Three weeks ago, our very beloved family dog, Willow, was run over and killed by a tractor, driven by a young farmer who was in a harvest induced rush.
To say it was horrific is an understatement. It was like a scene from an Ian McEwan novel; a day all blue-skied and perfect, a family celebrating a birthday, the last minute decision to go for a late afternoon walk and drink in the last of the sun. One moment we were singing the praises of the day, near perfect we were proclaiming, and then in a moment, there was a bend in the road, a hedgerow, the glint of a dog from the corner of my eye and the clatter of a tractor coming round the corner too fast. And boom – the irreversible happens.
We all claim to be acutely aware of the fragility of life and how things can change on a dime, yet the truth is, moment to moment tragedies remain almost unimaginable. It’s only when something awful actually happens- and god I am acutely aware that no matter how horrible it has been there is a lot worse that can befall a person- that we are shaken out of our slumber of permanence.
My first, instinctive thought was ‘It could have been one of my children’. In fact, in my semi-fury, semi-desperation I think I screamed as much at the muted farmer.
Experiences like that are littered with what ifs, both good and bad.
‘What if I hadn’t suggested the walk?’
‘What if I had been able to find her lead?’
‘What if we had left ten minutes earlier or later?’
‘What if the younger ones had come with us, and been running on ahead?’
It is futile thinking but it circles around in your head.
My second thought, in an experience now indelibly etched in slow motion across my mind, was ‘Oh my god, how will I tell the children?’ If I am honest, part of me wanted to run from the responsibility. I felt like, I knew, that I was going to be taking an axe to their innocence. Up until now, they have – blessedly- been largely protected from death. They have seen me grieve the loss of grandparents, but they are yet, or were yet, to experience that punch in the stomach sadness when you lose someone that is an integral part of your existence.
I hope I don’t need to be their bearer of bad news too often. Watching their wide eyed faces spontaneously twist with grief makes me choke when I think of it now.
‘How do I hug them all at once?’, I thought.
‘I cant possibly console one before the other’
‘Why cant I take it all away?’.
The protective instinct that is such an innate part of being a mother was rendered completely useless in this instance. I realised very quickly that nothing I said and little I did would ultimately be of help. I couldn’t take their sadness away, package it up and send it off as I wanted too, and I couldn’t coach them through it either. They had to process the experience – their loss, their sadness, their memories – in their own way.
And what was remarkable was that after the initial universal outpouring, they all did it, and have continued to do it, in vastly different ways.
The youngest- as you might expect- dried his eyes first. He found distraction in a computer game on which he had free reign- there was no room for rules at a time like that. When he came back downstairs, still red-eyed but composed, he counselled me, ‘Mum, if you try to think about something else, then you won’t feel as sad’.
Almost immediately, and it felt almost shocking at the time, he asked if we could get another dog.
‘Exactly the same’ he said. ‘And we’ll call her Willow’
I decided that it wasn’t the time to teach him that animals weren’t like toys, that you couldn’t simply go to a shop and buy a new one. I didn’t need to, because he already knew. It was just his coping mechanism. Thinking ahead. Being hopeful.
The middle one took all the hugs he could get and when he was spent, announced he was going upstairs to write Willow a letter. Which he did. A full heart-wrenching page written by a boy who has always proclaimed to hate writing.
And the oldest, newly a teenager, sought solace in her friends, as teenagers do. She cried and cried, and then called her friends to cry some more. She then walked the house like a ghost, acutely aware of the deep bellied grief that sat, like a stone, in the pit of her stomach.
‘I still feel sad’ she said, ‘but I have run out of tears.’
On the Saturday after Willow died we buried her at the foot of the garden, on a patch we now realise gets the last of the evening sun. She was wrapped in a white sheet, curled up as though she was sleeping, and we gave her some dog biscuits, her old collar and a pair of my husband’s socks ( which she permanently used to steal). The youngest, who had obviously stored up his tears all week, was then inconsolable. I suspect a little part of him hadn’t processed the reality of it all until he saw her nestled at the bottom of a four foot deep grave. We planted a willow tree on top of the grave, a weeping Willow. It felt like the most profoundly right thing to do, not least because of its being her namesake. But I had underestimated quite how right it was.
Ever since it has provided a focal point. Immediately all the children were making plans for candle lit vigils on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. One of them suggested hanging things from the tree, to make it pretty. Another suggested that perhaps Willow’s heart would grow up into the trunk of the tree. And that if they hugged the tree it would be like hugging Willow.
Only three days ago I found the youngest sat next to the tree, playing the guitar. ( Though it was less romantic than it sounds, because it was one of the push button electric guitars that pumps out a slightly strained solo whenever you hit a button, which of course children do, ad infinitum, ad nauseum). It did though, seem to make him happy that he could play music to his dog.
Even the cat has been seen, regularly enough to make you wonder, sat under the tree, soaking up the sun’s rays.
And almost every day, as we drive out of the house, one of them calls out ‘Bye Willow, guard the house’ as we have always done, for years and years.
March 2005 – September 2013
Very loved, and absolutely not forgotten.