Three weeks ago, I came close to joining a convent. It all began when I was sitting on a narrow cobbled street in Le Marais, Paris, in the early evening, crying my eyes out, face in palms. When I eventually dropped my hands and opened my eyes, I was surrounded by a vision of six nuns! I don’t know how long they had been standing there. Feeling their quiet godly presence, I offered, ‘I’m sorry…it’s just…my little dog has just passed away.’ Such was their largesse that my revelation seemed to spur on even more compassion. A few of them sat down, huddled closer and offered me words of solace.
It had all started some 6 months earlier when my long awaited Frenchie had arrived. I had been waiting for Louis a long time, and when he came, black, diminutive with little triangular, bat ears that perked up at everything new and wonderful, and softened as he nuzzled into me, I felt I had hit the love jackpot. When David and I first got married, I had become deeply attached to a precious Staffordshire terrier named Sebastian and after he died of old age in my arms, it had taken me many, many years to become vulnerable enough to allow a new dog to fully enter my heart. When I collected little Louis from the airport, I cried…it was love at first sight.
In those early days, I posted a few cute pictures on my Instagram story. But like all things new and tentative, I was protective of my little Louis as he found his little paws in the world. In those early days, David noticed that sometimes little Louis seemed a bit dazed. I was so besotted that to me he seemed like a perfect newborn, but as a precautionary, I took him to our local vet who didn’t seem too concerned. He reassured me that even if there was something neurological it was early days and seemed mild. Nevertheless, as a further precaution, I booked some appointments with two animal physicians for a few weeks time.
Then one day, out of the blue, Louis almost lost consciousness. The moment was distressing and heart-wrenchingly clarifying. Day and time stopped and with some begging, I managed to bring one of the specialist appointment’s forward to that afternoon. We went in anxiously thinking that Louis had something neurological at worst, but treatable. The rest of the appointment was a blur, other than my painful recall of the physician saying, ‘It’s much worse than what you thought.’ I sat dumbstruck and devastated as we were told that although thoroughbreds often come with medical issues, Louis had been dealt a rare and unusual blow. He had been born with a congenital condition, a rare hyper plastic trachea. The physician explained the science and in a slightly callous way he informed us that there was no medical initiative that would be able to enlarge his trachea and there was nothing that could be done. He suggested a visit to our vet on the weekend to put him down. In his words, Louis was a bit of a dud.
The problem was…Louis wasn’t just an expendable pet to me, some object to be exchanged for a dog that was more healthy or more robust. Part of me froze and left my body as I heard the physician talking, but another part of me felt a powerful protectiveness over Louis and I knew that no matter how long or short his life, I would do everything within my power to make it filled with love. When the physician understood my emotional bond to Louis and that I wasn’t sending him anywhere, he said I was welcome to do my own research and he graciously pointed me towards some reliable, medical online journals. He also said I could explore ‘the lifestyle option.’ By this he meant that Louis should not be made excited, should not exercise, should be kept in cool, temperate climes and we had to keep him thin and svelte. He said that way, Louis might have a fighting chance.
For 48 hours after this meeting, I held onto Louis, skin on skin and heart to heart, with my red, over-cried eyes. During this time, I remember wisps of conversation. The breeder, who remained emotionally connected throughout, was very distressed to hear of Louis’ diagnosis. She offered to take him back in exchange for another Frenchie. David was also very upset but in his solution oriented way, he was keen on a swap! I was horrified and said to David, ‘Louis is not a handbag’. Even through my tears I could feel something resolving in my heart. It felt as if Louis had been sent to me by God and I intended to take care of him in that way. I moved into action for Operation Lifestyle. Over the next weeks, I researched medical journals and websites that the physician had pointed me to and I joined every online group from Melbourne to Toronto. I became as informed about this condition as I could be. I brought in a dog behavioral therapist who taught us and Louis calming strategies. Louis had to unlearn natural puppy behavior. Instead of frolics, Louis needed to fan himself, instead of catching balls, Louis would catch lots of naps on my lap.
Our dog therapist quipped it just right: Louis would be an intellectual. My love for feeding and nurturing came out in full swing. My kindle reading list switched from Michelin star restaurants to dog nutrition. I designed a diet for him that would feel satisfying and non-depriving, while keeping his weight down. It would put Gwyneth Paltrow’s nutritional advice to shame. From organic blueberries to free range beef tartare, from jaw-smacking apple snacks late at night to quinoa with steamed spinach and sweet potato. Nothing was too much effort, in fact it was cathartic and even fun. Saffron and Scarlett jokingly complained that Louis’ menu was even better than the fare on offer for them and was certainly more regular and consistent. Louis gobbled his food enthusiastically and maintained a lithe, svelte figure with the shiniest coat that was all but bling.
We had mastered Louis’ routine and diet but most importantly, I had to learn how to help Louis when he did struggle to breathe and have an episode. Losing the ability to breathe made Louis panic and so I kept a watchful eye and if an attack happened I would sit with him, calm him, hold him, and then together we would shake the episode off, me by wiggling my shoulders and Louis by shaking his little ears. David who had tried to resist becoming too attached at the beginning, had also secretly fallen in love with Louis. And the day he arrived home with an oxygen tank, I knew we were all on the same Louis page.
