“April is the cruellest month” are among the most memorable words written in the 20th century. They were part of The Waste Land, the 1922 poem by the English (and expat American) Nobel prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot, and which is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the modern era.
Although it was probably the first poem ever to make a dent on my prosaic personality, I was never quite sure what Eliot was driving at, because living in Sydney, and suffering the smog and humidity of late summer, the emergence of April was always seen as the desperate respite we needed. Indeed, April has always been my favourite month.
That was until last year when my family was struck by a tragedy that it’s still coming to terms with. In April 2018, we lost our dog Buffy; she was a beautiful animal, beautiful to look at, having the markings and points of a greyhound-blue heeler cross, and beautiful to have around the house, having the calm, watchful temperament of a greyhound.
For 15 years Buffy was the heart and soul of our family, a real comfort blanket for each of us when things weren’t too flash and she was always checking on her four ‘puppies’, ceaselessly rounding us up to be wherever she expected us to be.
She might have looked like a compressed blue heeler with her white, shaggy coat liberally spattered with brown spots, but she was all greyhound underneath, moving like lightning. I was once asked by a greyhound-walking woman in Kiama whether Buffy “still raced” and when I replied, “only to the fridge”, she understood.
To the four of us, Buffy seemed indestructible. Yet, she was visibly slowing down and by the end of 2017 our local vet advised us that she had bone cancer in her front left leg. We swallowed hard, took the plunge and had it amputated; for a few weeks, it seemed that she was back on course to become the Buffy of old.
Then, one morning at about 3am we were wakened by the distress of our poor old girl as she writhed in the most awful pain. Regrettably, it was five hours before the vet surgery was due to open, five of the worst hours I have ever experienced. I could see the fear in the poor animal’s eyes, fear that I was unable to expiate, before she suffered a stroke at about 7:30am. For such a beautiful animal to suffer such a bad death made April, for us, the cruellest month.
The members of our family are not maudlin people; we tend to get on with things, even with giving a bit of overdue attention to the psychotic presence in our laundry that falls under the general title of the family cat. But, somehow, the loss of the family dog left a hole that nothing has been able to fill.
Recently, we babysat an elderly Labrador whose owners were away at Coffs Harbour. Although the cat (who should be renamed ‘Sid’ after the Sex Pistols’ infamous singer) gave our guest the thumbs down, having a dog around the house, if only for three days, seemed the most reassuring of presences for all of us.
Then it dawned on us that, imperceptibly, we had become addicted to the SBS evening program Super Vet, a semi-documentary series set in the commuter belt of London, where an Irish vet, Professor Noel Fitzpatrick, receives small animal referrals from all over the United Kingdom and from Europe as well.
At first I avoided the program hiding behind a journalistic sang-froid, leaving it to my wife to shed the mandatory tears and sniffles before dinner. Yet as we crept closer to that cruellest of months, I found myself gravitating towards it, until I finally sat down and watched a complete episode, from go to whoa.
How timely was that episode. We met Lola, a young Newfoundland from Wales; Sandy, a three-year-old golden Lab and virtual carer for a disabled boy; and Moogi, a black Lab rescue dog from Scotland. All three were presenting with serious leg problems, which was a little close to the bone. If you’ll excuse the pun.
But if you’ll excuse me again, when I came up for air at the end of the program, what stayed with me was not entirely the animals, lovely dogs though they were, but Professor Fitzpatrick himself. He didn’t have to say a word but you just knew that while he was a ground-breaker in the field of bionic treatment of malformed and injured limbs, it was the human side of the relationships that he was really repairing.
Dogs’ injured legs had become wrists, ankles, shoulders and elbows; owners were ‘Lola’s mum and grandmum’ and ‘Sandy’s dad’; and when the dog was led away to an uncertain surgery, Noel’s last words to the distraught owners were a calming ‘big cuddles now’.
Noel Fitzpatrick was acutely aware, he admitted, of the “ethical and moral dilemmas” his work often places him in, adding that “when things go well, I’m a hero, but when they don’t, I’m the biggest villain”.
Although his use of ground-breaking bone-marrow transplants and stem-cell cultivation may eventually expedite a valuable human application, he never seemed to forget that small domestic pets are ultimately companion animals, and it is the protection we extend to them that earns us the love and comfort we seek for ourselves.
Pity so little of that rubbed off on the psycho in the laundry.