Thank You, Driver.
Since October last year I have been without a car. Unable to afford to register it or to get it road-worthy after an epic engine hissy fit, I surrendered the plates and had it towed away. Since that time I have used public transport, caught taxis in the rain or walked a lot, usually without too much inconvenience. A couple of times earlier in the year a friend lent me her car which was a lifesaver of frantic errands and long held-over catch-ups with distant friends and most enjoyably, the chance to take the dogs to a local beach and get us all out on the sand again.
But most of the time I’ve been carless and I’ve missed it more than any other deprivation of the last frugal year. Public transport around these parts is steady rather than plentiful, with buses leading to a distant train line to Sydney. The buses are filled with noisy school children, or elderly folks who all say, “Thank you, Driver” as they leave the bus, or people like me who stare into the middle distance, lost in their own thoughts.
When the event has really demanded it, I’ve asked friends directly for help to ferry me around. I hate asking for help, mostly because to do so requires a friend to go out of their way. In recent days, two people have more than gone out of their way to help me with such gifts of transport, one a friend and one a complete stranger, whose single act of kindness has left an indelible mark on my life.
It began with a phone call, late at night. I missed it completely, sleeping through it, oblivious to the kind male voice that left a detailed message and a phone number. I heard the message at 6 o’clock the next morning and froze has I listened. It was from a vet called Brad. “We have Sheba with us,” he said, “She was brought in late last night after being hit by a car. She’s bruised and sore, but otherwise well. You can come and get her any time you want.”
Sheba. My ageing labrador, smelly, flea-bitten, deaf from persistent ear infections, prone to night blindness with the onset of cataracts in her advanced years. She was the bête noir of a property manager who blamed her for all sorts of transgressions in order to get me to leave as an unwelcome tenant with pets. I would have forgiven her anything, because to describe her in such terms is to miss the essential reason we all have pets in the first place. Pets give us unfettered joy and unconditional love. She had never wanted for a thing except a regular walk and a daily feed, both of which she tackled with a healthy lack of restraint verging on wild abandon.
When my landlord finally decided to sell the house, I made my decision to move. I placed my furniture in storage over the Easter weekend and cast around for another, more pet-friendly place to live. I’ve found it, a house that will be available in a few weeks’ time, so for now, we are camping at a friend’s place, while Sheba and Millie, my daughter’s border collie, had been housed with another friend. A friend who lives near a main road, a full 20kms from where I am living now. It was such a difficult place to get to by public transport, involving an hour long bus ride, then a fifteen minute train ride and another 15 minute bus journey, that I had not seen Sheba for almost two weeks – it was simply too difficult to get to her.
But by now, unknown to us all, Sheba was suffering separation anxiety and confusion. She had somehow escaped from the fully-fenced backyard and gone looking for me, at 10 o’clock at night. She ended up on the main road and was promptly hit by a passing car.
What happened next is speculation. I don’t know if the driver who knocked the dog over was the driver who stopped. Perhaps the first driver simply drove on, oblivious to the damage, but witnessed by another who then rendered assistance. This is all I know for sure; my dog was hit by a car and then dragged some distance before a driver stopped and gathered her up and placed her in their car.
I don’t know who the driver is. I don’t know if they are a man or a woman, or if there was more than one person in the car. I don’t know. But what I do know is that a driver stopped and placed Sheba in his or her car and then went looking for a vet that would help her.
They eventually found an emergency all-night vet that would take her. The location of the Brad the Vet was yet another 20 km from the place of the accident. After giving Brad the briefest of details – knocked over, dragged, main road – they simply left without giving any personal information about themselves.
So: Here I am, in the vet’s surgery, having borrowed my friend’s car to get here. My friend simply handed his keys over to me, not wanting anything but my assurance that I wouldn’t come back until all my errands had been completed and Sheba was safe and well. I arrived to be greeted by a happy but clearly battered labrador and I tried to assess the damage done to her – grazing along her spine and one hip. Bruising around her belly. A little shaky at first, possibly shock. But she’s eating and drinking now, and much happier and she’s right to go home.
“How much do I owe you, Brad?”
“Nothing. No charge.”
Looking back on that remarkable answer, I think he knew. He knew.
In the immediate aftermath of the early morning news, my friend who lent me his car swung into action, deciding that Sheba and Millie were too far away and were fretting. He co-opted another mutual friend who lived just 400m away. I collected Millie and the doggie paraphernalia from my dog-sitting friend and moved them to their new house, in my friend’s carefully-cleaned car, on the back seat which was draped in a blanket to protect it. Sheba reclined rather than sat up, panting happily. Once in her new home, still stiff in a back leg, Sheba lowered herself carefully onto the carpet in the lounge room and immediately took up residence in front of a fireplace, tail thumping enthusiastically, bright eyed, clearly contented, leaving Millie to introduce herself to the dog in residence, who was miffed and uncertain at the arrival of these upstarts.
