Justin, caught on film by Gary Henwood-Fox of Henwood-Fox Photography at Salt Rock.
I have been - internally - debating on how I'd go about typing this post about our little Justin, every day, since his passing; it's not something that I could get away from - he really meant - and still does mean so much to both Chris and myself and I'd be doing him an injustice by not saying goodbye to him in words and photos.
Grief is a funny, little creature in that way; we've been taught that it's a private matter and socially not acceptable to allow our vulnerability to show in times of extreme sadness and loss but at the same time, we are encouraged to open up and share - thus bringing us closer to those who perhaps find themselves in a similar situation. It can be confusing at times but for me to move on, I need to do this; not to necessarily close the chapter that was his life with us but to bookmark it and have something to look back on with love and fond, bittersweet memories. So here goes...
I knew of Justin well before he came to be ours - by 18 months or so - when our first dog, Max, was a puppy Chris would accidentally call him Justin from time-to-time; on enquiring who this 'Justin' was, Chris explained that years previously - when he had lived in Johannesburg - he and an ex from that time had had a Jack Russell cross Whippet who he had been very fond of but sadly had to let him stay in Johannesburg when he moved back to Durban. After Max, we soon added Cleo and Jessie to the pack and before we knew it almost two years had passed; then out the blue, Chris found out that Justin was being put up for adoption and was in need of a loving home. I'll be honest - at the time - the thought of having four dogs, one of which came with some personal history was unnerving, slightly, but as with everything we do as a couple, we do it together. So caution to wind, Justin became ours!
He was 10 years, going on 11 when he arrived at ours - and like a cat that immediately goes to sit on the lap of a person who doesn't particularly like cats, Justin latched onto me. Did it have something to do with me being home more so than most people? Perhaps this created a sense of security for him and - finally - allowed him to relax and not worry about being left alone for hours at a time. I don't know. As much as he loved us both, Chris will even admit that he was my dog, in the weeks that have followed since putting him down, I'd get terribly teary, which has been compounded with guilt by the knowledge that Chris is grieving too and me being all apologetic about that, as if I'm the only one who has lost a much loved member of our family. Chris - being the good man that he is - has firmly said to me that I was Justin's 'Alpha' and truth be told, I had never really thought about it like that and yes, looking back, I was his world. He arrived at our's with me not being really too sure I wanted him around but by the time he left, he left with me not wanting him to go, with me wanting him to stay with us just that bit longer. I wasn't ready to say goodbye; am I ready to say goodbye?
There have been so many sweet words of condolences from our friends and some family members, from those whom had the chance to meet and get to know him and others from those further afield whom only knew him through photos and us talking about him. Things like, 'they become part of the family', 'he's in a better place and not in pain', etc. were said, which is undeniably true and pre this life changing moment happening to us, I would've most likely have said the exact same things to someone in our situation; until it dawned on me that for those us who will never have children (well, we never know....) that our pet's do become our children. They have need's that must be met, whether it be protection and being kept safe and warm; ensuring they're health and wellness are looked after and that they're made to feel secure emotionally and part of the pack., made to feel wanted. Yes, I know one doesn't have to worry about things like school fees and such but it takes time and active participation to know when they aren't feeling well, because it's not like they can say, 'Dad, I have a sore tummy, I may need to go see the Vet'. If that makes sense? One has to be in tune with these little individuals that communicate on a whole other level. It breaks my heart when I hear of people who only see their pet's as possessions and not as the individuals that they are, with their own personalities and emotional needs.
I try to be as open and honest about things like my suffering from terrible bouts of insomnia and one of the things I'll miss most is having Juzzie joining me in the kitchen - in those early hours of the morning - as I sit at the kitchen counter, checking emails, typing a blog, working on photos, essentially enjoying those sweet few hours before the sun starts to rise - wherever I was in the house, he wasn't far behind. I often refer to him as my gatekeeper and that he was - those quiet times - whilst the rest of the house was sound asleep was his time to keep me company, watching patiently over me. Every morning would invariably start with him pawing my side of the bed, kindly asking in his own sweet way for a sneaky cuddle under the duvet; then as I'd be making a cup of early morning coffee in the kitchen, I knew he was on his way to find me with the pitter-patter of his paws as he made his way down the passage. It made for some sweet photos too. He never needed any encouragement, he was always ready for a love and some affection. He deserved it so much in my - obviously biased - opinion.
