From Above



Lessons from Labradors

Obi’s arrival in our life was slightly mistimed. Or not, depending on your perspective.

A pure-bred black Labrador, his breeder insisted I come fetch him in the first week of May 2015. I was, however, on a short final family holiday and could not get him. So his first week at my home was spent with some of my staff members, who had learned that luxury travel consulting occasionally also included weird requests to housesit and potty train puppies.

His first six weeks with me coincided with the endgame of my dad’s short battle with cancer. I affectionately called my father Obi (short for “Oubaas”, the Afrikaans term of endearment for respected elders) and the pup got the name as well. Maybe because he was black as Obsidian. Maybe because I just love Star Wars. Or maybe, because I thought he would, in that way, take on a little bit of my father once he passed.

Obi was an energetic pup. Swims, walks and a massive appetite for life, he crept into the hearts of all who knew him. He vetted and approved of my burgeoning relationship with Caroline, and her acceptance and care of him was a catalyst for our future together. He ruled our cul-de-sac, dominated the mountain trail behind us and completely decimated the tranquility of the Vlei, a beloved lake in Bettys Bay, where we spend our Christmases.

But he was also a versatile guy. He loved watching the Springboks, chilling out while we take in a series on Netflix, or just laying by our feet at a braai or when we wanted to just hang and read books.

He paid witness to Caroline moving in, and our marriage. When his younger sister Leia (again with the Star Wars) joined our family, he was glad for the company. She is a different character – headstrong and fought for her place in the family. She had to – my son Matie was born when she was still a pup, and AJ followed scarcely a year later. The dogs lovingly welcomed the babies and tolerated all of the stages of exploration without even an offsides bark.

They stoically accepted multiple renovations as my bachelor pad transformed into an amazing family home. They came up the mountain with me, swam in the sea, and chased balls and frisbees and guinea fowl and cats at every opportunity. They watched and participated as Caroline and I built a wonderful life, full of music, laughter and adventures.

Obi slowed down ahead of schedule. His powers faded with a congenital heart condition, and in the last two years he became pickier on chosen activities. A few months ago we even stopped the walks on the mountain, but he still loved to come to the beach in summer, or the pond in winter, and play in the water (and tackle those big logs).

As we closed out 2021, I delayed a difficult conversation with my vet. It made me slightly moody, because I knew something needed to be done. But I didn’t want to face it. I needed to know at what point the hound was no longer having quality of life. Some days were good, some days were bad. The medication was no longer working, but he was too young to struggle like this. Caroline offered to handle it – but I felt he was my dog, it was my job. I steeled myself.

I decided I would have the conversation in the New Year. I made the appointment, but first I took the dogs to our mountainside home in Bettys Bay, for what I suspected might be Obi’s last time. We confronted home invader baboons, had some more ball chasing swims in the lake and frolicked on the beach.

We have a spectacular view from the porch, and the sunsets can be stunning. That evening, we enjoyed barbeque ribs and I broke a golden rule, feeding the bones to the dogs from the table. But Obi loved it. We all sat together and watched the red and golden colours coalesce over the Stony Point peninsula as the day ended. A penultimate magic moment.

The next morning, with the family at the beach in Kleinmond, my dog curled up on the grass next to the river, and stopped breathing. He was covered in sand and seawater, having just hung out with us in the river mouth. He went peacefully, and quickly. It was only a couple of meters to carry him to the car, and the vet was two blocks up the road.

He took the hard decision away from me. He made it as easy as possible, in a place doing what he loved, close to all the resources needed to make it easier for me to process.

We’ll scatter his ashes in the wintertime, up by the pond on Table Mountain that forms with the rains. It was his absolute favorite spot, where he routinely would try to bring home a log three times his size.

I’m going into 2022 determined to make hard decisions, be decisive and disciplined, and above all be focused on what is important. I’m reminded, by way of the Jedi dog, that letting go is also of value. Sometimes I obsess too much about things that actually sort themselves out, if you just approach them with intentionality, love and patience.

As a puppy, he was part of my transition. Endings and beginnings, and the cornerstone of forming my own family after my dad’s passing.

As an adult dog, he was a reminder of tolerance, joy and compromise. His uncomplicated worldview was that every place could be magic. And every moment was an opportunity to nuzzle up, have some fun, or maybe just chill out. He knew how to read the room.

I will remember him as a dog that wasn’t afraid to tackle challenges that were beyond him, and he often surprised us by getting that massive log home anyway. And, once she was big enough, he leveraged Leia’s competitive nature and enlisted her in log carrying duties. Instead of fighting with her when she wanted in on the log, he found a way to make it fun for both of them. Their spectacular joint efforts brought even bigger prizes home.

A lot of lessons there, big fella. RIP. We’ll miss you.


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