We are their world, which is why our much-loved pooches become a very large part of ours. But when they die, a part of us dies as well, as Daryl Holden discovered.
I sobbed. I broke down. I cried my eyes out, my face wet with tears.
Monday, October 17, 8.53am. The moment my world changed. The day that time seemed to stand still, everything else a blur. The day my dear wee Frankie died, my beloved miniature schnauzer dog. He was 11 closing in on 12, a precious and gentle old soul, who had enriched my life in ways I never thought possible. But in seconds he was gone, having been euthanised at the veterinary practice after something went wrong – so bloody horribly wrong and still frustratingly unexplained – while under their care overnight.
In a blink of an eye, I had lost my best mate, who I loved more than anything and anyone. Yes, that included my wife but please don’t think the worst of me because she felt the same way and that’s no slight on either of us or our relationship.
It simply highlighted the deep impact Frankie Norman Holden had on us both and how strong our connection was with him and why he’s now left pawprints on our hearts.
It’s because our love for Frankie was completely unconditional, which is near impossible to replicate with a human because when you deal with people there are many expectations that come with that. Not so with our fur children where the bond is special and different. We can be ourselves, with no fear of being judged. We can love without restraint with our canine friends. That intense devotion is a reason why Frankie’s death continues to be so difficult to come to terms with.
Difficult? What an understatement. Though I went through the terrible pain of losing my Mum last year, and some close friends in recent times, too, I’ve never experienced the grief I still feel after Frankie’s completely unexpected death. But I’m not a Lone Ranger in that because it’s not uncommon to hear dog owners tell you that they’ve been more upset when their pooch has died, compared to a human relative.
That’s not to say that dog owners are unfeeling monsters detached from other humans. Quite the opposite. Dog, and pet owners generally, are some of the most empathetic people I’ve come across – towards both animals and humans.
Regardless, why shouldn’t we grieve more for our furry friends anyway? After all, our pets’ lives have value. They matter, even though society often trivialises our relationships with them. And though I feel like I’m not supposed to grieve Frankie’s death as intensely or profoundly as I do, his life and the loss of it is momentous to me. But perhaps feeling stricken is part of the deal we make because we know they don’t live as long as we do.
We give them the best lives we can. They repay us with so much more than we ever give them. All this, of course, can be hard for non-pet lovers to fathom and I get that. But when I hear someone say they can’t understand how anyone can love a pet so much, I still really wonder about their ability to love at all.
How could you not show love and affection for a pet, who has been such a constant and important part of your daily lives? Some people, too, can say careless things to a bereaved person when their loved animal family member dies. Like: “Are you going to get another dog?’’
That was put to me and I politely responded. But, seriously, maybe we will get another dog, but would you ask me at my son’s funeral if we were going to have more kids?
A pet, like a person, is not replaceable, and to suggest replacing one immediately after a death is just insensitive. Because people with dogs generally cherish their existence. Even great American President, Franklin Roosevelt, sought the comfort of his small black terrier, Fala, as he led the nation through World War Two. Fala slept at the foot of Roosevelt’s bed, accompanied him on trips, and was buried next to the president and his wife.
They’re special little friends and few understand that better in our setting than my son Finn. A chunk of his childhood went with Frankie’s death because Finn was eight years old when we got him for his birthday.
Frankie was the last puppy to be snapped up from a litter of purebred miniature schnauzers in Franklin, the town past Auckland that we appropriately named him after.
And in Finn’s part in helping raise Frankie, I witnessed an enduring trait in our only human child that made me so proud – his gift of nurturing and caring.
You see, Finn regarded Frankie as his brother, who was certainly there for many of his early big life moments and challenges, especially in sport.
As a family of four, we went to all the junior tennis and table tennis tournaments across the South Island from our Invercargill base for 10 years, with Finn generally cleaning up wherever he went.
We always stayed in dog-friendly motels because we would never leave our four-legged boy behind, away from his pack. Of course, taking Frankie meant he was always unsettled that first night in a strange environment.
