31st December – 1st January: A Death in the Family

In the end, the end came swiftly. On the first morning of a new year, I got up to tend the fire and there was no familiar click-clicking of claws on the floor tiles. No bedding by the standard lamp. As I fed the cats, I had to deal with their incomprehension. Why are you feeding us here where the big fella used to eat? Where is he for that matter? Why's our friendly canine compatriot not here? I had to explain that the big fella was no more.![](upload://zGKiDhcj6hjycZmDN5RBgPO4yvZ.jpg)

In some ways, the worst part of the ordeal was having to leave him outside in the cold, wrapped up in his bedding while the world celebrated the parting of the old year and the arrival of the new. It was as if we had simply discarded an old ex-dog, as the farmer in the nearby hamlet would bring out a goat that had died inside the hangar. It seemed quite wrong that there was no lying in state and no procession of local people to sign the book of condolences.

Considerate to the end, Alf chose the last day of the year for his departure. He stayed with us long enough to celebrate his 14th birthday and one last complete family Christmas. He left us with an anniversary that we are never likely to forget and a very good excuse for turning down invitations to share in the new year merriment.

We'd got used to the routine of getting up at around 5.30 to let him out for his first desperate matutinal pee before breakfast. But when I got up on New Year's Eve, there were puddles everywhere, as if he'd leaked all through the night. For the first time, he was in evident distress. After breakfast, he kept going out into the cold and wouldn't come in. He kept trying to pee, but nothing would come. The vet told us to collect what we could and bring it in for analysis. So I took in a few dribbles in one of those individual jam jars that hotels provide for 'continental' breakfasts.

At lunchtime, I phoned my working wife to tell her that I thought the time had come. She agreed that I should phone the vet back to ask her to administer the last rites. Although she was on her own at the practice with a waiting list of urgent operations, she would do what she could at the end of the day. By now he was wandering around the house in the biting cold, almost literally like a lost soul. I told our daughter my feeling that he was looking for a place to die quietly and she burst into tears.

During the afternoon, he came in from out of the cold and slept for an hour before going out again and repeating the same forlorn wandering. Debs got back from work soon after five and did her best to settle him. Right on cue, the vet phoned to say that she would leave in a few minutes. We saw a car on the road through the trees, but it passed us by, so I wrapped up tight and wandered up the track with a rather feeble torch to stand by the side of the road and flash any lost cars. The end of the day turned into night and still there was no sign of her car. She phoned my wife to tell her that she’d ended up at the farm I had told her to avoid.

When, finally, she arrived, I helped the Angel of Death into our house with all her veterinary impedimenta. Although it wasn't Alf's usual vet, the law of serendipity dictated that she was absolutely the right one for the job. Kindness and empathy itself. She explained how she would give him an anaesthetic first to put him into a deep sleep before the lethal transfusion. He would feel nothing. She also identified straight away a tumour by his groin, which reassured us that our intervention wasn't untimely. With this assurance, it wasn't quite as distressing as I had envisaged when we gathered around his old duvet to stroke him and say our goodbyes before the anaesthetic kicked in. He looked peaceful and, when I buried my head in the thick fur around his neck, he still smelled of McVitie's digestive biscuits.

The vet had trouble finding the right vein and had to pull out his left leg from under his prone body to try again. This time, the sickly red poison drained down into his bloodstream. It seemed like he panted at one point and his heart convulsed briefly, but it was mainly a case of just slipping quietly away. The vet stayed until he'd gone and, once she'd gone, Debs and I carried out our dearly beloved dog, wrapped up in his bedding, and left him covered with a tarpaulin to discourage any passing famished wolves or bears.

New Year's Day was frigid but blissfully sunny. Debs and I debated his final resting place and located an appropriate spot between a pair of young fruit trees at the back of the house: a spot where he could continue to survey the dog's meadow and protect his family from marauding hot air balloons and the like. The concrete topsoil yielded to my manly pickaxe and underneath we found the familiar rock-filled clay that clings to the blade and sticks to your boots. It took two long sessions – either side of a little lunchtime New Year's Day party at a friend's house nearby – to dig something suitably large to accommodate a Labradorable dog. This was the sixth burial during roughly 25 years of Sampson Hall & Co. (since 1987), but the other five were feline and rather smaller in stature.

