Very few of you, of course, were lucky enough to meet Caleb Alban, our Scottish terrier. And yet, in a way, you all know him – because Caleb was both our young dog and our old dog. Every time I was trying to think of a new sentence for the Welsh lessons, Caleb would be there somewhere – sitting under the desk, stalking a cat in the background, barking somewhere out in the garden – and there’s no doubt that’s why we have quite so many examples of young dogs and old dogs in the lessons (the cat stuff is really just an attempt at balance!).
This post ought to be about last week’s remarkable Bootcamp, or about the imminent changes to our site design and social functions – but those will have to come later – right now, I need to write about Caleb, because after becoming suddenly extremely ill last Monday, he died on Tuesday morning, and Catrin and I are bereft.
Grief is such a puzzling emotion.
Why should it hurt more, at the moment, to think of Caleb than to think of my beloved stepfather Duncan, who died in 2001? Clearly the passing of time makes a difference – but there are days when the loss of Duncan still causes me pain, and Caleb was ‘just’ a dog. Maybe the time we give of ourselves is part of it – there are only four people in my life I’ve spent more time with than I spent with Caleb, and in the last ten years Catrin is the only one (and that by a hair’s breadth!). And yet I was devastated when I heard of the death in a car crash of one of my secondary school students, Stuart, and I hadn’t seen him at all for almost five years.
Maybe, all variables to one side, it’s just the horror of being confronted with a reality that we cannot change. Life is a process of change, and the more we can control that change (by and large) the better we feel. Everything else that hurt Caleb, we dealt with – whether that meant surgery for swallowed stones, clipping ingrowing dew claws, antibiotics for when he’d scratched himself raw – we got it done. Now, though, we can’t go back to the vet’s and reclaim his body and make him better; we can’t reach into these crystal clear memories of last week and carry him safely back into today; however much I can still feel him in my arms for those last two hours, I can’t press him to my heart and shake him back into life in time for one last summer. That powerlessness gives me a sense of horror – a sense, perhaps, of my own mortality, my own fragility in the face of that which can not be changed.
But then again, maybe puzzling about it all is a waste of time. Even if I knew what the chemical fluctuations are that cause this tightening in my chest, and this raw pain in my throat, the feelings probably wouldn’t disappear (although having said that, there is interesting evidence that even just naming a feeling can help us control how we respond to it). Perhaps all we can do is live through this pain, work out our own rituals and farewells, hold each other’s hands and wait for time to turn these memories into the stuff of happiness.
I could talk to you forever of Caleb. My family has kept dogs all my life, but I’ve never loved a dog the way I loved Caleb. I could tell you of every odd little skip of his left hind leg on our walks, every branch or root or stone he’d sniff, the little love sound in his throat when I stroked him, his not-quite-willing-to-sit before getting food, the way he’d spin round when I made little circles with my finger – all the million details of a life shared for ten joyful years.
But neither you nor I have time for everything, which is itself perhaps part of the horror. Maybe you’ll join me in one thing, though. Every night of his life, apart from when we were away on holidays, I said good night to Caleb – nos da, Caleb. Nos da, hogyn da, Caleb. In this meaningless, grey time of grief, it would be a surprisingly valuable splash of colour for me if you would raise an imaginary glass and join me in saying out loud, for the last time:
‘Nos da, Caleb.’