Who’s a good boy? My mother's dog as a totem of a son's grief

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It’s been just over two months since I entered my mum’s home and found her gone. The initial panic and shock of her death have ebbed away, leaving a roiling sadness and a constant subterranean processing of my grief.

Now, the first steps have been taken to re-home her two dogs, Milo and Mabel. Both rescues, as every dog in our family has been, Milo and Mabel were fixer-upper jobs for mum; de-tangling fur and feeding them up to a good weight, along with calming the frayed nerves of the unwanted and abandoned. Milo, particularly, was a project for mum, a wire-haired terrier maybe, with old-man looks out of step with his age, and a concerned face. He came to her carrying a few physical signs of a tough life: his docked tail and a rib that might have healed strangely after a kick to the sides. But it was the fragile spirit underneath, the tentativeness and fear, that was the real abiding injury for Milo.

When mum picked him up from the rescue group, he’d been in a mix of foster homes, instability unavoidable until Karen Wright saved the day, providing Milo’s so-called Forever Home. Bringing him home to Parkville, it was clear how much work had to be done. Nervous, afraid and unable to trust anyone, including mum, Milo’s trepidation was entirely understandable. Like so many rescues, not only had neglect and abuse dented his confidence, but the uncertainty of new homes and new people had eroded little Milo’s ability to trust anyone. But, of course, slowly and surely mum’s practical compassion smoothed the edges of Milo’s anxieties, defusing his fear of the entire world around him so there was, thankfully, a first, small sanctuary of trust and safety in the 5 foot 6 inch frame of my mother.

This trust of one lone person came with its own costs; dependency and separation anxiety when she would leave. When Milo identified the single person who had given him comfort and safety and security and that hadn’t then let him be taken away, every absence and every introduction of new people was a re-traumatisation. Patterns emerged in those early months, when my partner and I would visit or mind Milo for a few hours. Most obviously, men scared Milo.

In that way that dogs remember and understand more than I give them credit for, some part of Milo’s past had given him fair cause to fear men. Some man may have featured in the day that tail was docked, maybe that oddly-healed rib came at the end of a man’s boot. And this fear of men included me. His caution around me was heartbreaking; deep distrust butting against deep desire for affection and influenced by a deeply obedient personality. He would sit metres from me, gaze averted, refusing to look up at me. At repeated encouragement to come sit in front of me, his butt would lift just a little and he would apprehensively scuttle forward, but only a bit. This tentativeness was a metaphor for the slow repairing of Milo’s fragile trust: a safe distance, a small amount of movement, the odd setback and retreat, but a little gain again.

Fast forward over the montage sequence of Milo’s rehabilitation, and years later he was a dog transformed. Serious still, yes, and with his default concerned face. But a calm dog, comfortable with new people, eager (although restrained) for a good dose of affection. In mum’s work as a counsellor and a mindfulness teacher, Milo would sometimes accompany her, providing comfort to those in distress or a moment of upset. With that particular brand of canine intuition, Milo was one of those dogs able to sense when their presence could be a solace. When a fuzzy head nosing under a hand would be appreciated. Or even just when sitting at attention was the right thing to do, guarding a person from dangers unseen and unseeable.

And in the last year and half mum brought home Mabel, a scrappy little sister to Milo, but it wasn’t quite the same. Mabel came with the same craving for affection and security that Milo brought, but substituting the fear for a boisterous appetite. While Milo would abide by rules and commands given or anticipated, Mabel would haplessly ignore or fail to understand any limitations put on her behaviour that would mean any distance between you and her. Mabel would be clambering up your lap to lick at your face, while Milo, with his default concerned expression, would stare with puzzlement at why rules applied to him and not others. Mum had built a new pack in her quiet house: Karen, Milo and Mabel.

In the days and weeks after mum died, many people checked in on my sister and me. It’s a surreal parade of people offering support, condolences, and an entire spectrum of human responses to tragedy, ranging from the insightful and much-needed, to the weird and inappropriate. But in amongst all the cards and flowers and messages and phone calls were regular questions about Milo (and Mabel, but less often). How was he? What was happening with him? Did we need any help to look after him? Milo’s quiet stoicism had obviously affected plenty of people beyond our tiny family.

Now, in the process of transitioning him to a new home, my own grief has become inextricably linked to Milo’s wellbeing, something my sister and my partner share as well.

Firstly, I feel a unique bond with Milo over the time and place of my mother’s death; on that heart-shattering afternoon when I found her, peaceful and still, Milo was there. For however long she had been gone, Milo had stayed with her, keeping guard, quiet and loyal. Mabel, bless her, had somehow escaped, probably hungry at some point, and it was not for several days until we found her at the RSPCA. But in those first few days, on that first day, in those first awful minutes in that room, Milo was there with me, and remains fixed in my memory of that event, in all its intensity. The oldest sons, Milo and Jez, are joined: in our experience, in our sobriety and responsibility, in our attendance of our mum in her death. And in the days that followed, caring for Milo, helping him settle in our apartment, keeping him fed and watered, walking him around Royal Park as he would do with mum, all of these things grounded us. The care of another living thing, dependent on you, and who is now a living reminder of your mother, there is something beneficial about that. You must get out of bed, you must rug up and head out the door to the park, you must remember poo bags. A new routine establishes and gives you some anchor point in a time and a space without fixed horizons. The tight quarters, necessitated by hosting my sister and her partner, as well as Milo and Mabel in the apartment that normally only houses me and my partner, became a comforting constant, our self-described puppy pile, six mourning creatures eating (irregularly) and sleeping (irregularly) in a few small rooms.

That’s why Milo and Mabel, as they settle into a new home, remain such central, small, furry figures in the grief of my family and I. These two rescues-of-indeterminate-breed represent one of mum’s last, most loving projects. There’s a certain symmetry between Milo and his little sister Mabel, and with me and my little sister, and the care and attention that she invested in us, she invested in them (maybe to a different extent). With the resilience and strength that is specific to single mothers, my mum built a home and built comfort for her family — canine and human — with her bare hands and few resources.

It is this sense of intertwined family (and much more, unpacked in the messy emotional chaos of loss) that has undone me and brought me to tears as we left Milo and Mabel in the bright, friendly home of people who are eager to start a new pack. They are kind, gentle and dog-literate, and will be wonderful custodians (they already are) of my mother’s dogs in the next stage of their lives. The wellbeing and happiness of those dogs has become infused with honouring my mother’s work, and this is why my eyes flood when we first drive away. But this new household understands the complex emotional knot that binds Milo and Mabel with my mother, and have already offered an ongoing connection.  When we talk on the phone about the dogs, I’m glad to hear that Mabel is getting to play and tumble with another dog (another Milo, a strapping working dog who has now become Big Milo). It breaks my heart at first to learn that (Little) Milo is struggling when his new owner isn’t home, his separation anxiety and fear of instability returning. But then there is relief as he starts to settle down, building trust again, his wariness relaxing inch by inch.

And in knowing now that Milo and Mabel are settling into their new home, are sniffing new dogs on their walks, have jaunty new dog jackets, I am sad that they aren’t with me, but glad to know that life goes on for them. On the path of sorrow and healing, much like on our walks around Royal Park, these dogs are pulling ahead, and we follow behind them.

1 Comment

  1. Beautifully written.
    Loyalty, courage, it would seem that you and Milo have a few things in common 🙂
    Thanks for sharing, it’s so often better when we do.

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