In 2001, a year after I moved to LA, I was having a tough time. It’s hard being out here on your own (especially when my home is not the East Coast from whence I had just moved, but several thousand miles east of that). Then I heard that in the UK our beloved Labrador, Daisy, had got cancer at 5. I felt powerless and horribly far away.
One day coming back from the bank where I was having – yet again – difficulties wiring money internationally, as I drove into the underground garage of my apartment block I remember saying out loud to the Lord, “You know, Father, I think a DOG WOULD REALLY HELP.”
Three days later a fantastic friend (who knew my heart) invited me to share a part-time job at a dog rescue. The first day I walked in and turned the corner, there in a massive crate was a diminutive puppy waving at me. I say waving because wagging is insufficient. His whole body welcomed me as if to say, “Oh Mum, THANK GOD, you’ve finally made it! Let’s go-ooo...”
He had kennel cough and “needed” (I personally think this was a put-up job) someone to take him home for three days to give him medicine. I lived in the aforesaid apartment which didn’t allow pets. “You could do it,” my friend muttered sideways at me. “Put him in the bathroom!”
Within three hours of being home, I knew he was never going back. He was six weeks old, shorter than my shoe and trying to outrace the puppy he was delighted to find in my wardrobe mirror. I laughed saying, “You’re craaaz-y, Stuart!” from Stuart Little. And there was his name.
I put my notice in with the Manager. For a month, I left by the backstairs carrying him in and out in my handbag. I left him in a crate when I was out with classical music playing loudly to cover his indignant yelps. (Years later I bumped in to the Manager’s wife at a camera store. I had my first human baby with me and was ordering a Christmas card. “Josie!” she said. And just as I placed her she continued, “How’s your puppy…?” So much for that subterfuge.)
I have always referred to Stuart as my firstborn. On friends meeting him before he was three months old, as they reached to hold him I extended pocket-sized Purell. They’d laugh, I’d laugh and then I’d say intensely, “Yeah but seriously.” A mother was born.
Having Stuart in my life transformed it from a single girl’s existence to a family in one furry jump. As an actress looking for work in LA, I was used to going in to meetings with “back-off” dark lipstick and my NYC black pantsuits. No more after Stu. He came with me so it was pointless to wear black and I never wanted to cover him with lipstick.
He slept curled up on my lap as I drove everywhere. My mother told me this was very dangerous. I replied, “Yes, Mum, it would be… if he wasn’t such a good driver.”
Almost every day we would walk up the street from the duplex with enclosed backyard I had found, to get a coffee at the local coffeehouse. After a few weeks, everyone knew Stuart. No one knew me, but it didn’t matter. He was lavished with attention and oohs and ahh’s. Mum asked what Stuart made of this. I replied, “Nothing at all! For Stu, this is just how the world is.”
When a boyfriend arrived on a first date, I acted as though it was no big deal. Stu completely gave the game away. He would not stop barking and growling. “I’m onto you, Mister! Don’t even think about it.” I laughed feebly, “Ahaha I don’t know whyy he’s reacting like this.”
Once Stu decided some months later that this boyfriend was husband material, he would walk around us in circles on the leash to tie us together. It made getting to the video store a much longer expedition.
He was a very British dog. Though born in America (like his mistress), he was raised as a Brit (ditto). I know this because he would only lift his paw for chicken (his obsession) if he was asked to do so in a British accent. The American ‘parh’ meant nothing to him at all, no matter how badly he wanted the treat.
After we were married, our first house in Santa Monica was a Craftsman with big picture windows overlooking a street uphill from Main: Stuart’s first “office.” Barking became the background soundtrack to our life. I was in bed for ten weeks while pregnant with morning sickness and Stuart refused to leave my side. His master would offer a walk and Stu’s noble head would not even rise off the duvet.
We moved to the Valley with a lovely backyard and Stu was in heaven. Until we brought the baby home. He got up on his hind legs to peer in the bassinet, then chose to live the next six to eight weeks behind our couch. He had been the one and only, who was this noisy blob?
Just as he grew fond of our daughter, we brought home a son. He took one look at me as if to say, “You have GOT to be kidding me,” lifted his head and walked with dignity into the kitchen.
He never saw himself as Nanny from Peter Pan, but Stu was incredibly kind around children. I have simply never met anyone else who was so completely secure in who they were and what their role was. Toddlers would yank on his ears and pull his tail. Kids frightened by dogs would scream at his gentle approach. He’d endure it all before quietly pad-pad-padding away to the safety of a different room.
We called him Keeper of the House because that is what his name means. He never came to bed until everyone was home and safely tucked in. He lay in the hall and waited until he was the last to turn in. He never needed a leash because he never ran off. He would lie out on the unfenced front lawn, nose slightly lifted to the breeze, ears back, surveying his domain. It never occurred to him that he was a medium-sized dog. He was a lion and everyone could see it. More fool you if you couldn’t.
My marriage proved difficult and many times over the twelve years I would retreat into a curled up ball of tears squeezed between my side of the bed and the wall. Stu would come in and sit at the end of the bed guarding me. He needed nothing. He was just letting me know that he was there and he was on it. My tears soaked his fur and he licked them off my cheeks.
If he had been human, I think he would have been a British spy in the 1930’s. All grey three piece suits and a Homburg. Utter discretion, totally self deprecating charm. He’d be gone before you even knew he’d been there.
He saw my English family coming to visit as the Cavalry arriving. He would race down the front path to the car, twenty-five pounds of pure relief: “Oh THANK GOD, I thought you were never coming. It’s been awful!” By the same token, when they left he would have nothing to do with them. “Leaving me? Well in that case BE GONE. What possible use are you to me now?”
