacy and rebellion that had clouded my every judgment of them.
Even though I'm aware of this ticking clock, I'm barely at home with Sally now, because of school in New York, real life, the pursuit of my dreams and all that. It's some unspoken rule that you can't quite slow your life down or delay milestones because of your dog. Each time I return I'm less sure if she recognises me, because she's sometimes ecstatic, jumping up with her tail blurry from frenzied wagging, but other times she's muted and disarmingly placid. It's as if she's become accustomed to my absence, and I've become more and more unrecognisable each time. She's become the mother, always welcoming with open arms no matter how you have been or where you have come from, but with a niggling disquiet and ache from the ever-growing chasm in-between.
Perhaps that's what I'm also prematurely mourning. The demise of my childhood home as I knew it. The loss of childlike, doglike, Sally-like innocence, together with the familiarity and comfort. The dulling of relationships that inevitably results from months spent apart, separate lives gradually built. The unnerving drift from the anchor of home, family. The slowing gait of my parents' aging bodies, and the sudden slew of unpronounceable medical ailments I have to struggle to understand.
But I only have myself to blame. I was the one who set these processes in motion. In the first place, it was I who had chosen Sally. I had consciously given my heart away to her. Likewise, I had established myself apart from my parents, as I made calculated departures from them signs of the independence I deeply craved. I had decided to venture to New York for college with uncertainty heaving in my heart, even as most of my friends stayed at home. I had applied for a job I barely understood, a 24-hour flight away from Singapore, in Philadelphia, a city I was barely acquainted with, surrounded by people I barely knew. I had directed my trajectory away from Sally, away from home.
I had always relished control, to be able to feed Sally, groom Sally, take care of Sally and love Sally, with the expectation that she would, unfailingly, be a healthy happy dog that love me back just like a mathematical equation with a fixed outcome. Now, because I know I will eventually lose Sally, I relinquish my control. Just as my parents had to, step by step, let me go. Just as this meandering life is slowly becoming, more and more, my own.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 2 Apr 2016
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