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a painted portrait of Scout, a 12 year old German Shepherd, with her tongue out against a black background

The Sunday EssayMay 7, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Scout

a painted portrait of Scout, a 12 year old German Shepherd, with her tongue out against a black background

Scout looks fluffier than usual, alive. I ask my husband to check. He suggests patting her, to say goodbye. I don’t want to.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Joseph Qiu.

My dog died after being hit by a car on a cold night this winter just gone. The stars were out, my husband was wearing his Swanndri inside, we were drinking tea and hadn’t yet noticed her missing from the empty rug right by our feet. The phone rang. I knew immediately. The day before she died I knew something bad was coming as if I had been pushed and was headed slow motion towards water. I have these inklings all the time and nothing ever comes of them, but this time, this time. As my children slept deliciously under their superhero duvet covers, my dog lay dead on the road and I can’t let go of the day she died as if there’s some way I might change the order of things and in doing so, I might bring her back. 

The night before she dies, Scout wakes me twice, wildly sniffing around next to the bed as if she is trying to tell me something. She seldom makes her way into our room and if she does it’s to lie at the foot of the bed silently, so as not to be sent back to her rug. It’s weird to see her there interacting with me. I become preoccupied, wondering if she is sick and settle myself back into sleep figuring she still has at least another four years in her. I try to slow my breath, picture my babies all safe in their beds, Scouty asleep on her rug. 

“We are safe,” has become the mantra of my life. I ask my husband to whisper it to me each night, but mostly he’s too thirsty for sleep. We have three children under five. I spend each day balancing their joyful play with the constant assessment of risk, the whole time trying to act chill. I’m like an elite bodyguard to three highly dangerous individuals, then a dog with strange night-time habits: a regular parent mixed up in the constant cycle of rapture, exhaustion and worry.

On Scout’s last day, the children and I walk around the paddock at our new house and she skirts us, her big body, the fluffy tail, those bandy legs just on my periphery. I notice something mortal about her. She isn’t limping, but slowing down. Maybe it’s that. My children jump on the trampoline, push each other, bounce each other, hold each other, laugh, laugh, cry. Scouty rolls in the nearby grass. It’s odd, she wanders over to the old cherry tree and is sniffing around it. The house is new to our family, but was my husband’s childhood home and so many of his pets are buried there. She keeps pawing and sniffing right there, under the tree, she can’t get enough of the thing. I’ve never seen her do that before. Does she know that is the exact spot where she will soon be buried? Probably. She knows a lot.   

I know from her life expectancy, Scout will be dead before our one year old, Maeve, has any memory of her. The dog is still alive and yet I watch them mournfully, a step ahead of time. At lunch that day, I take a photo of Scout standing at the other side of the glass door as Maeve thumps a tennis ball against it. A call to action. It has become their favourite thing to retire to the front lawn together, Maeve tottering around with the ball, the dog gently taking it out of her hands and then galloping back around in a circle. She has cleverly selected Maeve as the most likely person to play with her for long stretches and takes great care to keep Maeve on her feet, to slowly retract the ball from her hands. The day after Scout dies, my daughter makes her way to the front lawn with the ball in her tiny hand. She looks around for Scout, lost. 

We met Scouty eight years ago as a twelve-week-old German Shepherd pup, fluffy as anything, with one ear that refused to stay up and giant clumsy limbs. We were about to start IVF when she came to us, a big, fluffy gift. Her only imperfection was a lifelong intolerance to being walked on a lead. “Who’s walking who,” men inevitably called out from their car windows when I took her on the familiar loop around our house in Hamilton East. When our babies finally arrived, all of them prodigiously cute, they never registered with strangers when Scouty came places with us. It was like we were walking some sort of well-known healer. There were times adults knelt down to her and cried, missing past dogs of their own. I understand now. 

The night Scout dies, she happily trots outside to eat her final meal, a mixture of kibble and slices of sausage smeared in tomato sauce left over from the baby’s plate. In the chaos of the evening, as I walk down the hallway to clothe a baby fresh out of the bath, comes the precise moment I keep repeating now, the moment I would change. I see her tail swish past the glass door and have the familiar thought: I need to bring the dog inside. 

