Of hope found, Simone’s story.
I felt a sudden draught from the hall door. I rushed from the kitchen to say “Hi Dad” and stopped dead. I had, in my distress and despair, forgotten, for just a few moments, that he was no more. Never again would Dad turn the key in the front door lock, never again would he hang his hat in the cupboard under the stairs, never again would he sit in his chair, to the left of the fireplace, and switch on the TV to watch horse racing or an old, favourite, black and white film. Dead, cold in the ground, in his coffin; dead since March 11th 2004. Dead to the world, an expression so casually uttered when someone is sleeping soundly, took on an entirely new meaning for me; dead to me, to my sister, to our Mother. Dead. Four letters meaning never to return, gone, no longer in existence. Dead, like the dead weight on my heart. It was now late September, we were living in France but I was home again to spend time with Mom before she returned with me for a holiday. She needed to get away, away from the familiar surroundings and the daily reminders of a marriage that had lasted over fifty years. Mom thoroughly enjoyed her time with us, exploring the countryside, having relaxed meals al fresco and revelling in the sunshine. All too soon, though, she was back home in Ireland. Fortunately, my sister lived a short drive from Mom. I had kept my grief at bay while Mom was with us but it came rushing back at me, like a runaway train. The grief turned to depression. I had lost my hero, my childhood protector, my confidant, the person I loved most in the world, gone forever.
Try as I might I could not pull myself out of the dark depths of loss and, although to outward appearances I looked fine, my husband knew better. Two years, friends told me, you will be fine by then. How can anyone put a time span on grief? Two years? It was hard enough to cope with each day and, for the next fourteen months, I trudged through life. One foot in front of the other, the trauma of losing Dad never far from my mind. I have always loved dogs, have lived with them for most of my life but never, for one moment, did I think that it would be a dog that would pull me from the dark pit. My own dogs recognised something was wrong and did what dogs do best, they gave me their companionship and there was solace in that.
It was December 2005, two weeks before Christmas, when I first saw the Great Dane. She was a shivering bag of bones with soulful eyes. I was shocked. I had never seen an animal in such terrible bodily condition. Every rib and bone was clearly visible and she had no muscle mass. I approached her enclosure and spoke gently to her. She seemed to take comfort from my voice although I doubt she understood me as she was a French dog in a French Dogs Home and my French accent was terrible. It was my job as a volunteer to walk the dogs and to spend some time with them. I had seen many dogs in very poor bodily condition but none quite as horrific as this, yet she had not totally lost trust in people. The staff at the home did their best with what little resources they had but it was never enough and it broke their hearts. There were too many animals; the staff never had enough money and never enough time. The endless round of feeding and medication took up the staff’s day so volunteers were important as they had the time to devote to the animals, a precious commodity. A kind word spoken with a soft voice or a gentle caress would soothe a fearful animal. A walk round the compound was a blessed relief from their cold pens in the biting cold of a French winter close to the Pyrenees. This was food for the soul.
I finished the afternoon’s walk with the dogs and came home but I remained haunted by her image. I knew I could not offer her a home. It was impossible as we had two large dogs, one male, one female and five cats. Another of our female dogs had recently died. Clara was a German shepherd, another rescue dog, and she died in October from cancer of the liver and had left a huge gap in our lives. Our two dogs were content in each other’s company although they missed Clara but the household seemed complete. Zoë, our German Shepherd/Arctic wolf cross was, without doubt, in charge of the household. Jake, our Old English sheepdog, or Bobtail as the French prefer, was a happy, contented dog that did not care one way or the other.
The weeks went by. I continued my voluntary work at the dog’s home. I walked the Dane every chance I had and got to know her. She was a favourite at the home. Her gentleness and quiet demeanour endeared her to everyone. She dominated my thoughts and conversations. I asked all my friends if they wanted to adopt a dog but no one wanted such a big animal. Each week I watched her gain trust and slowly gain much needed weight. Each week I dreaded going to the home. I knew I would be heartbroken if she had been adopted although it was exactly what she needed. I was being selfish and knew it. The more time I spent with her, the more I fell in love. Each week I came home and spoke passionately about her to my husband. I dreamt about her. She was in my every thought. I told the staff at the home that I would love to adopt her but it was impossible. I became more and more miserable until my husband could take no more of it. We discussed the possibility of taking her but worried that the wolfdog might not accept her.
