Darcy was showing his age. His beautiful golden eyes were a little milky, his muzzle had turned grey, he slept twice as long, he was slow to get up. When I noticed a couple of lumps on his body my heart sank and a trip to the vet confirmed that he had cancer. At around fourteen years of age, and because he’d always been fearful of the vet, we decided we didn’t want him treated with steroids or anything designed to prolong life, but just keep him comfortable for the months or weeks he had left.
When he didn’t want to eat much or go out for even the shortest of walks any more we agonised over when would be the right time to have him put to sleep. We all know it’s a kindness, but I wanted desperately for Darcy not to need that last, painful visit, I wanted him to pass away in his bed. To just go to sleep and not wake up. I would lie on the floor with him, stroking his velvety ears, telling him gently that it was time for him to leave us. I told him to go to my father because I was sure he’d be waiting for him as they’d had a very special relationship.
(Mind you, when we told Dad we were adopting a problem dog called Donut from Battersea he thought we were, quote, “mad”!! Why, he demanded to know, would we take on a dog with such issues rather than get a puppy with a known pedigree that we could train from the beginning. But when he met him on the day we took him out of Battersea Old Windsor, he adored our Donut-renamed-Darcy from the start and always wanted to look after him when George and I went away on holiday. When Dad died and we went with Darcy to his house to sort some things out, Darcy sniffed all round the Dad’s armchair, and then went off as if looking for him.)
So, that’s why I begged Darcy to just let go and cross over to Dad, but Darcy would not make it easy for me. He did not die in his bed, and then came the day that he looked at us with that unmistakable plea in his wonderful, black-rimmed eyes that told me I was to stop being selfish because he needed to be helped on his way.
Darcy loved going out for a drive, so we decided to take him out for a last little jaunt before going to the vet, and we arranged it so that he would be put to sleep in our car. I was in bits even before George lifted Darcy into the car, and couldn’t stop crying as we drove around for a while before parking up and letting the vet know we’d arrived. George, who had heard and been so determined to answer Darcy’s plea to take him away from Battersea all those years ago, held him while the injection was administered and took hold. While I held Darcy’s paw, George held Darcy across his lap, whispering that he could let go now, that we loved him and had been privileged to have been chosen by him. Darcy visibly relaxed in George’s arms and took his last breath. It was over.
From there we took him straight to the pet crematorium, a lovely place called Charlies Parlour in Bradford-on-Avon, where the owner, Paul, was waiting for us. Paul couldn’t have been kinder. Obviously used to distraught people arriving on a daily basis, he helped us deal with what had to be dealt with, and we knew Darcy would be treated with dignity throughout the cremation process. We left him in Paul’s care, arranging to return the next day to collect the ashes, which would be in a prettily-decorated cardboard tube. I was also presented with a packet of forget-me-knot seeds and a paw print. The paw print broke me all over again!
We buried Darcy’s ashes in our garden, next to the red and white ‘Nostalgia’ rose we had planted for Dad, with a little metal dog on a wooden plinth marking the spot.
Oh, how different the home is when the companion animal has left it! How heart-breaking to put their bed, toys and food dishes away. How sad the familiar routes when your beloved four-legged friend is no longer walking alongside you, sometimes running ahead and coming barrelling back again in the hope of getting a treat.
Every day I wondered if he visited us and, if he did, why I couldn’t sense it or see him, because I’d once had a strange experience at a friend’s house. Back then, many years ago now, we’d both had cats called Pepper. My friend had made coffee and I was seated in an armchair by the door. Pepper came strolling in and rubbed herself against my legs, I put my hand down and stroked her head. When I looked up my friend was staring at me with a perplexed expression, and asked me what I was doing. Perplexed myself by the question, I looked down again and Pepper was no longer there. My friend then told me she’d been put to sleep the previous week, and she’d been about to tell me!
I never had an experience like that with Darcy, the first message from him came in the form of a butterfly. I was walking across the fields to the next village, a walk I’d done with Darcy almost daily, and I was missing his presence every step of the way. As I approached a hedgerow that marked the gate that took me across the boundary into the next village, I noticed a little golden-brown butterfly. The colour was similar to Darcy’s eyes, so perhaps that’s what made me stop to take a closer look, and I saw that it had a piece of its wing missing, like something had taken a bite out of it. I think I murmured something to it about hoping it could fly all right, then, thinking no more of it, I carried on to the local shop and then walked home again, a round trip of forty five minutes.
It was a lovely August day so when I got home I decided to sit on the swing-seat in the garden, close to the rose bed where Darcy’s ashes were. Out of the corner of my eyes something fluttered and landed near my feet…
I looked down…
There on the ground in front of me was a golden-brown butterfly with a piece missing from its wing. It had followed me all that way, and I felt a shiver travel up and down my spine because it was so incredibly like Darcy’s eyes.
But one question still remained: was he with my dad?
In January the following year I had a reading with a medium at her home. I hadn’t told her anything, in my research for my writing I always go along to such meetings offering no information and with no specific expectations. About half way into reading she asked if I had a puppy. I said yes, I had become a volunteer Puppy Raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind and we had a 4-month old Labrador/Golden Retriever cross. She said, “When he was tiny he slept in a cage or a crate at night and he never cried did he?”
I confirmed that he hadn’t disturbed us during the night at all, that from the day we’d got him the previous November, he’d always settled in the puppy crate very quickly. “Well,” the medium said, “he’d had a companion that came at night to keep him company for as long as it was needed. It’s a fairly large dog, with a black and brown coat.”
I told the medium that it must be Darcy, who’d died a couple of months before the puppy arrived, and I asked, “Can you tell me where Darcy is now?”
The medium seemed to consider for a while and then she said, “Your dad is here. I see that black and brown dog by his side. I’m being shown an image of your dad lying on a deck chair in the sun, with this dog underneath. Your dad is telling me that there is a photograph of this.”
This photograph sits on the sideboard in the dining room of my dad’s partner’s house. Dad was a sun-worshipper, and she had taken the photo while he was sleeping in his deck chair in the garden, Darcy snoozing beneath him.
I’d had all the evidence I needed. Darcy, that dog once called Donut and who’d had such a miserable start in life, was safe and happy in spirit with someone who’d loved him as much as George and I had.