When I arrived the next day to take them for a walk, Millie and the Dog-In-Residence were best friends, while Sheba snoozed in the sun. It had clearly been a good move. We went for a walk, this time to a lakefront with a broad foreshore, a cycle path, jetties, a yacht club, joggers and families. The dogs walked happily, trotting from time to time, exploring, settled. I took them back, telling my friend I’d collect them everyday and give them a good long walk. “It will help them to stop fretting,” she said.
48 hours after her accident, Sheba was back to her old self. We stepped out on a beautiful Saturday afternoon on a cloudless autumn day, towards the lakefront. This time, more familiar with my surroundings and local council regulations, I slipped the dogs off their leads and they trotted contently in and out of the water. At one point, Sheba was up to her chest in water, tongue lolling out, knee-deep in thick mud, eyes sparkling. It was a glorious walk in perfect surroundings. Millie ran like she was possessed, up the jetty and back, rounding up Sheba when she took too long, bouncing through the reeds, startling a couple of dopey plovers who squawked in alarm. Sheba looked years younger, clearly very happy, her bruising an ugly yellow stain around her hips and belly, tail out, sniffing at the tantalising scents near the water’s edge.
We walked for over an hour, then finally, leads back on, made our way to the house.
Fifty metres before we got home, Sheba threw up onto the pavement. Armed with poop bags, I scooped up the contents, momentarily embarrassed by her naughty behaviour. The thought crossed my mind she had eaten a rotting fish by the lake – it wouldn’t have been the first time.
By the time we got back into the backyard, she was clearly unwell, vomiting repeatedly over the next 15 minutes. After a while she settled, back legs shaky, shivering in the sun. She was still wet from the lake when she came over, seemingly over the worst of it and sat next to me and placed her head in my lap. I stroked her soft head, soothing her, her tail moving limply in appreciation.
This is how we have always been, her and I, connected in our default position. Her head in my lap. My hand on her head. Unspoken and heartfelt love from human to canine. It will always be this way.
And then she walked over into the sun, lowered herself onto the lawn and closed her eyes for the last time.
And so I am here, in the sun on another cloudless autumn day and there’s a cup of tea nearby but no labrador’s head in my lap and there are tears, but all I can feel is profound gratitude. Gratitude that she had such a great life, incorrigible and contented to the end.
She so naughty about sneaking food. An opportunistic feeder like most labs, she will be remembered for both the way she danced whenever her dinner was being prepared and for her complete inability to take her time to eat it. Truthfully, her table manners were appalling. She once ate an entire ice cream, in a single gulp, in less than five seconds.
I take enormous pleasure knowing she was a good and well-behaved dog around other dogs and with small children, often sitting there for hours, tail thumping while toddlers came dangerously close.
She snored all too loudly, so loudly that she could often be heard in the garage below my bedroom, rumbling up through the floorboards like distant thunder.
The best loved event of all was always a Saturday morning, when she would collect the Sydney Morning Herald off the lawn, come in, tail banging through the doorway and up onto my bed. Her reward would always be a couple of biscuits and then, satisfied there would be no more biscuits that morning, she would collapse in a snoring heap while I would spread out and read the paper, often staying that way until midday.
She loved walking along the beach - what dog doesn’t? – and was never happier when it was dark and sullen and cold and windswept, because I adored walking her on those days best of all, before driving her home, sandy and panting in the back of the four wheel drive, front legs draped over the back seat so she could get a clear vantage point of me, happy face lurking in my rear view mirror.
She loved being in cars because it took her places that she loved. She wouldn’t have worried being in the back seat of a stranger’s car late that night in what would become her penultimate drive. She trusted cars and the people that drove them implicitly. She placed her faith in a stranger who then went out of their way to find help for her.
So often we take our cars for granted, touting them as a necessary evil, outraged at their cost, appalled by their environmental impact. And yet our cars serve our lives as well, from mercy dashes to romantic getaways, from getting us to a job interview on time to getting us home safely. Perhaps the driver who ferried Sheba to Brad the Vet thought themselves inconvenienced. Perhaps they were trying to just get home for the night and were now upset that their sleep would be delayed. Perhaps they were indeed the driver who knocked her over and were worried about being identified by an angry dog owner. Perhaps they were simply dog lovers who wanted to do the right thing, who perhaps said to themselves, “If it was our dog that was hit, I’d want a stranger to do the right thing.”
But, just as I will never know the circumstances about the driver, they will never know about the miraculous gift they unknowingly provided Sheba and I, that of a precious last few days together. Joyous, wonderful days, some of the very best of our lives. They will never know the value of their generosity. They will never know the impact it had, leading as it did to Sheba and I being reunited and a passing that was then peaceful for both of us.
Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of my dog: Thank you, Driver.
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