Happy Birthday, Ben. We miss you.
Today is the fourth anniversary of losing our King Charles Cavalier, Barney. The days and nights and weeks and months have rolled on four years now- at once it seems a long time ago and only yesterday. A gentle rolling mystery of the workings of relentless Time- how can it seem so long ago and yet also seem just a few months ago? So much has changed and so little. It seems a particularly cruel twist of fate that in those four years we have gained and loved and lost another dog, too. With thoughts like that, Barney seems a long distant memory, lost in the tumultuous shadow of our still-intense grief over young Ben.
And yet, today, standing in the back garden where he used to love to run and play, near the sundial that marks where where we buried him, Barney seems to be only yesterday. I can see the bright glitter of his eyes and hear his bark and remember the feel of his fur under my fingers, his weight on my lap (not inconsiderable, he did go to doggy Fat Club, after all). “First rule of Fat Club, we don’t talk about Fat Club,” I used to tell him. “The second rule of Fat Club…” well, you know how that goes, and I’m sure Barney did too. I used to talk to him as if he were human and he used to look back at me with the wearisome patience only dogs have, as if they understand everything and humour their owners with a bored wag of their tail as they wait for mealtime to arrive. Barney sure did love his food. But he did beat Fat Club; he got his weight down -and even featured in our local newspaper, a moment of fame- and lived a month shy of thirteen brilliant years.
The price of loving is the weight of grieving, the currency of love our tears- I shed plenty over Barney. That last week was pretty brutal.
I do think of him often, it’d be impossible not to. Memories of him are everywhere in the house, and the garden. But the tears have dried up, I think, replaced by the fresh ones over Ben. I can think of Barney with warmth and fondness, the sadness faded, while thinking of Ben is still shards of glass twisting in my chest.
As is our tradition, we bought flowers and placed them above the spot where we buried him in our back garden the day after he died. I reserve a special hate for that day, just a week after my birthday that year, digging a hole for my dog under a bitter-grey sky that shed flakes of snow. Why is it that memory reserves a particular ability to remain vivid when it concerns such unpleasant times? It’d be so much more merciful to forget days like that.
Later, we play a disc of video footage of Barney, a time machine to priceless moments that we relive around this time of year. Suddenly he’s alive and barking, its Spring of 2009 and he’s chasing his ball as I kick it around that back garden where he rests now forever. His loud barking fills our room and our Westie, Eddie starts barking back, annoyed at the mystery of a room suddenly filled with the joyous barking of a strange dog. In the same way as starting a new journey and adventure with a perfect puppy named Ben helped heal the pain over Barney, the new experiences of our Westie puppy Eddie is helping us heal the pain of losing Ben. I always thought that Ben was a blessing, and the same is true of Eddie. Dogs can be the cure of sadness just as they can be the inescapable cause of sadness.
So today we remember Barney, as we will when its the anniversary of his birthday next month, and we recall birthday morning treats when we gave him a croissant to eat. Yeah, the first rule of Fat Club…
Heres a photo of our puppy, Eddie, looking rather subdued on New Years Eve, evidently miffed that he’s not getting enough treats. He’s certainly looking less the cute polar bear and more the Westie these days. He’s just over three months old now.
Now we’ve had him for awhile, we’re getting to know his character and he’s a great little guy- he’s pretty much everything we could have wished for, attentive, playful and well-behaved. He’s enjoying his first walks outside and getting to know the other dog-walkers and their dogs. Its been nice meeting those we haven’t seen for awhile, although sadly, even though it’s been six months since we lost poor Ben, we are still meeting some people who hadn’t heard what happened. So we have to go through it all again, which brings it all rushing back.
The worse thing was going to my phone to send some messages at New Year and seeing an old sent message from Jan 31st 2015 that had.a photo of Ben on it. Seeing a picture of him unexpectedly like that was – it was like the last six months hadn’t happened and I was thrown back to late June when we lost him; at moments like that it’s as if it all happened only yesterday.
Its only at such moments that we can really appreciate how much of a boon having Eddie is. Claire and I still talk about Ben all the time (as we do our dog previous to Ben, Barney, really), but having Eddie around and keeping us busy is a welcome distraction and easing the painful reminders. Eddie could never replace Ben and indeed it’s already evident how very different in character and temperament they are, but he somehow helps us remember Ben with warmth and happiness rather than sadness. I can only imagine how awful this past Christmas would have been without a dog in the house. Christmas morning isn’t right unless you have a dog tearing open his Christmas presents…
I may be away for awhile. Our gentle soul, our little King Charles Cavalier, Ben, died on Friday, not quite even three years old. My wife and I are in bits trying to process the loss of our little guy. We still feel the loss of our first dog, Barney, which was really not that long ago; at least back then there was some comfort in Barney being almost thirteen. I cannot put into words the sense of unfairness of what has happened; or the shock, the horror of it all. Everything is raw right now.