I always slept on the motel room couch in the lounge, with Frankie beside me in his crate and Finn and Michelle in the bedrooms. When Frankie invariably woke in the early hours after midnight, and started to whimper, I would quickly get up, dress and we’d go for a walk at ridiculous o’clock to tire him out and to avoid waking up Finn before he played later that morning.
Oamaru, Temuka, Timaru, Dunedin, Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka, Ashburton and more. You name it, there were very few South Island destinations where Frankie and I didn’t go for our post-midnight stroll, often in the rain and cold. North Dunedin, in the heart of university land, drew special reactions from students worse for wear and returning home after a big night. “Oh, scary dog,’’ they’d joke about my cosy fleece jacket-wearing boy, looking anything but frightening, feeling perky and wanting to say hello on his night-time jaunt.
I never complained about those walks because Frankie was part of our family. He had to be there, which was why we never had a family holiday overseas or even to the North Island because someone had to stay home and look after Frankie, rather than sticking him in a kennel. It was another reason why we became so attached. Our bond so unbreakable.
And Frankie loved our trips away, grabbing his favourite toy in his mouth and dropping it by our bags when we were packing the car. He also became so well known on the table tennis and tennis circuit that players would always say hi and pat him, even kids I didn’t know.
They were special memories I’ll always have of our first dog, who came in a tiny body but with a big personality, seriously sharp observational skills and the intelligence to read our mood and show us how he felt.
Take Christmas Day, where, as a younger dog he loved ripping open parcels. Many of them weren’t even his. One Christmas sticks out. It was in Alexandra and Frankie excitedly tore into his gift, removing the wrapping paper to reveal a squeaky red plastic stick. The ultimate for most dogs but Frankie wasn’t like most dogs. He looked at it with disgust, slumping away to sit by the front door, head bowed and ears down, not willing to look at us as he sulked.
He hated his squeaky toy. Parcel unwrapping was over as far as he was concerned. So much for Christmas fun, he probably thought.
He sat there, not budging for a good 30 minutes, wanting to make sure we understood exactly how he felt, just as he always did whenever he wanted our attention.
Like when he would go to the front door at home, look out the window and bark at something outside. Except, there was never anything. It was a clever ploy, his way of getting me up to play with him.
If I was watching TV, especially sport, he would often sit directly in front of it, in full view as the ultimate distraction.
In recent months, he also became my wife’s instructional mini-me on the rare occasions she was away for a few hours. He would growl at me if I did something wrong around the house, had forgotten to give him his afternoon tea or his various medications that had to be administered at the exact time every day, which, somehow, he knew to the very minute.
And there was lots of medication, poor Frankie becoming a sick wee dog with elevated levels of this, inflammation of that, complications in and around various organs in the abdomen – Cushing’s disease, diabetes and pancreatitis resulted. All treatable, but the combination of those ailments and the treatment slowly sucked some of the life out of our boy, who became lethargic but still sparked up for his walks.
He spent so much time at vets in Invercargill, Ashburton and in Christchurch over the years, including a stay-over at an after-hours animal hospital, that he often seemed to enjoy it, treating it like a social occasion to see other dogs and people.
They all knew him. They all made a fuss. Frankie loved that.
But it wasn’t easy keeping on top of his health concerns in recent months, hundreds of used syringes remaining a credit to my wife’s perseverance to administer the diabetes insulin injection twice daily, 12 hours apart and into a dog who hated it and who would wriggle and move to try and make it a near impossible task. We bribed him, a treat of salmon after every injection the lure. He sprinted to get his salmon after being injected.
When he died, unused salmon packs in the fridge were tossed out. My wife used to love salmon. Now she’ll never eat it again because it’s just another painful memory of our boy.
And with Frankie gone, I’ve found myself almost floating through spaces he no longer occupies. There’s a particular kind of nothing in the corner by the TV where his plush bed still sits.