Meanwhile the Dane continued to improve and gain strength and her personality started to shine through. She was gentle, quiet and well mannered. She would allow the other dogs to play with her but would take no nonsense when they became too boisterous. She dealt with this by giving a soft, low growl all the dogs understood and there was never a problem. She gained confidence; her eyes began to glow, her coat shone. She had been a breeding bitch, ignored and not fed. She came to the home as a cruelty case. She was a Mantle Dane, black all over, as though she wore a black blanket, but her chest was white and she had white markings on her toes. Her muzzle was already grey. She was beautiful. She was very strong and pulled on the lead so it was almost impossible to walk her. She definitely had not received any training. She practically adopted the most abused dogs and pups that came into the Dogs home. They snuggled up between her massive paws whilst she cleaned and groomed them. She was free to move about the home and greeted everyone who came seeking a dog to adopt. Everyone was interested in her but not enough to adopt her. Most thought she would be too expensive to feed (she cost just a little more than a German Shepherd). In France, the Great Dane is known as a Dogue Allemand, meaning German Mastiff. Her manners, though, were French. She was impeccably behaved. She was named Nenette, a name generally given to small dogs. It was very much tongue in cheek as she was the tallest dog there! All the staff adored her and at coffee break Nenette was, of course, included. We shared cakes with her and she just loved the little Madeleine cakes, a particular favourite with the French.
It was now late January and, if anything, I had become more smitten with her. I still dreamt nightly of her and she was always in my thoughts. I had never wanted a dog as much as I wanted her. We spoke daily about her and, finally, my husband agreed to go to see her. No promises, just a visit.
As we approached the dogs home she was sitting outside, observing the world. John thought she was a lovely animal. We took her for a walk and he saw she was all I had said. We still had the serious obstacle of our wolfdog ( not particularly fond of female dogs) but we discussed taking her home and keeping them separated. First, we had to know if she could live with cats. As the home also took in cats this was easy to arrange and Nenette just ignored them. The following day we brought Zoë to meet her. We walked them together and that went well, no sign of bossiness from Zoë. We decided to adopt her and in early February 2006 went to bring her home. I was overjoyed; my dream came true. The staff at the home showed no surprise, we think they were taking bets on how long it would be before I adopted her.
Over the next few weeks the two girls slowly came to, if not accepting each other, then at least tolerating each other. They had a couple of minor squabbles but nothing serious. Less and less separation was necessary until, by August, they had learned to live and let live. The Dane continued to gain weight and blossomed. She slowly began to trust us and she was a constant joy to me. I walked her daily and eventually we were able to walk both girls together. Jake, our Old English sheepdog, took no notice of her. The cats had already made their position clear, they were in charge. The Dane hated rain, although she enjoyed her walks if it was just a fine mist. She refused to go walking in the snow; she would go outside only for the time it took to pee etc. Summer times she would only lie in the shade; it did get very hot, 30 degrees plus. She preferred to lie on a sofa with the shutters closed and keep cool. We fed her four times daily on a raised feeding dish. She put on more weight and her ribs were well covered. She gained muscle and her coat gleamed. She was shy to begin with but gradually her true character and personality shone through. She was a big softie and we knew she trusted us when she started to lean on us.
She now weighed 63 kgs, an increase of 15 kgs! Finally, she was the proper weight for her size. She came everywhere with us, to the airport to meet friends, lunches at friends` houses, dinner at our favourite restaurant. Restaurant owners in France happily accept dogs in the restaurant as long as they are well behaved. She was. She caused quite a stir because of her sheer size and everyone she met fell in love. Everyone wanted to touch her but she remained aloof, she was a Great Dane, an aristocrat, and she would hold her head high with a very regal manner. My French improved dramatically with so many people stopping to ask me all about her. She carefully observed our every move, she so wanted to fit in. She learned not to beg for food from the table. She learned many English words whilst I learned them in French. Once she understood that pulling on the lead was not acceptable, she was a joy to walk. She was such a smart girl. She also, after a time, understood me in English and a smattering of German. She was fast becoming trilingual. We renamed her Simone; it suited her, a soft sounding name for a gentle dog. She responded so well to this sound.
In 2007 we returned to Ireland along with all our animals except Jake who tragically died a few days before we left France. He suffered a stroke whilst in the garden, stumbled into the sitting room to be with us, and quietly died just a few minutes after the stroke. It came unexpectedly and we were heartbroken. He had forced his way through our garden fence in Ireland many years before and he never left: yet another abandoned dog that had found a home. We were glad that he had chosen us. After months of careful planning all documents were in order, pet passports and all vaccinations up to date. Kennels were booked on the ferry, the animal trailer repaired and, finally, we arrived safely in Ireland after an uneventful but pleasant trip. Simone loved our new home with fields stretching down to the river. She thoroughly enjoyed her walks in these foreign woods. Such different scents, no wild boar and no bears (a bear had once come over the Pyrenees from the Spanish side and ended up in the woods where we walked, a journey that took him four days. He was safely captured and returned to his own area).