Naturally it has put into focus the importance of things so I think I may put this blog on hold for awhile; I might post a few more archive posts from my old blog (Ben’s illness is why that last Outland post surfaced a few days ago) but I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now. I might write some new stuff, I guess it might be a welcome distraction from everything but at the moment I have to devote time to my wife who has naturally taken it all very badly. We often say platitudes like “life is cruel” but sometimes it is all too true and it is never truer than right now for us. This has been a horrible weekend living in a nightmare bubble of grief while the rest of the world naturally goes by heedless.
So anyway, I may be gone awhile. Just thought I’d post a note/explanation incase this blog goes silent for some time. I’ll be back when I can, I’m sure life goes on and silly stuff like films etc will eventually become important/interesting again. I can’t picture it exactly but… well. Till then.
Here’s my latest piece of art- a portrait of our dog, Ben. As usual I’ve had some trouble getting a decent photograph that properly captures the artwork (I really need to sort that out- the colours are so muted here the paper looks more grey than white).
Sobering thought- while I’ve done two pencil drawings in the past few years (one in colour, the other black and white) this is likely my first painting in three or even four years (my last painting being another portrait of a friends dog who passed away). If somehow I had a time machine and could tell my 16 or 18-year self that there would come a time when the space between my paintings could be measured in years rather than days or weeks, well, that younger self would be horrified. I used to live and breathe my art. I suppose its not at all surprising, once you leave school and college and enter the outside world and get a ‘normal’ job and get married and all that implies, its hard to keep it up. Life is full of distractions. God knows I find it difficult enough to find time to watch movies and put up posts here on this blog.
So anyway, this is my first painting in years and naturally I found it a bit daunting at first. You may recall I did a pencil drawing of a friends dog a few months ago, and at that time I decided to get more active with my art and follow it up with a painting of our own dog. I already had an idea of what photo to paint from- it was a recent photograph I had taken of Ben, in which he was in a jolly mood excitedly looking out the front window that was behind me. It seemed to capture his character and was the natural choice of image. Capturing that in a painting though…
First things first- I had to find all my old art stuff, packed away in the spare room, and take stock of what remained usable. I had plenty of watercolour paper and my brushes on the whole seemed ok, but my old paints were looking worst for wear so I went out to buy some. I had some watercolours that seemed ok but wanted to be a bit bolder with this one, going the gouache route that I used to in sixth form. First harsh lesson for aspiring artists today- the price of tubes of gouache paint (how students afford it I don’t know). It could have cost a small fortune, and being a bit unsure how the whole enterprise would turn out with being so rusty after all these years, I chickened out and bought a cheap budget box of twelve core tubes. This would give me a little trouble later on, so I perhaps should have been a bit bolder with the money but I’ll just put that down to the doubts and lack of experience. I’ll certainly be investing in better paints next time.
Here’s a photograph of the painting in progress, with the original photograph alongside it. By this stage it was coming along pretty well, although the quality of the paints was causing me some trouble, proving the old adage you get what you pay for. Funnily enough, the actual painting part of things didn’t cause me the most time or trouble, it was getting the drawing right. Once I had that down on paper and was ready to start the painting, I actually future-proofed the whole thing by tracing the final drawing as insurance, so if I messed up during the painting stage I could lay the drawing back down on a fresh piece of paper and start again. I honestly expected to be doing just that and am very surprised/pleased that this initial attempt started to come along so well. I was very nervous laying down the first background wash, a light green that I used just to knock out the whiteness of the paper. I agonised about that colour by the way and it remains something of a doubt as to whether I chose the right one. I was overly tentative and indecisive about it but in some ways this might have actually helped me in the long run, because I was so annoyed by that indecisiveness that I chose to be bolder with the painting proper. Hence once I’d laid down some tonal base work for the areas of brown/tan fur I went in pretty bold with the black areas, where I might have otherwise been too cautious and wasted time/messed things up agonising over it.
Warning- Artist At Work! : this next image is pretty near the end of the road on Bank Holiday Monday. It was a short day at work so I was able to come home and crack on during the afternoon. All told there was probably about eight hours work at this point spread over about a week, so it went pretty quickly considering how ‘new’ it all seemed to me. Maybe painting is like riding a bike after all. While I really enjoyed it and it felt a little bit like ‘old times’, the most over-riding memory about the whole thing was nervousness that at each step I could ruin it and result in having to start all over again. Mixing the colours was tricky and made a little more difficult by the quality of the paints -the tube of yellow ochre was unusable, for instance, as it came out of the tube all powdery and lumpy, something horribly wrong regards the pigment and binder- but I got around it. By this point it was clearly near-finished and I was very pleased with it. I had that old buzz I used to get in my teens when a painting was coming together; yeah, like old times, a nice feeling.
