Shadow was born during October, 2002. A Staffordshire Terrier, with two islands of white in a sea of pitch black. Two puppies were left when my mom and I made the trip to the breeders, one black, the other speckled shades of brown. Nuzzling my leg and then falling asleep against it, Shadow was the calm to his brother’s boisterousness. Before leaving home, my father had warned ‘not to take the first puppy you see,’ but his words were forgotten in the warmth of this miniature body against my own.
For the better part of my 16 years I had been waiting for him, pleading with my parents for years on end. When he finally arrived, he instantly became the ‘noor of my eyes’. We let his nature decide his name: following closely at our heals, disappearing into the night both in colour and quiet temperament, the name Shadow stuck. He grew quickly. Coming home from school one day, I found him as an adolescent, having transformed while I was away. It did not take him long to surpass the expectations that his parents had set in height and stature, growing taller, with the build of a rhinoceros and the potency only found, if at all, in a single dog of a litter.
In the negotiations leading up to his arrival, it was agreed that he would be well trained. Foregoing my one day to sleep in, we rose early on Saturday mornings to attend classes. Eager to please, he learned to sit, lie and heal easily. Taking the lessons home with grace, he lay in his place on the carpet, presented his paw when asked and sat still for long solitary minutes with just the mention of the word “stay”. It was not long before he was sent to the advanced class, where reacting to slight gestures of hand, he performed dance routines, dragging himself on his stomach then rising into a series of turns. The contrast of his power with the fragility of the poodles that spun next to him was enough to pull him out of the class, such activities were not fitting for such a specimen of a dog. So we took our Saturday mornings back, and used the hours to teach him other tricks. The most impressive being the balancing of a treat on his nose, including the tolerance to leave it there, then, on command, a subtle flick of his head which sent the biscuit into the air for him to snatch on its way down.
In every way he was exemplary behaved save for where he chose to sleep. A large wooden kennel sat in the backyard but he was not fond of it, preferring to sit on one of the wide patio chairs facing the garden. Finding him there, we told him off. Shadow has always been human-like in his sensitivity to reproach, shaking and cowering sheepishly away from the chair he loved. Though he knew it would result in further scolding, each morning we found him sitting there with his ears pinned back, waiting for the reprimand. Eventually the chair became his in the way a borrowed piece of clothing becomes yours if you wear it enough, all trace of its pervious owner consumed. On a daily basis he reaps the reward of his one stubborn choice, sitting next to us in the afternoon sun as we sip hot tea.
Living up to his physique, Shadow has seen his fair share of fights. By his own choosing, the odds are mostly against him, dismissing snapping Jack Russells in favour of more challenging larger breeds. Though fighting is an unattractive attribute, you cannot help feeling a sense of admiration when, after being ambushed by a pair of Rottweilliers, the underdog more than holds his own. Outnumbered and outsized, a sense of pride filters through the anxiety left in the aftermath of a fight. Determined to exert his dominance on his own kind, he is the polar opposite in his relationship with people. Submission in the extreme, he will sit still as you lift his gum to inspect his teeth, roll onto his back for you to check for ticks and without prompting, stand near the hose to be rinsed off.
Demanding only in his desire to go for his daily walk, he watches the hinge of the kitchen door, full attention on the lead he sees through the gap. Julie, who has worked for our family since I can remember, adores him, monologing to a content dog that watches her clean from close by. This ongoing conversation may be the source of his surprisingly wide vocabulary. Taking him for walks, she has dubbed him Shadow ‘Celebrity’ Thomas for the way cars slow and pedestrians stop to watch the thickly set dog pass by. Though he is gentle in nature, his disproportionately large head, as the breed intended, and a build that makes body builders reach for more creatine, creates a different impression. The consequence is that not everyone is as taken with him, many crossing the road as he approaches. Encouraging this perception, Julie keeps him at a distance to hide his temperament. Going to great lengths to avoid crossing his path, a man once shouted to Julie:
“Hey, that dog looks like it could kill someone!”
“Yes. And he has,” she responded without hesitation.
Afraid that he may drown, we taught him early on to find his way out of the pool. Interested to see what he would do, we lowered him into the pool. Panicking, he went straight for the nearest side, sinking in his efforts to pull himself out of the water. True to our predictions, had he fallen in, he would not have lasted five minutes. We put him in again, this time attaching a long lead to his collar, dragging him in the right direction. On his third swim, remembering the safety of the step, he headed straight for it. It is not the water that Shadow fears, but the loss of control which frightens him. He is willing to venture to the edge of the pool, both interested and concerned, to watch us underwater or wait, neck deep, for the waves to bring his stick to shore. Following the example of many school girls, it is the lengths he dislikes. His swimming days did not stop when he learned to clear the step. Returning from his walks with my dad, Shadow walks reluctantly towards him to be thrown into the water. The explanation given is that he must not forget how to get out, with the overriding factor being that he must never grow bored. Walking the suburb, my father has seen one too many dogs whose only entertainment is barking at anything and everything within sight of their gate. He feels strongly that his own dog should never suffer the same fate.
The constructed reasons aside, we all love to see him swim, in determination rather than stroke, his strength on land is present in the water. Powerfully paddling with his front legs, dragging his sinking back legs to safety. If the creepy crawly pipe obstructs his path, he lifts his one paw to hit it forcefully under the water. At first we thought this was a chance encounter, with the timing of his stroke conveniently moving the floating pipe, but in subsequent lengths no one could argue that the movement was unintentional. A consistent man to his core, my father always swims after Shadow, explaining that:
“It would be unfair if I made him swim and I didn’t.”
To say Shadow grew accustomed to the swims would be to ignore the rough heaving and evident relief that follows each occasion. What did happen was that he came to realise that swimming was an inevitablity. In time, my dad would call Shadow and he would slowly walk to the edge, hesitate for few seconds, then leap into a belly flop of his own accord. Understandably, he prefers to jump in rather than being thrown, but the main reason he does it is that it is what my father wants. So desperate to please, he sets aside his greatest fear to win favour with a man he has long since won over.
During my time in Sri Lanka I received the news that my dear Shadow had his ears tested and that the vet’s diagnosis is that he is near deaf. Though his loss of hearing did not come as a complete surprise to me, the confirmation tore at me. In the weeks before I left he was slow to follow our feet on the wooden floors. As suspected, the reason he did not follow or go to his place when we asked him to, was that he could not hear us. It was not that his age had brought with it disobedience. The vet also noticed cataracts beginning to form on the perimeter of his dark irises. On reading the news, tears for my magnificent dog slid steadily down my cheeks. It is rare to witness every stage of life in something so close to one’s heart. A puppy and then an old man in the blink of a decade. There is plenty of life in him yet, his taught muscles reassure me of that but for a little while, I have allowed myself to mourn his youth. To mourn his descent into a world of silence and the slight fading of the light in his eyes. Though he may no longer hear the words we whisper as we put him to bed, he will certainly know the content, for we have repeated the same words to him since he arrived in our home: that he is good, that he is loved.
In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare spoke of old age with reference to three metaphors:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
There is beauty in old age, in the slowing of a dog that used to be fast, in the silver that replaces the black. We are with Shakespeare in this – welcoming his autumn, bathing in the twilight of his day, warmed by the embers of his fire and in seeing this change, and as our inevitable loss draws nearer, our love for him grows ever stronger.