What am I doing in the moments she is making her way to the road, as the car comes towards her, when she should have been inside on her rug, as a man finds a phone number on the tag around her neck and rings that number, distraught.  I am having a cup of tea with my husband, snuggled next to him on the couch wearing big ugly socks, talking smack. When the phone rings, my husband runs out the door and I stay seated, my brain clunky, aware of itself, not wholly consumed by the news that’s coming, but unable to think of anything else. 

I’ll never forget my husband’s body when he comes back inside, broken, as he says this fucking house. He takes my hand. I don’t want to go out there. I keep having to remind myself I’m a grown woman. I jam my thick socks into Birkenstocks and shuffle out into the dark. 

Scouty looks fluffier than usual, alive. I ask my husband to check. He suggests patting her, to say goodbye. I don’t want to. I consider briefly a chance the universe might change its mind right now and bring her back to us. I picture myself ringing friends to tell them about the near miss and how alive and fluffy she is. I reach out and touch her. Scouty. She’s dead. 

Somehow now we are going through the motions of things that need to be done. In the dark of the night I feel lost. I notice my husband. He’s doing all the things as I stand there, hopeless. He digs the hole without pausing once, hating the earth he is about to put her in. He makes his way to the ute and scoops dear old Scouty up like when she was alive, cuddling her. He drops her down into the dirt and lays there with his long arms dangling down into the hole, crying as if winded, saying her name over and over. I’ll never forget the intimacy of watching him there like that, of holding each other in the dark, the kids asleep and unknowing in their warm little rooms. 

Inside again and the house is making all of its sounds. Our half drunk tea sits there, waiting. Everything feels harmonious and brutal and changed forever and stubbornly the same. Again, my brain takes off on an alternate story: maybe Scouty somehow makes her way out of the hole under the cherry tree. How will I explain this to my children when I can’t make any sense of it? These four walls where we have built a life are melting before my eyes. This house where my husband played as a child and his own mum watched over him, where my father in law saw out his final days. This house feels cursed. 

My father-in-law died on a cold, clear morning in the middle of winter, a year before Scout. He wasn’t expected to die. He was in hospital for a routine heart operation and everything had gone spectacularly well. Two days later, my husband said he was thinking of visiting his dad right on dinnertime, when our three children were circling the kitchen for food. I looked at him in disbelief, as if he was suggesting polygamy. He stayed to cook the mince. Early the next morning my father in law was dead. The enormity of his passing felt impossible. The mistake I had made the night before was sickeningly bad, still makes my cheeks go hot. 

In the following days, still unable to process or really speak the words, we sat our children in the lounge and tried to tell them about their grandad. I had researched what to say for hours and planned a small speech as if addressing the nation. They were not used to listening to speeches and it was hard to keep them in one place. I hadn’t factored this in and spoke quickly, tripping on my words, trying to get through the main points. We pretended grandad had been much older than he was, said we didn’t know for sure, but maybe he was somewhere in the clouds, watching over us. They blinked, said nothing about it. Nothing for months. Then one day from nowhere, Remy our eldest at four, asked “what’s grandad wearing in the clouds”. 

Immediately, the subject became central to the fabric of his life. He wanted to know what grandad ate for lunch up there, why he couldn’t come back down, if he could fall off a cloud, or visit on a plane. He wanted to know where grandad slept, if he drove a truck up there, if grandad missed us, remembered who we were. I tried to answer as truthfully as I could, but every conversation seemed to leave all parties more confused, more horrified at the prospect of death. 

I sit on the bed after burying Scout that night, my ears ringing, my head full of noise. The house seems like it has no idea what was going on outside. “What are we going to tell the kids,” I ask my husband. He’s still moving inside, probably afraid of stopping, finding a pair of matching socks for the following day. I want to protect my babies from pain, it’s all I ever really want, and I weigh up the possibility of lying, somehow keeping the night’s events secret. My husband frowns, shakes his head. 

We sleep repeating the same pattern: holding on to each other, turning constantly, remembering. 