Oh my Juzzie, such precious moments caught on film, during the early hours of one morning.
It took me a quite a few days to go through the archives of our photos - there are literally 1000's of our hounds, some out of focus, some not perfect but each one taken a snapshot of a particular period in time - which was for me simultaneously sad, cathartic, bittersweet and, at times, even funny looking for photos to share, I found these two that made me smile - typical Juzzie.
Over the course of the last four and a bit years - since Juzzie's arrival - I, at times, thought that Max, Cleo and Jessie have had a good start to life in the sense that from the day of their respective arrivals, they had myself and Chris to build a solid foundation on - their needs were met from day one. When they need some love, they actively seek it out but for the most part they are content and in a way independent - like, 'We know you're there for us but we're not going to follow you around'. I became used to that way of life in our family, then Juzzie arrived. We don't know that much of Juzzie's life pre us but we've come to understand that for a period of time, whilst his previous owner was away overseas, he spent a few months in temporary accommodation, coupled with the fact that he was rescued from the SPCA as a puppy - this may have contributed to his anxiousness, as if he was waiting to be left again - with us, he had finally found a home that would love and accept him for who he was and have guardian's that would not leave him for extended periods of time and if I am to take one thing away from his last four years with us, is that he lived the remainder of his golden years being adored and having someone to focus all his attention on - in our case, it was me. I - at first - wasn't too sure how to deal with this but he forced me to climb out of myself and give him all the love he so rightly deserved and in return, he gave me his all. I often say to Chris that I wasn't a terribly emotional person - sensitive, yes but emotional, no - that statement is not true today.
As I was going through our photos, another thing I realised that I'll miss dearly - yet cherish all at the same time - were all the cuddle and snuggle time's that were had - truth be told all our hounds, except for Ruby (she's a Labrador and too big for couches!) love cuddling - he liked nothing more than being wrapped up under a blanket, next to me., whether it was early in the morning, late in the afternoon or in the evening - I think that's why the week's that have followed since his passing have been particularly hard for me, I had unknowingly become just as used to having him around as he had become used to having me there for him. No more pawing my side of the bed in the early hours, no Juzzie being caught having a sneaky nap on - always - my side of the bed, no more turning around and finding him there just looking at me or casually lying in such a way that I was within eyeshot of him. No more him. Period. Whilst we're on the topic of napping, Juzzie enjoyed nothing more than a good nap - towards the end, he did that more and more - especially on the couch or bed - whether we were there or not - cue to either myself or Chris shoo'ing him off - sometimes a photo or two was taken beforehand and sometimes he was allowed to just chill. There were so many to choose from that it was quite hard picking just a small handful!
I don't know if we struck it lucky with our hounds or if it's the way we raised them from puppyhood but there was no animosity nor pangs of jealousy on his arrival; in fact, it was just the opposite - it's like he had finally arrived home - if he wasn't at my side, whether I'd be in the kitchen cooking, giving the house a clean or reading, he would most likely be found chilling with the other hounds, if they were lucky, he'd spend some time giving each one a good clean by licking their faces and their ears - sounds gross, I know but the love they all shared was tangible and my original concerns regarding how he'd fit into the pack, that I had prior to his arrival, dissipated on seeing those sweet moments between each one of them. The girl's seem to be adjusting just fine without him, our dearest Max has been battling a bit. We've chatted to our Vet and he has assured us that this adjustment period will be tough for him as the dynamic of the pack has changed and he's just not too sure of his place and where he fits in. So we've had to be patient and understanding of this, again, it just goes to show that animals are so more than what we think they are - that they indeed do have feelings and emotions and need just as much care as any child would need.
The Johannesburg weather made it necessary for all to wear jerseys - patiently awaiting a treat from Chris.
Whenever he wanted a cuddle, he would not-so-subletly let me know his intentions - he'd sit patiently waiting for me to notice him, then when I did, the game was on - there was no way that I could ever say no!
The camera loved him. Chris loved him. I loved him.
I'm so glad that Chris convinced me that we needed to adopt him, apart from being 10 years old at the time that he arrived at our's - not many people would take that responsibility on, be it the emotional or the financial implications that an older animal comes with in regards to medical and Vet costs, etc. - I knew Chris loved him from way back; looking back now, I don't think I could've lived with myself knowing that I had denied them both the reunion they so rightly deserved - even though Juzzie latched onto me more so than Chris, but Chris didn't mind - I think he's grateful for that, that I was there for him these last few years.
