Richie Black reflects on grief, trauma and suddenly feeling at odds with home.
“Ah, no good, mate,” one of my neighbours said, when I gave him my news.
I’d told him my dog had just died of cancer. It was a Friday evening, the last of daylight saving, and he was leaning out his front door having a beer in the fading light.
Eddie had actually passed away only a few hours earlier – and, having returned from the vet, I was now speed-walking in earnest with a friend to the pub to drown some emotions. As I passed my neighbour, I found myself croaking, half in anger (not at him, but the general cosmos) that I was gonna move. Get the hell out.
It had been a truly bleak afternoon – and, without much else to cheer me up, at least I could lean into the dramatic.
What was I expecting? A guard of honour? A minute of silence? Well, maybe. And, in that afternoon of shock, the prospect of renewal kinda resonated with me: new start, new suburb, new city.
Eddie wouldn’t have been embarrassed about any of this – in fact, he had his own flair for drama. I’ve written about this exuberant rescue greyhound before for the Sentinel.
Amongst myriad fine qualities, an enthusiasm for life was his outstanding feature – a wholehearted pleasure in simply existing, of daily experience, both new and familiar. Whether that meant chasing an ibis or hurling himself joyfully at a random stranger like an old friend.
Free from the toxic, restrictive world of racing he just wanted to enjoy everything that came his way.
So it seemed particularly cruel when he was suddenly diagnosed with a malignant cancer originating in his hip – which killed him within a couple of weeks. It seemed unfathomable that it occurred to such an apparently indomitable spirit (although it is apparently common to greyhounds).
Friends and family rallied around, for which I’m eternally grateful. Still, his absence was – and is – profound. The tiny house echoes grimly and coldly.
Life goes on
To say I was a bit needy would be putting it mildly. For the next few weeks, I staggered about blurting out the news to anyone who would listen. Family, other dog-walkers, cafe owners, colleagues, trees – you name it.
And sympathy was (generally) forthcoming. Yes, there was sometimes a certain qualification: “I suppose they become like family, don’t they?” from the slightly uncomprehending (those who’d never had pets or opted for something more banal, like kids).
And then, life – as they say – goes on. It doesn’t get better but it certainly goes.
After all, it was – still is – just grief. If you’re a sentient being, and aren’t a Borg or a sociopath, you’re going to experience a fair bit of it in your life. Actually, as someone recently told me (not unkindly) the older you get, the more you will experience.
A merely commonplace personal experience, I know – as strange, human but everyday as “love” or an inexplicable craving for a kebab at 3am.
One that seems particularly ludicrous and indulgent when it’s being experienced on a scale that is almost inconceivable in some places, say, like Delhi, at the moment.
“A dog? Really?” Well, it might be an African bullfrog called Doug – if you loved it, then the pain is coruscating when it abruptly leaves forever.
Naturally, being an adult, I dealt with it initially through avoidance. Short of digging out my own broken heart with a gardening trowel, the best option in the moment was to drown it in substances. When I woke up bleary-eyed, I figured the better option was to think about physically running away.
The Inner West enclave in which I lived suddenly seemed clouded, darkened. My sense of place shattered: Eddie’s old stomping grounds, with whom he was inextricably linked. This was a dude, after all, who had almost certainly peed on just about every bush and tree within a kilometre radius of my place. I got a lump in my throat just walking to the shops.
I was thrashing about – imagining new places in Sydney to reach, new possibilities. If familiarity breeds contempt, trauma generates some resentment. When I wasn’t rather desultorily working, I visited friends in places as eclectic as time and the sluggish public transport system would easily allow – like, well, Burwood and Bondi.
I even took a trip to the North Shore to visit family.
Having not visited for many years, the change was marked – with apartments sprouting everywhere amidst the bowling greens, private schools and RSLs. Lindfield, of all places, seems to have been turned into Gordon on steroids.
But it was still demonstrably green and above all different – logistical and economic considerations aside, I mean, the grass was literally greener here. What the hell was this place?
A very weird interest in medium-density housing momentarily sidled up to me.
But when my sister later dropped me off at Gordon Station, it turned out I’d just missed a train – and, as it happened, the next wasn’t due for 30 minutes.
I took a walk around the block – past the Maccas and Harvey Norman and the library. It wasn’t Gordon’s fault, it just wasn’t my territory. I sensed the suburban quietude, the distance from my friends – the support that had been so invaluable. And yet there was still the sadness circling around with me like a stale fart.
An hour or so later, when the train finally dragged itself into St Peters Station, I found myself heading – with something like gratitude – toward the Sydney Park Hotel. I messaged someone who lived close by.
Grief, I remember thinking, is kind of oddly capricious – it makes you cling to the familiar as much as it makes you resent it. I was exhausted with the back and forth – and needed to stay still, to sit in this thing, honour it. At least for a while.
Still, I’m no masochist – so I ordered a couple of beers.
Then, as I waited for my pal to turn up, I sipped on the pint of Newtowner and flipped through the innumerable old photos of Eddie that I had on my phone, hanging out, loving his life in Erko.