As we move from 2015 towards 2016, I am very sad to tell you that we are moving forward without one of our family, because we lost Star earlier this month. I haven’t felt able to share anything about it as to do so would have made it really real, and I just wasn’t ready for that. Losing her was a shock, and left a raw wound in our lives, which will take a long time to ease.
Her fluffy, white, diminutive exterior belied her strength of character. She left her first home - and her equally small white and fluffy family - to join a household which was already home to a large, boisterous Labrador, yet from the first day she woke up in our house her tail was up and she was ready to face the world and whatever it threw at her. That was no mean task given that she was only a few inches tall at the time, but it remained her attitude throughout her life. Star, who was a Bichon Frise, was my daughter Jenny’s dog, but she utterly gained my admiration and showed me the captivating charisma of small dogs.
When Star was a puppy, before we got to know her indomitable spirit, we bought a stroller (pink of course!) as we were convinced she would never keep up with Buddy on walks. How little we knew – once she was old enough for her skeleton to cope with longer walks, she gave Buddy a run for his money and had energy left over too.
She kept up with him mentally too; she and Jenny were awarded their Bronze, Silver and Gold good citizen awards, and her recall was always outstanding.
Star was, however, very much her own person. At times she would like her own company, sneaking off to the bedroom to snooze peacefully and solitarily when the mood took her. Though when she fancied sitting on your lap, she got on your lap and you had little say in the matter. Life was very much on her terms. She loved my mother, following her around, welcoming her extravagantly, and lavishing attention on her – all despite the fact that my mother didn’t reciprocate her enthusiasm. I’m not sure whether Star didn’t know, or didn’t care that that relationship was rather one-sided, but she wore her heart on her sleeve either way.
Never one to keep her opinions to herself, Star resembled Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy, in that her good opinion once lost was lost forever. A grey Husky once stood on her by accident, and she never forgot it. Every grey Husky she met from the on was regarded with suspicion and wariness. Huskies of other colouring, by contrast, were approached with the customary eagerness with which she approached most dogs.
She was not a pushover by any stretch of the imagination. She lived with several bigger dogs and impressed upon them all that her food was hers entirely. Simply by lowering her head over her bowl, eyeing them determinedly and issuing a throaty growl which rolled and reverberated impressively, she had them backing away compliantly. The larger dogs might look at dinner with longing, but they sat – usually with strings of drool dangling from their sad faces – waiting for her permission to eat her leftovers.
It was not only other dogs that were her companions, she also took cats, rats, many other small mammals and ducklings in her dainty stride too.
Unfamiliar people she could take or leave until they had earned her approval – or her disdain. When Star was a young puppy we all attended a barbeque at a prominent dog behaviourist’s house. We sat in the garden with Buddy and the behaviourist’s pack rioting around and having a high old time. The behaviourist voiced the opinion that Star should be allowed to join in too, but Jenny (with all the earnest gravity of a youngster) insisted she stay on her lap out of the melee. When Jenny ate, the behaviourist volunteered to hold Star, and she deigned to sit on his lap upright and dignified while her stroked and chatted to her. Jenny got her way, and I could see the behaviourist (whose stock in trade is usually more challenging dogs) falling under Star’s spell too. Star thought he was alright too.
She was not automatically impressed by authority though, and another behaviourist, who has again dealt with the most challenging of dogs with great success, was considered by Star to be beneath her. Try as she might, this behaviourist could not win her approval – or attention, as Star simply turned her head away at every approach.
Star enjoyed many holidays, travelling to the Scottish Highlands with us (where she learned to swim in Loch Ness) as well as coming on many excursions to various beaches and country parks, and enjoyed travelling by car, train and even boat (though she detested the lifejacket we made her wear aboard). However she got into a few scrapes too. At the tender age of three she ruptured her cruciate ligament. After discussions with our vet and much soul-searching she had TPLO surgery. It necessitated several weeks of recovery, but finally she was as good as new, and back to rushing around as madly as ever. We feared her other cruciate might rupture too at some point, but thankfully it didn’t.
On another occasion, one of Jenny’s young friends, who was unused to life with dogs, left half a dark chocolate orange unattended, and Star – always a fan of human food – wolfed it down. We panicked, and I phoned a dog expert friend to ask advice. Fortunately she was fine, although she was certainly hyper later the evening, running circuits of the house in a very excitable manner.
It might have been wrapped up in a cute, slight package, but Star’s life-force and personality were huge. We are all left reeling from her loss, and Jenny is understandably bereft. Her little white dog has been at her side for half her life, and to have her wrenched away so comparatively young makes the loss even harder to bear.
To anyone reading this who thinks that there are worse things in life than losing your dog, yes there probably are, but grief is personal and objective. Star was Jenny’s, she was ours, she was family and we loved her. Our anguish is in direct proportion to that love, and we mourn her very keenly.
Jenny loved her dog, and Star adored her mistress. Always impeccably behaved with people (even those she looked down her nose at), she had a decided soft spot for little girls. I’ll never forget the day that was put to the test, and definitively confirmed. We were out with both dogs as a mother and two little girls approached us. The smaller girl asked politely, “Can I touch your dog?” No sooner her we said yes than the little girl squatted down, put one hand either side of Star’s face, and leant her forehead on Star’s. I knew she wouldn’t react badly towards the child, but I did think she might wriggle away, but instead Star and this little girl remained forehead to forehead communing. There’s no other word for it, they communed, and it was actually beautiful to witness. And yes, I warned the little girl that not every dog was safe to treat like that.
Perhaps the key to Star’s approach was that she always expected the best. I remember the day she was scampering round the garden and encountered the bird table, on which I’d recently put some bread. Maybe she could smell the bread, or maybe she found a morsel on the floor, but she trotted all around the bird table looking up at the bread-laden top. She wanted bread, but she couldn’t reach it. What does a well-trained dog do to get treats? They sit of course, and as I watched, Star presented the bird table with a textbook sit, her head cocked to one side as she waited for her inevitable reward. She got a reward. It would take a harder heart than I possess to resist such a show of faith and problem-solving. And she deserved that reward. Expect the best and it will come, that was Star’s belief.
So now I’m trying to put into practice what Star taught me – expect the best, keep your head high, face whatever life throws at you, and don’t be afraid to show your feelings. But I can’t deny I’m struggling. We all are. Especially Jenny; and dealing with your child’s grief (albeit a grown up child) for her pet is a complicated, painful business.
Star I’m picturing you in heaven, but wherever you are my goodness they will know you’ve arrived. Miss you Starry. Til we meet again keep that tail held high.
Star Hill 8.5.2006-6.12.2015