Worse, far worse, than the digging was the business of uncovering the heap by the wood store and reminding ourselves that the cold ex-dog there was once our faithful companion. We hauled him down to his final resting place and lined the bottom of the grave with some cardboard as a kind of token biodegradable coffin. At this part in all those familiar film scenes, onlookers shovel dirt into the hole and someone jumps in for a final dose of melodrama. The earth we'd dug up, though, came in big cloying clods of clay, so we had to mould it around our dog, like a rather macabre bit of modern sculpture destined for the Tate Modern. Then we added a cardboard lid, before kicking in the last of the soil. We used the stones that we'd painstakingly unearthed and separated to create a kind of random abstract expressionist dolmen, partly to mark forever the spot and partly to keep the creatures far hence that are foe to dogs. The plan is now to plant some rods of willow around the perimeter that will one day create a veritable living installation.![](upload://vAIDUlblC45Vi6qPAqBu0yjMcPm.jpg)

We wished him well and God-speed on his journey to wherever his soul is or was bound. My wife believes in reincarnation, but knowing how statistically unlikely it is that any subsequent Alfic avatar will be as happy and as fortunate as this one, I merely hoped that the soul of Alfred Lord Sampson would simply orbit the earth and check in on us from time to time. 'I don't necessarily mean a dog,' she told me. 'He might take some other form. A world leader perhaps.'

Well, there's an idea. Certainly Alfie was loyal, loving, sensitive, considerate, fair, faithful and diplomatic. Even, one could argue, empathetic. All important qualities of leadership. I'm not sure, though, about his uncommon greed. But on the other hand, these days...

Dear Hilary,

Thanks so much for your lovely message - and your reminiscences about Grundy. Alf, too, had that awful tic-borne disease, pyrrhose I think. Twice. Luckily I was around on both occasions and could recognise that something was up. I can understand why you're not having another dog if you travel quite a lot. We tend to stay put most of the time, so we shall definitely give an unwanted mutt the best possible love and care. The house still seems very empty without him and Myrtle especially seems to miss him terribly. She just sits in the place where his basket used to be and looks forlorn. Take care - and thanks again. Mark x

Dear Mark,
Your beautifully written account has reduced me to tears! My heartfelt sympathies go out to you & your family. It is 5 years since we lost our beautiful boy,Grundy, who was a very handsome border collie x, a rescue dog from Battersea,who stayed with us for 12 years. He loved his life here in Corrèze & survived a vicious tick borne disease from which he nearly died,but was saved by our wonderful French vet. 2 years later he fell ill again & his behaviour towards the end was very similar to Alfie’s. He used to go & hide in the cellar next to the boiler & would only be tempted out by tiny morsels of boudin noir! Sadly the vet diagnosed liver cancer & we had to make the awful decision to have him put to sleep. We knew it was the right & only decision,but we cried an ocean of tears over the following weeks.We went on long,favourite walks & talked about him constantly,remembering all his funny habits. Our friends & neighbours had loved him too…he was quite a character in the village & everyone still misses him! We were advised to get another dog,but we have kept putting it off. We travel back to England quite regularly & not having a dog has made life simpler in that respect. We get our ‘dog fix’ every so often,looking after friends dogs,which is a reasonable alternative! I hope you are able to offer a home to another deserving furry companion in the near future,which will go some way to easing the pain of Alfie’s passing.xxx

Dear Chris, Elaine and Celeste, thank you so much for your contributions. That's a lovely story about your cat, Celeste, though it pains me to read that your dog might have been poisoned. That happened to our cat, Dexter, who was eventually shot by hunters. The barbarity of people is beyond belief. What a sad tale about Zola, Chris. Myrtle hasn't been the same since Alfie died and I'm sure she blames Debs and me for his departure. I didn't watch 'Marley', Elaine, because I didn't want to bawl. Shame. I like Owen Wilson, particularly in Wes Anderson's marvellously madcap films.

Now I have snot all over my keyboard - that made me bawl. And only because I now realise, after getting a kitten 7 months ago, how special pets are and how much we come to love them. The pain I felt was for you and your loss, and for me, as I dread if something would happen to our little fella, George. He was a brat cat for months, getting into trouble but has calmed down now at 9 months.

I hope we have 14 years also with George, and I hope I have the good sense to know, when to let go, like you so empathically did. So sorry you had to lose a good friend, and thank you for sharing your story MArk.

(I watched the movie Marley over the Christmas, and bawled at that too - you reminded me of that)

Dear Mark, you have our utmost sympathy. I remember the day when our dear old Harry [also 14] reached the point of no return. We had a veterinary friend who came to the house so that Harry didn't have to endure the stress of going to a vets surgery; he slipped away peacefully. We buried him in our garden; for several days after that, our cat Zola [who adored him] sat in the garden, looking at the spot where Harry was buried, neither moving nor eating. Strange...

Thank you so much Catharine, Suzy and Donna. I've subsequently discovered I should have put lime into his grave for health reasons, but I don't think the poor boy is liable to start a foot and mouth epidemic. Besides, the willow would never grow. So sorry to hear of your impending sadness, Donna. I have to say that I'm very relieved that my daughter was here for it. I remember being away at university when our first family cat died. It's very tough. PS Don't tell the thought-police about the lack of lime. Mark x

Mark - I didn't read this at the time when I approved it as I knew it would make me cry. A beautiful eulogy for a beautiful family member. I am sure that when the time is right your next four legged family member will find you. xx

Reading this brought tears to my eyes,so sad,but beautifully written.He looked like a beautiful dog.Its good you could bury him in your garden,here in Paris we can't.My little dog died 3 years ago and I feel sad when I walk around the streets where we used to stroll together,I still miss her.