He was variously known as “The Elder Statesman”, “Noble Hound”, “Handsomest Boy”, “Streudel”, “Streudel-pup”, “Stupie” (his British aunt’s name for him only to wind up his mother), “Streuds” and “Stewpot”. When he wouldn’t come in from the front yard, I would yell “STUUU-ERRRRT!” Until one day I heard my three year old doing the same thing and realized just how truly ugly that really sounds.
He – extremely uncharacteristically – swallowed a needle and 5” of thread a few years ago. Unbelievable, since this was the dog who never chewed anything and would only have bread if it had a piece of ham in it. To my enormous gratitude, our vet managed to remove it from his stomach. It having not killed him simply by dint of me unknowingly saving his life by trying to soothe his rasping cough with balls of bread soaked in milk the night before.
Nearly losing him did prompt me finally to get another dog. Losing Stu would simply be too high a height from which to fall without back up. So arrived Bobo four years ago and his older brother took on a whole new lease of life. They played constantly and if you called me on the phone you were likely to hear me yell, “Boys! TAKE IT OUTSIDE!” when the grunting and barking and wrestling made it too hard to hear anything.
He developed lumps on his hips and I took him – alone – to the vet after one Christmas, fearing what we might discover. “Could it be arthritis?” I asked. Our vet grabbed Stu’s haunches firmly and said, “You talking about these lumps? No, Mrs Coleman. These are FAT. And you see this one here on his chest? That’s FAT TOO.” Stu and I looked at each other guiltily. It being only a few days after New Year, I was grateful he hadn’t examined my own haunches that told the same story.
Stu was the fabric of my world. He was the English part of my family when I was so far away. He was unequivocally mine. He loved our family here with a passion, and he always remembered the people he knew. But at the end of the day it really was all about him and me, his Mum.
A year ago I knew the only choice left for me in my marriage was divorce. But I still had Stu: my true companion; my noble, unfailingly faithful friend.
He understood and he was always there. He would stay in the background. As I passed him lying in his office (the back of our white armchair in the living room) I would pat his head and give him a kiss. When we went to bed, I would kneel down by his bed to sign him with the sign of the Cross and tell him how much I loved him and how great a dog he was. My boy.
Last summer he was so sick with pancreatitis I thought we would lose him. A whole week spent at the vet, I laid my face on the cement floor next to his heavy head and gave him permission to go if it was time. I would be OK, I whispered. But against all odds he pulled through and was soon in better form than ever. When I brought him home he was thrilled to see his younger human sister and brother, but even more relieved to wrestle with his younger dog siblings (we’d got Lucy Bella last May) and tell them just how horrid it had been before asking what had been going on in his absence.
So he was still here for our first broken-family Christmas last December. He always stayed up with me until stockings were done at (usually around) 4 a.m. and lay unfazed among piles of discarded wrapping paper on Christmas morning. He loved the ham.
On walks from home, there would be a spring in his step and the breeze blowing his ears back as he checked in with all his pals in the neighborhood. They never met but he knew them all by Peemail. I’d call him to catch up and he would gallop towards me with pure joy written all over his face, his tail wagging.
In his old age he was importunate about treats. He always gave his paw, but it became clear that he thought he was now the one to identify when ham should be given out and not the other way around. His bark said, basically, “Oy! Mum!” Often you could hear me saying, “Stop it, Stuart! That is very RUDE! UNCURL YOUR LIP!” But he and I both knew that he’d get what he was asking for.
Last Saturday, my daughter held a Mini Carnival in our front yard and we and the dogs hung out all afternoon encouraging passersby to have a go. Stu was off to the left, surveying his kingdom, sure of his brood. When I looked at the photos again today he is a constant presence of strength and trust.
He got a cough late on Saturday night, but on Sunday he was still in great form licking plates, playing with his siblings and wagging his tail. In the evening, his dry wretching had grown worse and I planned to take him to the vet on Monday morning.
At 6.30 a.m. yesterday, my daughter woke me to say Stu wanted up on the bed. He was struggling for breath and his eyes sought mine. I lifted him up and held him and put water on my fingers for him to lick. I was crying and telling him how much I loved him and he licked away my tears even as he held his head up gasping for air.
As I drove the fifteen minutes to the emergency vet, I kept my hand on his neck and nuzzled his ears telling him it was all going to be all right. He looked at me then out at his surroundings before laying his head down to rest. His breathing slowed and as we drew into the parking lot, he died. His nose encircled by his paw. He was fourteen years three months old. My Stu.
I am inconsolable. I feel I cannot bear the loss. Not my Stuart. Not yet. Not now.
He was my heartbeat, my soul mate, my faithful companion, my best friend, my family here in the States. My constant, loyal, unfailingly noble hound. The Keeper of the House.
In the midst of so much loss, the loss of Stu-pup is for me by far the hardest to bear. I always thought of him as the other grown up.
His death is a severe mercy. I am grateful he died with us, not at the vet and not put down. I am grateful he did not suffer. His beautiful, stalwart heart gave out, he snapped his head suddenly back and in that instant he was gone.
I know I’ll survive. God gave me Stuart and marked him with a Cross to let me know he was the one. My little breastplate of righteousness. We always called him Holy Spirit dog, because he would go completely quiet when we prayed.
I know I will see him again. He’s now up there romping around with my older brother and all our dogs and two cats from all the years of our lives. He’s having a great time.
For us though, his sudden death is a terrible shock. I cannot keep it together. His loss is too enormous, too massive. I can’t breathe. I can’t stop crying.
I thought we would have time. I thought there would be time to realize. There would be time to say.
But in the end, Stuart knew we were his and we were there. No words could say that.
And so. On we go.
* * *
Thank you for my darling Stuart, Lord. Thank you for such an extraordinary friend.
You gave, and You have taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.