Today I walked down those new stairs all alone, but not in my heart. Sasha and Lillee used to beat me down the old steps by so far that they became only a few pixels on my retina. Yet here in our near-private hideaway, we would play as a finely tuned team across any distance. On other days our antics in more popular places often brought a smile and a fresh thought to hundreds, maybe thousands, of kids of all ages. Down at the river it was just for the three of us and the fun and love that we shared.
There is one special spot where a grassy bank goes right to the water's edge. That was always our first stop. Today the river had again reshaped the bottom, leaving the little pool there bigger than I had seen it, yet all the old landmarks remained in their places. A year ago, I could lob a stick from the top of the steps into a hidden stretch of water and by the time I reached the little track down to the grassy bank, Sash would have that stick back at my feet.
Further along we would always stop, both coming and going, at a steep track down to the side of the huge pool that dominates this stretch of river. Lil would "go for swim" right out into the middle and I would lob a stick not far from her, so she could grab it and bring it part way back before leaving it for Sash who would always wait till the stick was leaving my hands before launching one of her spectacular dives. Over years of ducking each other midstream, Lil worked out just when she should pass the stick and when she might risk a race back to me.
Today I only walked as far as a very dead and now more broken tree which has long been a source of replacement sticks, and plucked one more from the patch of dreaded burrs. Back at the top of the steep track, I aimed for the middle of the pool but as so often on my first throw of a day, I let go a fraction late and the brittle stick smashed into an overhanging branch, snapping in two with only the smaller part making the water. But this time, there were no girls to bring it back.
Last evening we said our goodbyes to Sash and buried her body at the back of the yard. The ravages of time had finally caught up with her. Only a few weeks ago she had done herself an ugly injury on something nasty in the creek near home that she knew so well. Maybe it was her fading sight that allowed such a thing when she had seemed past getting into any more trouble. While the wound finally healed, the trauma may have weakened her resistance to something hidden inside her which this past month destroyed her blood.
You cannot fairly translate much of what a dog knows into our language, but if you let yourself get close to them you know something. Yesterday morning she refused the tablets which had been making things a bit easier in the final weeks, and at her weekly check up the vet advised that she was very close to facing an ugly last half hour. So she came home for the afternoon and the family gathered around. She had a lot of cuddles and licked away our tears. She posed more willingly for photos with all of us than she had ever had time for in the past. And having been off her food for a couple of days, she hoed into a succession of last suppers from cat food to sausages and freshly roast chicken.
John the vet, who looked after both girls all their lives, was more than agreeable to our belated suggestion of a house call. Assuming John would not come until after surgery, I decided to take her, and her nine year old two legged brother, in her beloved Tarago for one last drive past a few of her old haunts and to get the chicken, only to find John waiting patiently with the rest of the family when we returned. Still nothing was hurried and his care and expertise made the final moments much easier for all of us.
Today, I walked back up the new stairs which Sasha and Lillee had never trod, picked up one of the stones that is always breaking off from the side of the cutting, walked on to the cliff-top lookout and eventually threw that stone almost across the river. In our last couple of years together at the river, stones had become almost as important as sticks and their long superceded rubber toys in our elaborate games. One day I even got Lil to follow stone splashes down the middle of the river for the length of three big bends. In the latter days it would become routine for them to follow the stones from where we split at the grass bank, down past the lookout to where they could climb a more gentle slope a bit downstream. After we lost Lil, Sash learnt her way safely up and down the steep climb next to the lookout so she could swim and retrieve a stick I had thrown from the top.
Down at the river today, I cried a little for Sash and a lot for Lil, not because I loved one more or less than the other, but because of how our time with them ended. Despite her dedication to eating, Lil was still a fit and active ten and a half when she made one too many early hours excursions to the McDonalds on the wrong side of the major road a couple of blocks from home. A combination of circumstances and less than adequate procedures meant that, although not mutilated, her carcass had been disposed of by council workers before we knew anything.
Our two mongrel bitches, obtained as pups from the Lost Dog's Home, shared a life time of adventure and gave us a life time of real love and live entertainment. They visited countless parks, creeks, rivers, lakes, beaches and a lot of cricket and football. They even learnt to retrieve cricket balls hit into the creek during matches and had an occasional column, Sniffing Round the Boundaries, ghosted for them in their local sports club's newsletter. While their home was being rebuilt from the frame, they even played building site guard dogs. And they went on some special trips, the first to Cape Otway when Lil was not fully grown and 18 month old Sash showed off her instincts for rounding up cattle. We drove to Sydney twice, the second time via an idyllic weekend on the South Coast, and to Adelaide once. Eight months after we lost Lil, Sash and I went back past Cape Otway for a few magic days where I fluked a photo that now has pride of place on two walls.
Aside from natural regrets about Lillee's final resting place, we could not have asked for anything different. Next time somebody complains about it being "a dog's life" you should show them this story of Sasha and Lil. The one thing in this life that cannot be replaced is time. And the one thing in my life that I could never wish to replace is the time I managed to spend with my girls.