It’s breakfast when I make my way down to join them all at the dining table. My husband has woken to Remy, and leaves me sleeping. I decide there and then I will tell them the truth about Scout’s death, as much as anyone can tell the truth about something they know nothing about. I don’t look at my husband, I just launch in, knowing he will be relieved. 

“Scout ran out onto the road and got squashed by a car and died.” 

My three year old Jude looks out the window, “I can see her!” he screams, “she’s falling out of the sky!” 

We take their hands and lead them to the cherry tree. Our dog, the kindest of us all, the most forgiving. We put it to the children that Scouty is down there, in the dirt. They stand there, swamped by their rain jackets, sticky hands gripped to us. 

“Do you think she’s still in the hole,” asks Remy.  

“What do you think,” I say. 

“I can’t see anywhere she could have gotten out.”

“When you die you become a little bit magical,” I offer. 

“I don’t think dogs become magical when they die, they just get dead.”

We moved to my father in law’s house in the country six months after he died. Just as the flies were coming unstuck from each surface of the house and disappearing for winter. Just as it was about to turn unimaginably, stubbornly grey outside. My father in law expected to come home from his operation, so all of his things felt paused and about to restart. His jacket hanging from the coat hook, his fake Crocs lined up on the lino, about to walk over to the shed. The house showed every sign he was alive inside it, but he was gone forever, dead. 

From the kitchen window I can see the shed he loved, the grass where Scouty played with Maeve. The radio never stopped playing in the shed and since his death has not been turned off. It seems there is always a possibility of him being there. As the kids play on the front lawn I can hear the shadow of sound coming from Coast FM.  

But life still goes on

I can’t get used to living without you 

living without you 

living without you

Who will ever turn that radio off? We are surrounded by the feel of things we loved, persisting on. I can’t decide if it’s comforting or torturous. Radios in sheds, discarded tennis balls on the lawn, the smell of a drawer full of T-shirts, a paw print on the floor.

After Scout dies, Jude’s Buzz Lightyear toy starts to spend his nights on top of the dirt mound under the cherry tree. Buzz lies flanked by two makeshift crosses the boys made. “X marks the spot!”, they keep saying, “X marks the spot!” We plant sweetcorn there because we have packets lying about and it’s something to do. They drown it all with water they keep bringing over in toy trolleys while I stand there crying and bursting with love for them. 

“I want a camera here so I can see Scouty,” Jude says one day. The grave site is becoming convoluted, almost farcical as the children load it with more and more of their things. When our friends visit, they’re taken straight to the cherry tree as the boys explain that Scouty is down there “deadding, after getting squashed by the trucks”. 

One day I find Jude burying Buzz in the dirt with a spoon. “I don’t want my Buzz,” he tells me. “I need a new one. My old one is dead, he’s dead from a car.” He’s taken to heading out to the cherry tree with a spoon from the kitchen drawer, digging into the dirt. “I want to get Scouty out and put daddy in.” 

For a few weeks, just as with grandad, the dog’s death is the only thing they seem to want to talk about. They keep asking if things will dead them. Scout joins a growing list of dead things they like to rattle off in competition with each other: Grandad Phil, nana, Scouty, dinosaurs! Gold miners! Skeletons! Who’s next, they want to know, will they ever die, will I? “They are never going to get over this,” I think to myself, but their life is too joyful to accommodate extended periods of melancholy. 

It only takes a few weeks before they stop mentioning Scouty at all. We pass German Shepherds on the way to coffee, and silently I say “Scouty” and try to handle my tears as my children’s eyes blink past, searching for noise and adventure. Sometimes I see them run towards the cherry tree, only to change course, or climb the mound of dirt Scout lies beneath only to take flight, oblivious. 

One day a strange sprouting of sweetcorn appears under the cherry tree. I wonder if I am the only one who remembers how it got there. Soon after, I notice Scout has joined a collage of pictures on the fridge. I presume my husband has put it there, but I’m too overcome to mention it. As I kiss my four year old in bed that night, I find the picture folded into his little hands as he sleeps.

Keep going!