The birthday that almost wasn’t

I drive 300km to fetch her from the Bethlehem SPCA when she’s five months old. My friends have her brother and he looks like a Great Dane, down to the blue merle colouring. When I called about the puppies left in the litter, they said they only had one female left and so I said I’d take her, no pictures necessary, I was coming. I walk down two rows of desperate dogs and the only thing that keeps me upright when I see the pleading in their eyes is the knowledge that I’m taking one out. I’m excited, and nervous. I’ve always wanted a Great Dane. Can’t afford a real one but this is the next best thing, and if she looks anything like her brother …

I step into the cage and I spot her, huddled in a ball in the corner of her concrete cell, her recently sliced open belly exposed and one yellow wolf eye peering terrified at me from under a floppy ear. Her legs are too long to fit under her body so they splay to the side of her and as I approach she tries every way possible to make herself one with the wall.

She does not look like a Great Dane.

She does not look like a Husky.

She does not look like a German Shepherd.

She does not look like anything I had in my head.

But I made her a promise, and she had an operation because of it, and so she is mine.

She pees herself as I put her brand new purple harness on her and she will not walk so I have to pick her up, foal-legs dangling, and the pee drips down my shirt and pools around my waistband.

She throws up in the car twice on the way home and spends the next three months eating my socks. She pulls laundry off the line when she’s angry and digs holes in the garden when she’s bored. The first time I leave her alone at the house she tears a hole through the solid wood kitchen door and squeezes herself inside, then can’t get out when she gets sick and I come home to puke and shit and pee. Everywhere.


But she’s mine. And when my life falls to pieces just a few months after I bring her home, I find a way to keep her. She bounces between friends and when she digs under their fences and tears up their lawns she spends two months in kennels, where I can visit on Saturdays and I can hear her screaming for me the moment I step through the gate despite two hundred other dogs barking between us.



We move to our tiny cottage on the farm and she jumps over two gates and a fence to go looking for me when I go away to work, then has the good sense to knock on someone’s gate when she realises she’s lost and they have the good sense to let her in and call the vet. I arrive to pick her up, frantic and desperate, after racing home from work 40km away, and find her lazing about in their living room making friends with their dogs.

I raise the fence.

She shreds her chest climbing over it.

But she doesn’t leave the property alone again.

She follows on my heels as I ride my horse around the block and through the veld. Her long legs eat up the ground and we ride for hours, travelling in a great loop through the long grass, picking our way over stones and through wetland mush. She hardly looks like she’s making an effort as she floats over puddles and ditches. Dogs yell at her from behind high fences, even rush her out of open gates, and she drifts past them as if they were smoke, her whole attention focused on me.


I take her camping in the mountains, where we laze around and gaze at clouds. She scratches and snaps at the bugs buzzing around her head but doesn’t do much else. She wanders off to find another patch of shade, or damp earth, to cool herself in the summer swelter. Every now and then I lead her to the shower. She climbs straight in and sits down, waiting for the cold spray to tumble down onto her head, squeezing her eyes shut and shaking the water out of her ears.



She stretches her horse legs to full extension chasing a rabbit across the field in front of our house. She’s remarkably fast, for such a big dog. I hold my breath for the rabbit and I feel my heart racing as it just makes it through the fence, leaving her trotting high-stepping down the wires, lolling pink tongue spilling out of the side of her mouth.

She’s caught four of them, that I know of. I’ve found three on my lawn, one half eaten, and one she carries proudly to my car door as I arrive home from work. It’s a youngster, not wily and wise enough to escape her quick-turn action, and still warm when she drops it at my feet. I only get close enough to make sure it’s dead, but there’s still an aura of life floating around the supple little body. I can’t scold her though: my girl, my huntress. She’s much too proud of what she’s done.

She catches rats and guinea fowl too. She and Hercules engage in a tug of war over a freshly killed rat, and I look away, afraid this time will be the time they tear it apart.

Not yet, though. She always gives it up to him.


It’s Friday evening, last weekend. I’m lying in bed. I’ve been sick, so I’ve been home with her all day. She jumps onto the bed with me, tounge lolling, panting, so I think she’s been running silly buggers outside and I poke a toe at her to get off. She’s shaking the whole bed and she must go get a drink.

She climbs down, and her back legs collapse underneath her. She walks two steps and she falls. Her breathing is harder than I’ve ever heard it but she won’t stop moving. She’s spinning in circles, falling on the floor, on the rocks, on the edge of the barrels which are sharp as knives because I haven’t got around to protecting them with rubber yet. She can still kind of walk so I race her to the car, sending frantic messages to L to meet me at the vet. I talk to her: you’ll be ok, hush baby, you’re ok. She cries on the seat behind me as she scrabbles for purchase, trying to stand. You’ll be ok, you’re ok, shhhhh, hush baby, don’t stand up …

When we arrive at the vet, she can’t walk any more. I collapse weeping as more efficient people try to get her out of the back seat of my undersized car. She’s seizing, though, and her legs keep stiffening against the door. There is drool everywhere. She has shat herself. We carry her inside between three of us and lie her on the floor, where she continues to shake, and spin, and drool, and cry, and her head is all sideways and her tongue is hanging the wrong way and she keeps trying to stand up and the vet says the chances are slim and I’m screaming I’m not ready I’m not ready she’s supposed to only go when she’s twelve …

But she’s mine. And I’m not leaving her lying in a cage to die I don’t care how many drugs she has in her. So we bring her home and she seizes again while we’re carrying her inside and we manage to get her onto a pile of blankets where the shoes normally are and luckily she doesn’t try to get up again and luckily the Valium kicks in and luckily she starts to fall asleep and I just want to stroke her and stroke her and tell her she’s precious and I love her and I don’t want her ever to leave me but the vet said I mustn’t bother her so I just wait till she’s quiet and then leave her to rest and go message my mother that I’m losing my dog and I don’t know what to do …

And then she stands up and staggers outside to me and climbs on the couch.

And ten minutes later, her face isn’t that awful crooked shape and she’s breathing quietly and I can count the breaths and I don’t dare to hope.

But when we all go to bed her back legs aren’t even wobbling any more.

And on Saturday morning she’s fine.

She’s slower now, though. The greyhound streak across the pasture has turned into more of an amble.

But she’s alive.

And she’s with me.

And she’s mine.

And on Sunday she turned nine.



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