May 25 2008
We went for a picnic with Leanne, her son and her big dog. Alison sometimes babysits Taotao but I have a stronger bond with the dog, Gretchen. There is a reason for that.
Her name was Narda. She weighted around 40 kilo and looked wonderful with her red, white and black coat. She was a pure-bred Saint Bernard which explains her name. Less than a year young, she was very playful and good with kids, especially with me. It was my dog, my parents gave her to me when our previous dog, a boxer, had been stolen from our yard.
I petted her a lot, and sometimes I slept with my head on her soft pink belly that made nice and soothing noises. When I told her my secrets she looked at me with her brown eyes and it was as if she completely understood what I said.
We lived in the country. My brother and other sisters already lived on their own, so our family consisted of my parents, my older sister Barbara and me. My parents had bought our house, a small former farm house whose origins dated back to the 17th century, a few years earlier and had, with blood, sweat and tears, converted it into their dream house. It wasn’t exactly my dream house however, since living in the countryside was a bit too lonely for me. No other kids to play with and my friends from school didn’t come to our house very often because it meant they had to bike 10 kilometres. And 10 kilometres to get back. Living close to nature was very nice though, and I enjoyed that a lot. The birds and other animals and above all the pond in front of our house. It wasn’t very big, but also not very small. About 200 by 300 metres and only 4 metres deep. It was the remnant of a dike failure that happened more than 100 years ago. The water was of very good quality and in the summer we swam in it and when we had a cold winter we ice skated on its frozen surface.
Another advantage of living in a rural area with a big yard was that we didn’t have to walk the dog. The dog walked herself. Of course we did went on walks with her, along the shores of the Maas river, at the other side of the dike, and in the small forest that surrounded the pond. Narda was a real winter-dog. In her first summer she had suffered from the heat but now, halfway through January, the temperatures around freezing and even with a bit of snow, she really was in her element. She jumped into the river and came out like a moving canine icicle. But she loved it.
That night we were watching television when my father remarked that Narda was still outside. It was her habit to scratch the door with her big paws when she wanted to be let in. I went outside to see how she was doing. The moment I opened the door I knew what was wrong. I couldn’t see her but I heard her barking sadly. It sounded very strange and distorted, close and far away at the same time with a sort of Doppler effect. A bit like when you throw a stone on a frozen lake. Narda apparently went onto the thin snow covered ice that had formed on the pond and almost in the middle the ice sheet couldn’t support her considerable weight and she fell into the cold water. She was swimming in the hole she had made and tried to warn us with an almost apologetic bark. I called my parents and sister and immediately ran into the shed to get the small play boat I got a few years ago for my birthday. Before my parents could stop me I slid in the boat onto the ice, pushing myself with my bare hands against the layer of snow, towards my dog. A few metres before I reached her the ice cracked so I ended up in the same hole in the ice as Narda, floating in my small boat. The boat was just big enough to hold my weight, but some water had already poored over the edge. I got hold of Narda’s collar and tried to drag her into the boat but she was too heavy and the boat too unstable. In retrospect I know what I should have done: use the boat as a sort of icebreaker and make a channel to the shore so Narda could have swam out by herself. But at the time none of us thought of that. I just held her collar and talked to her to calm her down. In the meantime my father and sister dragged a ladder onto the ice and my sister, the lightest of them, crawled onto it. But the ladder was too short and she couldn’t reach me.
My mother, now worried about our health, called the fire brigade. Ten minutes later they arrived with a couple of trucks and half the village in tow. They parked their cars at the top of the dike and the car’s head lights bathed the whole scene in a flood of light, almost like a movie scene.
The firemen went onto the ice with their long ladders and dragged my sister and me to the shore. We were, slightly hypothermic, put into a lukewarm bath, still fully clothed. The bath was then slowly filled with warmer water to warm us up. Our village doctor came by to check in on our health and he brought us the news: Narda had drowned. The firemen had tried to pull her out of the water with a rope, but they had attached the rope to her collar and it had slid over her head. Shortly after that Narda had given up swimming and had disappeared under the ice. The doctor explained that death by hypothermia was a very quiet way to die but that couldn’t ease my pain and sorrow. My sister and I cried all night.
A few days later we bought another dog, again a Saint Bernard. We named her Arolla. She lived a long and happy life and died when she was fourteen, which is ancient for a dog her size.
[This happened in 1977 and was originally written in a Dutch newsgroup in 1999]