Chris and Juzzie - our first Christmas in Johannesburg 2013.
I had started the grieving process for Justin well before he actually died, which in itself was an odd experience - usually one has the privilege to grieve the person or animal they have lost post their death but that wasn't the case with Juzzie.
After watching from the front row, so to speak, his health get progressively worse over his last few months with us, we knew we had two options - and knowing he had been on the strongest dose of pain meds possible - on one hand, we could've kept him over-medicated and watched what made him the special little soul that he was slowly and painfully wither away, or we could've been the best guardian's possible and make the hardest decision we've ever had to make together and let him go. We chose the latter. We chose the best for him and how we wanted to remember his presence over our own seemingly selfish want of wanting to keep him around - if I could've, I would've kept him for forever. I really would have...
But I digress.
We're taught that there are five stages when it comes to grieving, if I can recall them correctly; denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance - I may have the order muddled, but oh well. I couldn't deny that Juzzie was ill and our Vet had confirmed that there was nothing that could be done, apart from keeping the pain at bay with pain killers - which worked for the first few months. We decided that we weren't going to renew his pain meds script - that once finished, we would say our goodbye to him - that's when the bargaining with Chris started. Every day, and I do sincerely mean every day, I'd say to Chris, 'Are we doing the right thing? Could we not prolong his life with us?' That's when I realised how terribly selfish that would be, the last thing he needed was to be in constant pain - so that stage too did pass. Anger, I don't think I have been angry; though, as much as this kills me to admit - closer to his last days with us, I found myself getting terribly annoyed with him. I suppose - in retrospect - it was my way of distancing myself from what was to happen, that when I should've been showering him with even more love, I was internalising this annoyance towards him. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of cuddles, snuggles and our usual routine, but as always, my coping mechanism is to keep things at arm's length. As I type this do I only now realise that perhaps I was angry, not angry with him - that I could never be - but angry in the sense that there was nothing we could do to protect him. To save him. The last month has seen me being very quiet blog-wise, I haven't wanted to share, or speak of anything really - but as always, I needed to do this and by that I mean putting my thoughts down in words and hopefully by doing so this fog will lift. So yes, I may be slightly depressed, or should I say deflated? I am going with deflated. I have every right to be, don't I?
One Sunday morning, in Salt Rock, the three of us joined an awesome photographer for a special photo shoot and Juzzie was the star and shine he did - thought I'd share a few photo's from that sweet day on the beach and in the park with all of you reading this post. What a fabulous, bittersweet but most of all loving way to remember our dearest Justin - for a dog that was in terrible pain, one would never think that from the photos below.
The day before we said our very tearful goodbye - Chris had to go to Ladysmith on business and he took Juzzie along for the drive, so that they could spend some time together - just the two of them. On The Day, I took Juzzie for one last walk, our last walk together, just us two. I had imagined talking to him and asking what it felt to have lived a long, happy life but alas, we just walked in silence. We had gone for 100's of walks together but that one was tough for sure, me trying to stop the tears as we walked the streets of our suburb, with Juzzie stoically by my side - as he had always been, as one of my walking companions. It was as if he knew what was coming - though he didn't really know what was to come, but still... He was such a pleasure to walk with, I am glad that I had the chance to be his handler in that regard for the last four years. I have yet to go for another walk, with and without the hounds - Chris has been bravely doing it on his own, it's too fresh. Perhaps I should?
Chris had offered to take Justin to the Vet on his own, I told him that I was going to be there and that was non-negotiable. I had to be there, I needed to be there. I needed to be the last face and voice he heard - forget what one saw in Marley & Me - there was no prolonged period to say goodbye, it was all over within a short moment. Years of dedication, love and responsibility gone in the blink of an eye. Do I have any regrets in co-adopting an older dog that needed a home? Not for a second. Do I wish that we had had just a bit more time with him. Always. Will I feel better about all of this in time? Yes, this I know. Will I still love the rest of our hounds unashamedly? Definitely, I wouldn't have it any other way.
I shall never forget you, Justin. You're always in my heart - now and forever.
Until next time,