The universe and I have a game. A version of hide and seek – she points and I follow. Simple. Except for always. The problem with this game of ours is that ninety nine percent of the time I miss her cues. And, still, she plays on because the universe is patient like that. Except when she isn’t – when she decides, forget subtlety for a joke, and becomes fast and loose with her directions.
If the idea of the universe as a back-seat driver does not sit comfortably with your sense of the world, best buckle up. The word miracle will also be making a cameo. If it counts for anything, I can’t be held responsible. For that, you can blame Oprah. She wrote a book called “What I Know For Sure” and though I inhaled half of it in one go, I neglected the rest on my bookshelf for a couple months. Why am I telling you this? Other than, of course, to make you believe I am well read; I tell you because when I finished writing the first draft of this story, I picked up the Queen of Talk’s memoir, cocooned under my duvet and opened it at random. The first words I read awoke the air around me. I want you to feel that same awakening. For that to happen, I must first tell you a story. Shall I begin?
My parents live at 116 10th street and the hardware store is on 11th and on a perfectly ordinary Sunday in 2016 they walk from that home to that hardware store. Their errand rolls by without incident, except for the man. He too walks along 10th. He too has company. In one hand, he grips a bicycle’s handle, wheeling it along the road. In the other, he holds a backpack clipped to the collar of a black dog. The gap between the pairs narrows and, reaching 116, my dad feels for the remote in his pocket.
“Do you live here?” the man asks.
“I found this dog running on 11th street. Anyway, he’s obviously lost and I would take him home but I rode here and the problem is I live out in Fourways and the vet is closed…”
My parents look at each other, contemplating the question the man has asked without asking and in their silent exchange, they enter a debate: My mother thinks they should. My father thinks they shouldn’t. My father learns of my mother’s victory when she says, “We’ll keep her at our house until the vet opens later. I’m sure her owners are worried.” And then, as if her use of pronouns isn’t enough of a clue, she adds, “She’s a girl.”
And so it is that the black dog goes from being lost in a street to being lost in a garden. In that garden, she roams, sniffing everything, doubling up, sniffing more, stopping only when her need for water overtakes her need to explore. She drinks and drinks and drinks and when she looks up my parents have gone inside. Naturally, she wants to do the same but they tell her to lie down, to rest. She is having none of it, tracking them through the house, appearing at each window as they move from room to room. When this tactic doesn’t work, she loops around the house, searching for another way in. Young, curious and needy, she is slow to calm but the day finally catches up to her, lowering her body onto the warm brick porch.
My way into the story, as with the world, is through my mother. Her message – we have a visitor – reaches me as I’m on my way back to Cape Town from a wedding. Photos follow and soon after the story of the hardware store and the man and the dog. My eyes fix on the photo: A black dog lying on our brick porch. As always, the trigger hits me in the chest but this time is different: Something that usually falls begins, instead, to rise. I ride that kind ascent as I type my reply: He is sending us some love. To explain who he is, or was, we have to go back 15 years, back to when he first arrived at 116 10th street.
Tiny, black and mine, the puppy’s presence proved as much of a gift as I imagined he would be. Sixteen long years I waited for him. And, still, my father told me to wait a little longer before naming him, to watch him, to allow his character to do the choosing. So I watched: I watched him follow us around the house; I watched him stay silent when other dogs barked; I watched him disappear into our garden’s black night. And in his quiet dark loyalty, I found reasons to call him the name I had been holding.
Now for the hard part. The part where I attempt to explain a whole life. Where I empty my words onto my desk, pick up the good ones and stitch them together, hoping that if I get it right you will understand what that dog meant to us. But no matter how I knit the sentences, the result feels less than he was. Looking for another way in, I loop around the house of your heart, aiming now not to invent a new love there but to reflect one that already exists. And, so, I must ask if you ever rushed home for a puppy? If you missed him when he slept? If he became – suddenly, effortlessly, irrevocably – the noor of your eyes? And here I mimic the universe’s routine and point to the centre of your yeses and say: that. But that is not nearly enough. You need to clip a lead to that understanding, open the gate at 116 10th street and walk around the block. And walk around the block. And walk around the block. You need to walk around that block so many times that you pass by puppy love without mourning it.
