There is what looks like a small ceramic vase on one of the shelves in my parents’ living room, tucked away behind some other ornaments. It is quite modest, but on closer inspection there is a cork sealing the top and a small word bearing a single name on its side: Tiffi. Tiffi was my mother’s dog – a Bichon Frise who for over a decade followed her around the house, watched by the window to wait for her if she went out and slept by her bed at night.
I used to think it was a little strange that my mother kept the small urn that contained her beloved dog’s ashes but she wasn’t the first person I knew to do this. When we lived in Brighton in the UK we knew a male couple who after many years of running pub, were forced to move out after years of living a full, flamboyant and it has to be said sometimes drunken life. They were both loved by their customers and having lived over the pub they ran for many years, it was a move made all the more traumatic by the enormous amount of stuff they had to sift through and decide to keep or throw out.
A sad group of regulars helped them with this – among them my husband who loaded the moving truck on the day they had to leave before finally hugging the sobbing landlords and helping them both into a waiting taxi. Everyone stood on the pavement and waved them goodbye as the taxi drove away and rounded the corner.
‘The end of an era,’ said someone.
‘We will never see their like again,’ said someone else.
There was a screeching of brakes and the taxi reappeared, reversing at speed back around.
‘One of the sobbing landlords emerged, pushed past the crowd, some of whom had barely finished waving and disappeared back into the pub. He reappeared two minutes later clutching a small wooden box.
‘I forgot Mother,’ he said by way of explanation.
Four years ago our dog Moody, who walked with a limp and and one milky eye when he arrived in our house for the six weeks that became six years got very sick. He already had cancer but then diabetes kicked and the resulting stress on his tiny battered body was too much for him to cope with. It is the first time I have ever had to say goodbye to a pet that I watched getting sicker and dying inspite of everything I tried and it broke my heart.
There is a Chinese proverb which goes something along the lines of, ‘When you save a life, you become responsible for it.’ At first pass the proverb does not seem to make sense. Surely the sense of debt is the wrong way around? That the one who is saved feels a sense of responsibility towards the person who gave them a second chance at life?
But the proverb is correct. When you intervene to change the course of a life, when you have actively interfered to prevent them from a certain fate, even though the outcome is for the better, only you are responsible for the new opportunities they have and you keep feeling that responsibility. It is why a rescue animal that you bring into you home, that you feed and care for (and that you realise is the one who is rescuing you right back and just as hard) is a responsibility that is impossible to let go of. If only we could keep on rescuing them.
And we try. I know I tried with Moody, even as I asked myself if I was being selfish for doing so while I sat sobbing at my desk surrounded by colleagues who could do nothing but feel concerned while I felt guilty for dragging my grief into an office as my poor old dog lay getting sicker and sicker at the vet’s.
And it is why I have the answer to why my mother still keeps Tiffi’s ashes in the family home and why the landlord kept his mum at the back of a cupboard in his bedroom and why on a shelf in my living room you will see a small grey urn with the name inscribed upon it; Moody.