Mourning a family's constant companion

Last updated 05:00 13/01/2013

Faithful friend: The passing of Harry's years marked milestones of family life.

simon cunliffe
Sunday Star-Times columnist Simon Cunliffe.

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Here is the Silly Season News.

In the United States, impassioned gun activists have demanded the deportation of television host Piers Morgan for his spirited interrogation of gun control laws; the White House has been asked to mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin to prevent the country - temporarily - going through the debt ceiling; and, as if to demonstrate that silliness is not entirely an American prerogative, fans from countries as far apart as Japan and Brazil gathered in Memphis last week to sing Happy Birthday to the King.

For many it is, of course, a given that Elvis lives. This year he turned 78.

Bored at work? Don't worry, this can be good for your creative juices, a new study shows. And in Britain research postulates that wrinkly fingers acquired from a lengthy lounge in the bath could, in the long list of evolutionary obstacles the human race has hurdled in its journey from swamp slime to homo sapiens, serve a useful purpose: "Going back in time, this wrinkling of our fingers in wet conditions could have helped with gathering food from wet vegetation or streams."

In one of the most bizarre reports of the last week, the existence of a ghoulish gambling cult with ominous overtones has come to light in Taiwan.

In certain circles it has become all the rage to place bets on how long the old, the cancer-ridden and the incurable can cheat death.

It is a truly weird world when terminal illness comes packaged up in casino-style entertainment and enormous cash prizes.

But in the silly season at least it seems there is no end to the sinister, the ghostly, the morally bankrupt, and the distinctly absurd.

So I hope you will forgive me if I use this as an excuse to exercise a little personal indulgence - and touch on end-of-life matters of an altogether different, and as it transpired, more dignified kind.

Harry came into our lives almost 13 years ago, the runt of the litter of golden retrievers, and immediately cemented himself in the family's affections with his lovable nature, his curiosity and his playfulness.

He wasn't perfect. He chewed up a few heirlooms in the early years of his life; he had an aversion to the sometimes intrusive attentions of small children, which always made us - and probably him - a little nervous around them. And he would eat anything that was even vaguely organic, even if it was tightly wrapped.

One Christmas, a visiting relative from the UK, knowing my partiality for good licorice allsorts, had brought out a special pack, wrapped it and put it under the tree: Harry's eyesight failed him, and assuming the parcel was for him, sniffed it out and gobbled the lot before breakfast.

The passing of his years marked the milestones of family life and he proved a faithful and reliable constant in the face of upheaval and change. Harry saw the children leave home and greeted them like long-lost siblings on their return. He survived two changes of city, straddled four houses, took great delight romping in the surf on the Otago Peninsula's beautiful beaches, and seemed content, if increasingly sluggish on the hilly Seatoun walks of his most recent domicile.

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He was a good traveller and many times made the long journey from Christchurch, Dunedin or, in the last year, Wellington, to Golden Bay. But he was slowing down: his hind legs were noticeably weaker - as is often the case with ageing retrievers - and increasingly short of breath. In the last couple of weeks, his always prodigious appetite seemed to fail him.

Still it came as a shock, as I returned to the Bay from a few days at work in the capital last week, skipping across the clouds above the strait in a small six-seater, to learn he had sat down in the sand on Pakawau Beach that day, with his face to the sea, the salt in his nostrils, the godwits playing on the rippled flats at the edge of his vision, and refused to budge.

His breathing was shallow and rapid that evening and as we said goodnight, he seemed to have grown young again, his endlessly expressive eyes exuding a calm, dignified acceptance.

He died peacefully in the early hours of the morning.

We buried him in a patch by the estuary under the acacias and bought a pohutukawa to mark the spot, its flowers rich and vibrant at this time of the year, a permanent memorial to Harry's happy disposition and undying friendship.

- Sunday Star Times


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