With that frequent fickleness behind us, we arrive at the more important questions: Did you adore the dog that puppy became? Admire how strong he grew? How gentle he remained? More yeses. Good. Although, any fool can flaunt a dog in his prime. Distinguish your affection by walking with him until he loses it. Witness time season his handsome face. Love him still. Love him more. Cherish his years, and as he draws close to the 14th, brace for the news that he won’t make the milestone. Let that incoming loss sink into the parts of you it must reach. Force your mind to tour the house at night, imagining him not there. Learn to take his absence’s blow and how to breathe through it. Practice it enough that on the day you wake, knowing it will be his last, you are able to stand. You will need to walk too because even as his arthritic legs and his cataract eyes beg for rest, his spirit demands one more block. Walk it slowly – he’s old and tired and too soon gone. Walk it slowly – those trees aren’t going to pee on themselves. Walk it slowly – lock that quiet dark loyalty to memory.
And when goodbye finally clocks you – as it inevitably will – don’t let its strike silence you. Whisper through the salt river. Tell that magnificent fading dog how good and gentle and brave and beautiful and so very yours he is.
Remember to breathe – the in; the out; the repeat – and then allow that heavy grief to anchor you to the floor. I will sit too, quiet, waiting, and when you’re ready, I will lean in close to show you something on my phone. There, a photo. There, a brick porch. There, where he so often lay, lies another dog, another black Staffordshire terrier.
My dad christens the guest Suzie Q, dropping the Q in their conversations – Suzie, did you run far? Suzie, are you thirsty? Your family is looking for you, Suzie. No, Suzie, you must stay outside for now. My mom waits for Suzie to settle and then calls the neighbourhood security company, asking that they direct anyone looking for a lost dog to 116 10th. Hours pass. Within them, Suzie rests where Shadow once rested; drinks where Shadow once drank; explores a garden Shadow once knew.
The doorbell ends the strange echo – a father and daughter have come to collect Suzie and young Suzie, she needs no invitation, greeting her family and jumping into their car. And just before they reverse out the driveway, my dad asks, “What’s your dog’s name?”
Perhaps I should leave you and your goosebumps alone for a second. Soon logic will bulldoze through, smooth things over. That’s okay. It’s okay because for a brief moment – between hearing the story and labelling it a coincidence – there existed a gap, and the universe – quick as she is – stepped into it, pointing… I believe that makes it your turn. For those who don’t care to play, feel free to piggyback on my brother’s theory: If you walk the Sea Point promenade and ask after every black dog’s name, one in twenty will be a Shadow. For the record, I’ve been testing the hypothesis. For a little while now I’ve been collecting black dogs’ names from strangers. So far, no Shadows. No doubt, if I persist, I will encounter a third Shadow and, what, I wonder, will it prove? Will it unravel the magic of a black Staffordshire terrier named Shadow arriving at 116 10th street – the first dog since Shadow’s passing and one of, being generous, five dogs to ever set paw in our house? No. Not for me at least. In this too, I choose to follow my father’s advice: to wait, to watch, to allow things to exist before rushing to name them. In that pause, I hope to widen the gap, giving the universe enough room to point and my mind enough freedom to follow.
Since I have aired a rational theory, it is only fair that I allow space for an unconventional one. Cue my grandmother. After hearing about the two Shadows, she asked after the second edition’s age. In case it isn’t clear, she asked because she considered it a possibility that Shadow, the girl, was in fact, Shadow, the boy, reincarnate. In my grandmother’s defence, she is 93 and all evidence suggests she did not wait until she was an old woman to wear The Colour Purple. And that colour brings us, rather neatly, back to Oprah and the first words I read after writing this story:
I’m often confronted by things I have no certainty of at all. But I for sure believe in miracles. For me, a miracle is seeing the world with light in your eyes. It’s knowing there’s always hope and possibility where none seem to exist. Many people are so closed to miracles that even when one is boldly staring them in the face, they label it coincidence.
(*The title of this story comes from Pablo Neruda’s Sonner XVII: I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off. I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.)