In May of 2009, Zoë, our beloved special girl, died. She was 14. She had lived with us since she was a small bundle of fluffy puppy. It would be impossible to replace her in our hearts so we did not even try. Simone appeared to grieve for a few weeks and then decided life was good, she now had all our attention and was a happy girl. Simone lived life to the full. She enjoyed slow walks in the woods and she loved to meet and greet other dogs. Most people who met her thought she was a wolfhound! Everyone who knew her loved her; she was aloof with strangers, but so gentle when approached. She had the most endearing trait; she would tilt her head to one side and her enormous ears would flop, she would then throw her head from side to side and prance like a circus pony. This was Simone’s invitation to play. When Simone played, she forgot to put the brakes on! If I did not step out of her way in time I was flattened by 63kgs of flying dog. She reminded me of Dumbo the elephant! When she put her front paws on my shoulders, she towered over me. She was strong enough to flatten me if I did not brace myself. She never slobbered, unlike some Danes who constantly drool. The only drawback to having such a giant of a dog occurred each evening when the stove was lit, she would lie directly in front of it and it was almost impossible to add more wood, she was nearly as broad as she was long. We bought an oversized sofa so that she and I could share it. Had Ireland held a competition for the loudest snorer, Simone would have won. The cats, in their sneaky way, tried to steal food from her bowl. She wasn’t having that. She rumbled at them from deep in her throat and they backed off. It never stopped them trying though. She frightened the Postman when first he saw her by placing her front paws on the sidewall by the gate. She was curious and just wanted to say Hello. He, of course, refused to get out of the van. Eventually after introductions on both sides, he happily continued to deliver letters. She had a tremendous deep bark, which panicked any passing dogs, a good thing as it kept them away from our cats.
Simone was now ten years old. She was approximately five or six when she came to live with us. She developed stiffness in her gait, just age. She had a course of Cartrophen injections which greatly helped but, at the age of eleven, it was clear she was getting worse. Then one day she was unable to get up and we knew it was very close to the time when she would be unable to walk. She did manage to get up with our help but it happened repeatedly over some days. It was time to let her go. She was distressed, incontinent even though she was receiving prescription medication for it and her eyes were dull. No way would we let this wonderful dog suffer, not even for another day. She did not have the energy or the will to continue so, with breaking hearts, we made the arrangements.
On the 28th of March 2011 when she was eleven to twelve years old, Simone was euthanised. Her back legs no longer supported her although, in all other health respects, she was fine. Catherine, the most kind-hearted veterinary nurse, one of Simone’s best friends, and Eamon the veterinarian arrived. All was calm and quiet so that Simone felt no panic or fear. It was a peaceful and dignified death. We were with her to the end and, before she left us, the last thing she knew was our touch.
She died as she lived, with dignity. We were blessed beyond words to have owned and loved such a wonderful dog. It was all so hard to bear but Simone’s well being was paramount. She knew that we loved her; she felt it everyday in how we spoke to her and how we touched her. She loved us and we considered ourselves well blessed to have known and loved such a dog. Perhaps in the future there will be another Dane but there can only be one Simone, my first Dane, and my beautiful girl.
It took me over two years before I could bring myself to write this in her memory and two more years before I could mention my Dad in the story. To honour Simone we adopted Hugo, the Great Dane/Boxer cross, in August 2013, from an Animal rescue.organisation. It seemed a fitting tribute to Simone. A dog needed a home and we could offer that. Hugo is totally unlike Simone, he may never be dignified. Perhaps he will always remain so and retain his puppy-like ways but he is very much his own dog and not a replacement for Simone. That Great Dane, through her gentle ways, brought light and laughter back into my life. A dog, yes a dog, lessened the grief and how I wish my Dad could have met her. He would have loved her.
I hope that you enjoyed reading this; it was not meant to make you sad. It is a celebration of Simone’s life and of life in general, including my Dad’s, and Simone’s legacy lives on with yet another (well, sort of) Great Dane in the household. He too is treasured and loved. With grateful thanks to the Animal Rescue for giving us the opportunity to bring Hugo into our lives. Hugo is a very handsome, debonair boy but he has yet to master, if he ever does, how to look aloof. His best friend is Faye, the Greyhound, (since dead) yet another rescue dog. They are both happy, contented dogs, as dogs are meant to be, even if they do share their home with cats. Jezzie the GSD joined the household much later and made herself very much at home, she too is dead but those are stories for another day. As for Dad, it was his love for all animals, his passion for justice, that instilled in me my love and passion for justice for animals. That is his living legacy and for that, Thank You Dad. If love is all that remains, the love, then and now, for Dad and my Mom, also dead and for my sister, thankfully very much alive and Simone and all those long gone and buried, then that is enough. Love makes us strong, love can bring us to our knees and lift us up again. Love is something felt deep within us, given and received. It touches us and leaves its unseen mark. Bones may crumble, flesh dissolve yet love holds true. Photos and memories may fade but hearts hold tightly to love. Broken hearts mend, surgeons repair and replace hearts but only love can make a heart completely whole again. An emotion, yes, but one so valued, so precious and, within that timeless emotion, lie all those we have ever loved. They live within, and we carry them always.
Simone in Ireland, snoozing with Mimi the French cat and Mai Tai the Siamese
At home in Ireland