Belatedly found your story today, Mark. I'm so sorry for your loss and was touched by your kind and lovely words for your dear dog. I'm sure he had the best life of any dog in his time with you and yours. You've done Alf a great honour. It was very moving to read this. I unfortunately read it at work and then had to hide from my students while I composed myself. A dog that I'm very close to in my family will probably leave us soon, and as she is on the other side of the ocean I won't be there for the end, although I wish I could be. I hope you find comfort in your memories and the sense that he is watching over you. Courage.

Thank you one and all - too many to mention individually - for your kind and compassionate comments. It means a lot to me and mine to hear from people who don't think that loving our four-footed friends is stuff and sentimental nonsense. Writing about Alf's departure was good therapy, so thank you for your forbearance. I was very touched by your story about Nemo, Richard, and rest assured that we will indeed be 'getting a new dog' before long. It's a terrible notion in some respects, because it smacks of trading cars. But there are so many katz 'n' dawgs out there that need a good home and personally I'd find it almost impossible to live in the countryside without a dog's companionship. Keeps you walking for one thing. Happy new year to you all and thank you again for your generous messages of support.

Pets in one form or another have always played a part in my life. I buried the last cat just two weeks back after seventeen years of feasting, farting & fleas. In those seventeen years Tom, along with the other cats never attended Mouse Recognition classes or indeed very rarely had an inkling of what existed on the other side of the doors and windows.Tom was definitely my LAST pet - i've done my bit towards keeping vets in the style to which they are accustomed now it's up to the rest to pay their salaries. The last two dogs passed away some eight years ago after reaching 15 & 16 years of age and my present role as a kind of 'surrogate' maitre to a friend's dog is enough to keep me busy without any of the responsabilities that ensue. I'm happy to report the fleas have jumped ship too which means I am now FLEA FREE ! - YES !!!!

My sincerest condolences, unless they have felt the loss of a long time friend no-one can understand the sadness this loss brings. Two years ago I lost my lovely Jess (X Border Collie 16 years old - RIP) and although people told me to get another dog there was no way I could have ever consider it. However, and I hope this brings you some comfort, two years on my grandchildren persuaded me to visit SPA rescue centre in Rodez and to my amazement I fell in love with a little cross griffon called Nemo, Abandoned by a local farmer and taken in by SPA, he now shares our home and although I will never forget Jess I once again have a friend who loves me without reservation. Think of all the good times you had with Alfie and you’ll not only mourn his passing but celebrate his life. My best wishes to you and your family.

This was so sad! And I don't even like animals (or at least not for myself). But I am so pleased you didn't ask poor Alfie to linger longer than was necessary because you couldn't bare to be without him. To me, that is one of the cruellest things 'animal lovers' so often do. After 14 years his loss will be greatly noticed in your family so I am glad you have obviously so many happy memories to remember him by.

Heartfelt sympathies on the passing of Alf. He was obviously a very good boy. Your moving account was delightful and I’m sure that Alf is smiling on you and your family.

Like others, my heart goes out to you both. As a general rule of my life, with exceptions, I find animals more acceptable than most humans, and am terrified that either of my two owned cats, and even the two strays that hang around to get fed - and even the neighbours animals for crying out loud, will go before me.

A life without animals is no life for me but could I take up another with the possibility of him/her/it being left behind alone. My wife does not share my love of animals - or at least not to my level, and I am fairly certain they would be fairly swiftly dispensed with once I was out of the way.

So let me shed a few tears in your direction, for a beautifully and lovingly rendered piece of writing - you did Lord Alfred proud.

Heart-breaking, so sorry to hear that Mark and Debs, I'm fighting back the tears at your beautifully written account. Thanks for sharing your lovely photos. Rest in peace Alf x

I am so sorry that you have lost your well loved companion. We have just gained a rescue dog, a border collie cross from the farm next door and she has a.ready wormed her way i to our hearts.

While I am not so beautifully erudite as Brian, please accept my condolences Mark...I have "been there" many times and have more ahead of me as I am owned by six pets - it is true that adopting a four-legged family member begins the countdown to heartache but oh the happiness they bring and the simple life lessons they teach us in between, non? May Alfred Lord Sampson be happy on the other side of The Rainbow Bridge, and may you provide another homeless pet a loving home in his honor.

Mark I am so sorry to read your very sad news about Alf. I know from personal experience how heart breaking it is to lose a beloved dog (member of the family) in this situation. He was very lucky to have had someone like you and your family that loved him and loved him enough to make the kindest decision for him and also a family that gave him a wonderful life. Hopefully in time you will begin to remember the good times with Alf.