The whole point of the painting was to get something framed on the wall. This was something my wife has been badgering me about for years. We spent years looking for a nice picture to put on the wall and never found one, and Claire often said I should do one myself, particularly after doing those pictures for friends over the years. So here’s how this painting of Ben turned out when framed in £22-worth of frame and mounting card from Hobbycraft (yeah, I know, big spender). It does look lovely on the wall, an inspiration for the next painting I do, certainly (I’m not likely to wait years to get started on the next one with this looking back at me everyday). Inevitably I look at it and see things I’d like to ‘polish-up’ but it’s pretty much everything I could have hoped it would be, all things considered. You can over-work paintings and I think when it feels finished, its finished. I think I’ve captured some of Ben’s personality in it, which is what was my main goal.
Whatever next then? One of my intentions doing this one was for it to act as a warm-up to doing a painting of our old dog Barney, who we lost over two years ago. So that may be what I do next, if I go through all his old photographs and find one I can use. I’m sure I’ll find much of that difficult -to be honest I’m wary of that whole thing, painting Barney, it still feels raw, the feelings from losing him, even after years have passed. And doing him justice feels like a weight too. Ben’s still around to take on walks and play with and I’m sure there’s future paintings of him ahead of me, but a painting of Barney, that’s got all sorts of other tangled emotions all over it. You invest all sort of things into a painting, it isn’t just a technical exercise, you put some of yourself into it, and I still think the prospect of painting Barney something a little harrowing.
But I don’t want to be stuck doing just paintings of dogs, naturally I should shake things up a bit and do something different too, so I’m not sure the painting of Barney is the next in line. But I do know there will be something soon, and won’t be waiting months /years for the muse to take me. I really enjoyed getting into this old painting business again, which means that whatever anyone thinks of the actual painting, this portrait of Ben did me some good.
Here’s a recent picture of Ben, our King Charles Cavalier in his usual thoughtful mode.. well, he’s being either thoughtful or miserable, I prefer to think the former! I’d always intended on posting updates about him once in awhile but here we are something like 18 months since I last posted a picture of him (and then some- he’ll be two in a few months time). I must try harder (so sorry if you hate pictures of dogs, just feel free to ignore them).
Here’s part of the reason why updates on this blog have been few and far between of late. When we got back from our vacation in Scotland last week we were able to pick up our new King Charles Cavilier, Ben. Readers of this blog will remember that we lost our previous King Charles Cavilier, Barney, back in February this year. It was a horrible experience that broke our hearts and is still something that we are coming to terms with. Quite a few people have since told me that upon losing their own dog they could not face having another and going through that pain again- its certainly a decision I can understand having experienced losing Barney. But we always felt that we would have another dog someday.
Events unfolded over the past few months that meant we had an opportunity to have a new puppy from the same breeder that we had Barney from some near-thirteen years before (how time flies). Its not a question of replacing Barney (how do you replace the Tom Cruise of Caviliers?) but rather trying to repair a home that somehow doesn’t feel like the same place without paws and barks and walks. But is it too soon? Its been something like six months and it still feels raw sometimes, Sue knew we had lost Barney and called Claire and told her she had just had another litter of five pups, and we went to see them; Ben was just a week old then- don’t think I’d ever seen a dog so small! Claire just clicked with him immediately. He’s a black and tan Cavilier, whereas Barney was a tri-colour. The distinction is deliberate; while we prefer to have a dog of the same breed we thought having a different colour might help us avoid too many comparisons and memories. So anyway, we decided to go for it, and here he is- meet Ben, looking rather nonplussed in the photograph above. He’s near ten weeks old now, and we’ve had him home for just almost a week. We’re on our way to getting him house-trained but regards sleeping on his own he’s having none of it- we’ve had to take turns sleeping downstairs with him; seems he’s having more success training us than we are training him. Oh well, he seems to have settled in after a bewildering few days in a strange place with two strange people and is familiar with us now, so the serious work begins next week. (Any tips though will be gratefully received- he’s our second dog so we should know what we’re doing, but every dogs different so there’s a whole new set of new mistakes for us to make!)
You know, one slip-up I keep on making for the past week, I still manage to catch myself calling him Barney instead of Ben… I get as far as ‘Barn-‘ and I realise what I’m doing. Old habits I guess. In a way I rather like that- I have no intention of replacing Barney or of forgetting him; in a way he’ll always be here. Ben is just the start of a new chapter. Very time-consuming though; Ben is inevitably high-maintenance and constantly demands attention. I figured it would be some kind of culture shock; we had Barney so long that memories of house-training him, and of his wilder puppy days are distant, but yes, its all coming back (as for house-training- well, accidents will happen). I tried watching a film last night but barely managed it due to about four or five canine interruptions. So anyway, I’ll try to keep things going on the movie-reviewing front etc. but forgive the shoddy updates for a bit. Its certainly looking easier reading and commenting on other blogs than maintaining my own.