The truth is whomever Louis met, fell in love with him. So many people became part of his life journey including a second physician who was pro life, and a kind of animal whisperer who was rooting for Louis along with the rest of us. On his routine check-ups, he would comment on how Louis’s healthy diet and routine was shining through. We were getting into a routine of caring for Louis the intellectual Frenchie, and everyone was trained to assist him if was not home. But the truth is I was mostly there, I didn’t want to go anywhere. My days were spent with him sitting next to me on my Zoom calls and my nights were spent sitting with him on my lap by the fire-place….Louis loved to lie on me, his chin propped up and nuzzled into my neck, in a chin to chin embrace. When he settled in this position, nothing could get me to move. Louis’s nuzzling position, it turned out, was also helping him to breathe…
Then came July. Both Saffron and Scarlett were going on overseas programmes and a small window of opportunity presented for me to travel. I hadn’t traveled for over two years and I thought I could nip overseas and back and Louis wouldn’t even know I was gone. I felt torn…but Louis was stable and he had a team of people watching over him, 24/7. I packed my bags and said to my bestie and housekeeper Emily, ‘I don’t want to come back and find a tidy home. All that matters is that you watch over Louis.’ And she did!
But the thing is, Louis was born with a congenital condition. Not even the best love, a state of the art oxygen tank and fare better than the food I offered to my daughters was enough. I had a wonderful holiday, but my thoughts were never far from Louis. The last day in Paris will be etched in my mind forever. I had booked a Japanese calligraphy class in a quaint artist’s studio, followed by dinner at Le Grande Verfour with a friend of mine. But it just so happened to be the heat-wave in Paris and just before the class my friend had messaged me to say, ‘I am too hot to move and certainly not ready to die yet…. not even for a meal at Le Grande Verfour with you.’ I was too busy keeping an ink-dipped nib at a ninety degree angle to think about dinner and I immersed myself in the calligraphy. When I saw David calling, I was mid brush-stroke. ‘David – can I call you back?’ I said. He said, ‘you can… but it’s important’. And then… I knew! From the reverie of the calm, black brushstrokes, my world crumbled into chaos. I left the attic and walked down the steepest stairs to be thrust outside into the heat wave of Paris, crying, blubbing, 4.5 months of love, connection, loss and heartbreak. That is how I found myself sitting on a step, with six nuns surrounding me in a loving embrace. They sat with me, cooing and clucking, telling me that Louis was a veritable angel and advising me to bury him near me in a place where he would be in the corner of my eye each day.
As soon as I could stand, I made my way back to my hotel room, still crying. It was a couple of hours later that I washed my puffy eyes and wiped the runny mascara off my face. I was heartbroken. I felt the streets of Paris calling me to walk. I set out, directionless, into the city, and found myself crossing the Seine and meandering in the direction of the Louvre. My feet knew the routes which allowed my mind and heart to be lost in my thoughts with Louis even as I encircled the area where my Louis’ namesake, King Louis XIVth had been born.
Le Grande Verfour was not top of mind but feeling forlorn and sorry for myself, I found myself walking in its vicinity and I made a snap decision to still go for dinner, puffy-eyed and all. When I arrived, the maitre d said, ‘Karen pour deux?’ and through new tears, I answered ‘oui mais pour une.’ Before I go further I feel like I should explain why I had originally chosen Le Grande Verfour for my last night in Paris.
Le Grande Verfour is the oldest restaurant in Paris, where you feel you are inhaling French history and sharing a place with the greats (from Victor Hugo to Napoleon and Josephine to the great fomenters of the French Revolution). It is bedecked in the very best of authentic 18th century interiors (picture lots of deep red, perfectly worn velvet, columns and ceilings lined with original frescoes, and an authentic wooden staircase) and it also happens to be one of the finest French gourmet restaurants in the world. There I was, in the ‘room where it happened’, where my French historical muses ate the finest French food while literally altering the course of history. It felt particularly meaningful that night that this space was once owned by Louis XIVth and was not far from where King Louis had lived. It was fitting to eat my meal of mourning for Louis there and to get some ghostly solace from Napoleon and Josephine as I was placed at the exact table where they had dined. Once I was seated, the sensitive staff murmured soothing words around me such as ‘don’t worry, he’s not worth it’. They assumed that I must have been stood up by a lover. I even heard the head chef saying ’c’est normal!’ because Paris is after-all the city of love. When I explained, ‘actually my dog died,’ the compassion extended even more as word rippled through the staff and everyone expansively and generously responded, ‘now we understand your tears.’
Louis had died in his home, in the loving embrace of David, Emily and my dad. And I mourned him in the heaving, breathing, loving city of Paris where six nuns and the staff of Le Grande Verfour were my support and my friends. But I would have given up any number of trips to Paris and fancy restaurants to have been home with Louis in my arms when he passed away.
I came home, with all the gifts for Louis that I had collected on my trip. An empty spot still gnaws in me a couple of weeks later. Louis’ story came with so much pain and yet it taught me and my family something so deep about love and nurturing which is going to stay with us forever. Sometimes a little being comes along who is so vulnerable, precious and real, it just rips your heart open to greater forms of love and giving. And when I think about it now, I would take the heartbreak and grief in return for this priceless lesson in loving. Thank you for choosing us to look after you in your short little life. I love you forever. Now you can breathe Louis, breathe!