What is a dog, then? On the unbearable death of my dog, Polly

We are a threesome. The most wonderful thing in the world for me – the most joyful, vivifying, meaningful, precious thing in the world – is my tiny family: Peter Timms, the dog and me. We are the only family any of us has. The dog is not a child, of course, nor a mere companion, nor even our “best friend”. The dog is our dog. The dog is our anchor. We love each other, Peter and I, anchored by our dog (we’ve had four). I can see that now. It has taken me all my life to see this. And I held out my arms in front of me in utter impotence with my fingers touching to try to hold us all in.

Polly died yesterday, you see. It is unbearable. I am not saying this for the sake of it: I cannot bear the acute sadness. I cannot bear the memories of yesterday before three o’clock or last week or ten years ago or 15. I cannot bear saying goodbye to Polly Timms forever. That’s the point, as it is when we kiss or wave or say goodbye to any loved being: it’s for the rest of time.

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So you will forget, while frantic to remember everything forever – the rattle of her bowl, the bed she was asleep on every morning, how she turned that corner over there every morning on her walk, squatted on that lawn, pricked up her ears at “tummy rub” and “people coming”. Yet remembering any of it causes acute anguish.

I have to say this next thing (sorry) because it is at the heart of my grief today. Polly had stopped eating – a prawn here, a biscuit there, and even a sliver of salmon three days ago at a restaurant up on a hill above the sea where you can sit outside if you like, with your dog. But really she had stopped eating. And she was retching now and again. And tired easily. I thought we could cajole her into eating. But we couldn’t. Love is not all we need at all.

So when the vet said we might want to consider if it was time to say goodbye, I started bawling. How unmanly. I was shocked. Polly was right there, bright-eyed, I stretched out my hand, she wagged her tail and came over to me. She was given two weeks if we did nothing. I had to leave the room. I sat outside the room where Peter waited with her, crying loudly and disturbing everyone in the waiting room just round the corner. And when she was being led away past me, she turned and looked at me and gave me a last wag of her tail. And then she ceased to exist. Forever. Forever. In a second.

This memory is unbearable today. You know why. It makes me feel sick.

It is the trust, even “unto death”. She trusted us to do the best thing for her. Why was what we did the best thing? What sort of universe is that? We had to coax her into the car to take her down to the vet’s to her death. The memory is beyond painful.

Nothing is the same today. I have never woken up in this house without finding Polly waiting for a pat. I have never spent a day here without hearing her, seeing her, moving about, going in and out of the garden. Now nothing. Just yesterday we strolled around the block, sniffing things and peeing here and there as usual. The day before she went for a walk beside the river in the sun. The day before that along a wild beach on the east coast (after that slice of salmon at the restaurant on the hill). The day before that … but it is painful to remember, it’s a kind of anguish.

Our family has lost its glue. That’s the first word I said, apart from “No”: “The glue has gone.” Peter and I are left untethered in the emptiness, we have come unstuck, for now we are sickeningly adrift.

We will recover. We all do. Just an ache will be left when we see think of Polly. And then, in some form, it will happen again.

What is a dog, then? What is this being that is not really a child, companion or friend but … WHAT?

Dogs are not people. A dog may be playful and dependent, not understanding simple things, just like a child, but a dog is not a child; a dog may always be beside you or in the backyard, with nothing to say but with a ready pleasure at seeing you come in the door, at being close, yet is not just a companion; a dog is not one of your friends, you can’t chat – although you can joke with her sometimes – nor share anything beyond the moment.

What is a dog, then? What is this being that is not really a child, companion or friend but … WHAT? Something I now see there is no word for because a dog is a different order of being – not better than a cat or parrot, but different. A soulmate, I suppose. Is that enough? A heart to give your heart to. To lose this soulmate, to surrender her to a needle one Tuesday afternoon, is indescribably painful. There is no remedy. She’s gone. My love, you see, was not enough.

Related: Dogged by controversy – our relationship with canines through the ages

It’s all too short, too fragile – and the ending is incomprehensible. How can a loved being cease to exist? There is hardly time to love a dog as you’d like, as the dog would no doubt like. I must concentrate now on noticing and loving what is present – not live in the present like a blowfly, but focus on what I can see and hear and touch and hold, not worrying about what it will all add up to mean. Magnify it somehow. But how?

Polly was a gentle dog, a self-possessed brown dog found on the street across the river from our house and taken to a refuge. When we went to the refuge all those years ago, what caught Peter’s eye was the independence of this dog in her cage, her take-it-or-leave it attitude to us, not barking or asking for attention or to be taken home, please. The morning after we took her home, before she even knew her name, I popped out of the front door to pick up the Sunday newspaper. She didn’t bother saying goodbye or thank you, she just took off up the street, looking for something more to her taste. No hurry, just determined. I rang after her in my pyjamas in a panic, calling her name, but she didn’t know it. Finally, just before we came to the main road, she hesitated and I caught her and took her home. She stayed till yesterday – 14 years, 14 years of beauty.

What grief does is split you open, letting all sort of other sadnesses and dreads spill out.

We all have these stories, but I can’t bear it.

She never put a foot wrong. She was kind and considerate. She didn’t bark, except at the moon when we were up at the shack in the bush. She was beautiful. She bound us together.

I am beside myself with grief, to be honest. What grief does is split you open, letting all sort of other sadnesses and dreads spill out. For instance, I don’t know what today is for. And I am crying over Peter’s coming death as well as my own, not just Polly’s death. The universe didn’t even notice my dog. Why would it? It doesn’t notice us. I can see that. We are each of us utterly of no account. I can hardly breathe.

Related: The parting gift from my dying friend was an extraordinary act of selfless compassion | Paul Daley

She knew about thirty words. She wasn’t Einstein, and said nothing back, but for a moment in time we were three beings tethered happily together, knowing what the other two were feeling and wanting.

I have two photographs in my study here where I’m sitting that show Peter and Polly and, in one of them, me with them. Our tiny mortal family. For a moment in time, together and happy. I’m looking at them now.

Everyone goes through this kind of raw misery, I know, not just on battlefields but in the house across the street, and much, much worse. Nobody escapes. I first went through it when I was a toddler and a butcher-bird killed my canary in its cage on the front verandah.

Mortality and love. But I never seem to learn.

Thank you, Polly. I know you can’t hear me. But thank you from the bottom of my heart.