Elly McDonald

Writer

Children (2012)

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The year I turned 39, I tried desperately to have a baby. The process was expensive, painful and unsettling. By the time I cried quits I had sold my beautiful home in London and made the difficult decision to return to Australia, after eight years away. What sealed the deal was the prospect of being able to live in a house with a garden (a massive luxury in London), where I could keep a dog.

I’d seen Brittany spaniels while on holiday in Dorset and had promised myself that if ever I was in a position to own a dog, I wanted a Brittany. But I’d also walked ex-greyhounds in Blackheath on behalf of dog owners who were too busy, and I loved these gentle, sleek creatures. As soon as I moved into my home in South Geelong I put my name down on waiting lists for both an ex-racing greyhound, and a pedigreed Brittany.

In early 2001, just before my 40th birthday, I received a phone call from the Brittany breeder to say an owner who had purchased a puppy 10 days earlier had decided his toddlers weren’t ready for a dominant male puppy with sharp incisors, so “the young gentleman” (puppy, not toddler) was available for collection.

I drove to Bacchus Marsh to collect my baby. I’d planned to call him Caleb, which is Aramaic for “hound”, but my sister insisted Caleb cannot be a dog’s name and persisted in calling him Toby, which stuck. My first sighting of Toby was not unflawed. I had expected a liver (dark brown) and white Brittany, like the Brits I’d seen in Dorset, but Tobes was orange (auburn) and white. Mostly white. He had a pale pink nose, pale pink ears, pale pink toes and looked like a piglet. He smelt of some horrid chemical, some dogwash shampoo. But he had an optimistic demeanour, and I scooped him up and threw him in the car.

It is illegal – and clearly unsafe – to drive with an unrestrained 10-week old puppy clambering over the steering wheel. But that is how we drove that day, and within the 40 minutes it took to reach home I had fallen in love. That night I slept on a mattress in front of the gas heater unit, with my puppy curled up against my stomach. We’ve slept that way almost every night of the 11 years since.

My mother winced when I introduced Toby as “my little son”, and when, a year later, she met me on the beach and saw a second Brittany puppy – my younger boy, Joshua – with Toby and me, she was ropeable. “You can’t have him!” she said. “Take him back!”

The issue was, prior to Toby, I had worked in Melbourne, at a good job, well paid, and well-suited to my experience and my strengths. But once I had Toby, I wanted to take time out to be with the puppy, and I felt it was no longer possible to spend the majority of my waking hours working and commuting. It wasn’t just about Toby, however. Across those years in London I had mostly been on a train by 7.15am weekday mornings and seldom returned home till 7.30pm at night. Part of the appeal of coming back to Australia was the hope of work-life balance: time to prepare meals at home, to take part in activities I loved, to be part of a local community – rather than being hyper at work, exhausted outside work hours, with my home little more than a crash-pad. In Geelong, not only could I have a puppy, but I could sing in a choir, be part of a swim squad, do yoga classes, visit my parents and friends, attend church …

So when Toby joined me, that ruled out employment with long or irregular hours, or any distance from Geelong. In this past decade, this choice has caused me grief. Sometimes I’ve looked back at my adult life and seen it divided into the rock’n’roll decade (my 20s), the London decade (my 30s), and the decade of eating humble-pie (my 40s). But then I remind myself that this has been not merely the decade of erratic employment and financial hardship, it’s been my parenting decade: my dog-mother years.

Now, both my boys are getting old. According to my vet, at 13 and 12, they are both geriatric. Since Toby was 6, I’ve been fretting about his aging, and fearing the day when I’ll have to live without him. Then when Josh was 7, my “little boy” was ripped apart by a kangaroo. He cost $3000 to repair – and even then, the vets say his survival was miraculous – but that episode brought home to me how much I love my Joshi, too.

Toby has had a couple of operations and is so covered with lumps I can no longer afford to have them biopsied. The vet and I have agreed that if he’s diagnosed with cancer, it’s palliative care only. Josh – who once could race the length of Collendina beach and back faster than a storm-cloud – has announced he can no longer keep up with the long, brisk walks I prefer. So I do my own exercise walk alone, then come back and do a separate, shorter walk with the dogs.

On the internet, I saw a t-shirt with a caption reading “My best friend is a Brittany”. Last week, I saw a picture that said “A house is not a home without a Brittany”. I subscribe to both sentiments. My next dog, in fact, might well be a greyhound, or it might come from GAWS (Geelong Animal Welfare Society). But my current dogs, my beautiful boys, will always be irreplaceable.

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Author: Elly McDonald

Art lover. Loves her family and her dog. Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and briefly tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

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