My Year of Hope
MindLetter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
As the sun returns, the jellies swamp Portobello, and I go on leave - my last MindLetter for July...
My Year of Hope
She was small. The smallest in her litter, a black and white manic fur-ball who bounded round the breeder’s living room from floor to sofa and back without pause. (Some things don’t change.) The quietest bit was when she lay on her back in my lap, just for a few seconds, paws looped over my belly-tickling fingers. I said ‘are you going to be my doggy?’ and she looked up at me and wriggled, and the friend who was with me laughed and said ‘I think that’s that.’ Next weekend, I took her home.
We didn’t speak each other’s languages at first. There were times when she wanted something, but not food, nor strokes, nor toys. I would say to her ‘what do you need?’ and she would look at me with her big brown eyes, and neither of us had a clue, so we just muddled through until something else happened, and maybe we could make sense of that. Sometimes she wouldn’t eat; at other times – I would smell it before I saw it – there was a pile of something unmentionable on the carpet. (Guests: those days are long gone.) Regularly, I was befuddled (and, just occasionally, enraged), and I would remain so for as long as I was too stubborn to try anything different. This, it turns out, I could do for a surprisingly long time. I met, repeatedly, my own impotence.
Doubt, too, was a sneak-faced visitor. Every now and then, as I headed out for another freezing walk, or faced another expectant tilt of the black-and-white head after hours of play, I wondered why I had got a border collie and not, say, a Labrador. Labradors are famously born half-trained. They are so food-oriented that they will happily trot behind you from day one, nose to kibbled hand; your border collie, meanwhile, has already chewed through the lead while you weren’t looking. Nothing says ‘sheep’ like a black, glinting Citroen.
‘If you can make it through the first nine months,’ the breeder told me when I picked he
r up, ‘you’ll be fine.’ I remembered that, as wee-on-the-carpet summer turned into gastroenteritis autumn, which turned into a catastrophic broken-foot no-dog-walks winter. Once or twice it occurred to me that I had neglected to note which nine months: nine months from birth, or nine months from the day I carried her over the threshold? I never quite got round to asking.
But the months went by, and it became immaterial. Hope was both my dog-bride and my dog-child, and I was comparably devoted. I found the food that she would eat and the balls that didn’t grind down her teeth, and I taught her that buses led to adventure and that motorcycles incurred cheese. I hoovered up mud, sand and fur. I weathered countless interruptions: of sleep, showers (they sound, you see, like a hissing snake) and sanguinity. I played tug with dripping rags that had once been Monkey, or Raccoon. I sensed the post-spay infection before the vet suspected. I comforted her when the big dog seized her by the scruff of her precious neck. The contract was very simple: she demanded things; I loved and protected her. And so it went.
Slowly, we became more than woman and dog. It took a year of Hope for me to realise – bizarre how I had not before – that I am both pastoral by profession, and pastoral by pooch. If I am a shepherd, Hope is the canonical sheepdog. In most of her waking life, she watches me: from her bed, the sofa, the hallway. Her most common posture is straight-legged, alert, head on one side. If I articulate what she’s saying, it is always one of two things: ‘what are you doing?’ and ‘can I help?’
This, perhaps, is the clue to this mad love, this dog devotion, the inexplicable bond between a woman and her Hope. It’s the covenant written in millennia of co-wandering through borderlands, shepherding life from one green pasture to the next; it’s the steps our ancestors took, one after the next, away from what no longer served and toward they knew not yet quite what, but doggedly, determinedly, in each other’s company. It’s the lineage of shared endeavours, on golden mornings and rainy nights, in search of soils that nourish, and landscapes that sustain.
Whether you, like me, learned this through a border collie, hope is in our blood; and love is about keeping safe what matters, knowing that this includes each other. ‘What are you doing?’ we ask, time and time again. ‘Can I help?’
I wish you a sun-soaked July from this mad dog and her Englishwoman, one year on.