His massive basket of toys stays where it always has, while walking without him around the streets just doesn’t feel right.
Sometimes our house – his house, to be fair – feels empty and haunted, especially without his soft round self, asleep on the couch beside me, or not having him reverse in between my legs as I knelt on the floor to give him chest rubs. And once, in the first week following his death, I thought I heard him at the bedroom door on Saturday morning when I foolishly whispered, “come in Frankie dog’’, thinking he’d appear as he always did, ready to play with Dad on my day off. Of course, no. It was just another sledgehammer reminder that he really was gone.
That’s why the loss is intensely physical. It’s why I miss Frankie’s sounds and his smells. Well, some less than others. It’s why the house can feel almost stagnant without him around. I see him in shadows. I look for him outside. There’s a hollowness that matches the echo in my chest.
My dog has gone but he’s also with us somehow, woven forever into our lives.
I’m grateful for the good memories and the lessons Frankie taught us. For teaching us about enduring love, devotion, and trust, even when we patted him that final time at the vet’s just as he was put to sleep.
It was a moment I’ll never forget and one I’ll always carry some guilt at not being able to explain to him what was going on in those final moments, while also wondering how the hell this happened and what more could I have done to have saved him.
I’m so, so sorry, Frankie dog. Please forgive me.
Immortalised in stone
It was spooky but the actions of a knowing golden retriever convinced me we were doing the right thing with my miniature schnauzer’s ashes.
His name was Parker, who rushed towards us when we arrived at Reterniti, a Christchurch funeral services business where you can commemorate your pets in a rather special way.
It’s a converted antique shop, with a vast display of vintage Singer sewing machines immediately catching your attention. It’s a bit like a funeral parlour, offering a world-first service and technology that turns a pet’s ashes into a smooth memorial keepsake stone.
Parker and his golden retriever brother Max can be found at the Ferry Road business most days, welcoming customers and lounging together on their big double dog bed.
But that oh-so-playful Parker almost reduced me to tears when he disappeared out the back, returning with a soft toy in his mouth, dropping it at my feet. But it wasn’t just any old toy. Oh goodness no. The soft otter toy was Frankie’s favourite. Of all the toys, I thought. Of all the bloody toys.
If that wasn’t some sort of after-world message from Frankie then the next thing Parker did surely was while we talked with a lovely, empathetic sales lady about the ashes-to-memorial stone process.
Parker wanted my attention, and he wasn’t getting it, so he nudged in front of me, shuffled backwards on his bum and sat squarely, and firmly, on my feet. He looked up, those sad dog eyes trying to say something. I understood completely because that reversing and sitting on my feet carry-on was one of Frankie’s unusual habits that he did with me. And only me.
They were signs. Good signs that getting Frankie’s ashes turned into a unique handmade cremation stone, which is done by using an organic binder – and having it engraved it with his first name and date of death – was the perfect thing to do.
“And don’t worry, we’ll look after Frankie’s ashes through the process,’’ the Reterniti sales lady assured us.
We’d collected the ashes from Fond Farewells pet crematorium in Lincoln only half an hour earlier where the woman there captured exactly how we were feeling, teary-eyed at the package being handed over in what was another quite confronting moment.
“I’m sorry we’ve had to be of service to you,’’ she said.
It was a nice thing to say but now we’re counting down the weeks before we get our stone, and we can’t wait to see how it turns out. Because no two stones are the same. They come in six different sizes, dictated by how big your pet was, while a stone’s colour varies and reflects the shades and tones of your furry companion’s ashes.
And we know that it’ll be a perfectly organic keepsake, a tactile object that we can hold, caress, place and, crucially, take and move around with us. But it won’t just be an object per se. It’ll be Frankie – a timeless and permanent pet after-life reminder of our much-loved boy – and as profoundly touching as the Reterniti company name itself.
The name is a mixture of the words return and eternity, which speaks to their philosophy of never being forgotten. Just like Frankie Holden. Never ever to be forgotten.