Monday, August 13, 2007

The bard's last bark

12 Aug 2007, ST

Singapore's ambassador to France CHEW TAI SOO pens a tribute to his beloved collie Shakespeare, who is losing a battle with vertebrae cancer

GROWING up in Singapore in the 1940s, amid the deprivation brought about by the war, the idea of keeping a dog was never a consideration.

So, when my daughter, then 11 years old, asked me if we could have a dog when we were based in New York, the answer was no.

In large part this was because I knew that she would tire of the animal soon and that I would be responsible for looking after it.

As this was not a reason which could resonate with an 11 year old, I had to refuse on the grounds that the streets of New York were too dangerous for a child her age to walk a dog.

Alas, when we returned to Singapore in the mid-1990s, this reason was no longer credible, so there was a half-hearted agreement to look for a suitable labrador retriever.

One day after lunch in Upper Thomson Road, we made a detour to a pet shop nearby. There was no intention to buy anything. It was just an attempt to mollify a young girl and to put off to a future date any idea of buying a dog.

Needless to say it did not work out as I had planned. After several minutes of looking around, we came across a rascally little collie that would not stop licking and nibbling our fingers.

We fell in love with him instantly. Penni, my wife, like all women, was more firm. She came up with all the practical reasons a collie, with its long and thick mane, would be unsuitable in Singapore's hot weather.

But it was one against three and before we knew it I was at the counter paying for the puppy and all the paraphernalia that apparently was needed to look after it.

Back home the work of raising a puppy began in earnest. First we had to come up with a name for it and it turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.

Common names were not acceptable to my daughter. She eventually came up with 'Shakespeare', a name which would amuse strangers wherever we went.

There was much to learn about raising a puppy. We tried without too much success in the first weeks to house-train him, and soon the garden had become a veritable mine field of dog poo.

Then there were the crazy antics of this little fur ball. He would dash around blindly and without any real aim until stopped by some immovable object.

Once, he ran into the glass sliding door and we discovered that dogs, too, have a set of milk teeth. Two of these fell off to our great distress and the vet had to be woken up close to midnight.

Despite being a good-natured dog, he had a mind of his own.

When we were based in Tokyo, we discovered that he was discharging blood from his male reproductive organ. So it was off to the Japanese vet who advised that he should be neutered.

For the first time in his life, Shakespeare had to be left alone overnight in a strange place.

The next evening when I went to collect him, I was told that he would have to stay an extra day. Apparently during the night he had chewed off the sutures and opened up the incision wound. The vet had to sew him up again, and this time Shakespeare had to wear a collar to prevent him from chewing the sutures again.

To my horror when I went back the following evening, he had done exactly the same thing. At wits' end, the vet despatched us both home with antibiotics and a cream to apply to the wound.

Throughout the night, Shakespeare tried to rid himself of the collar by knocking it against everything, all the while accompanied by the sad whimpering which only a dog can make and which tears at one's heart.

I sat by him for the rest of the night, with the collar off, making sure that he left the wound alone.

Long walks, new friends

SHAKESPEARE turned out to be one of the most gentle, friendly and attentive dogs around. When we had visitors to stay, he would, once he got used to them, put his head on their lap and look up longingly at them, imploring them to play with him.

The moment they gave any signal of acknowledgement, he would be off to fetch one of his toys for a game of 'take it away from me if you can'.

His gentle nature has over the years convinced many friends to have a dog as pet. He was attentive to people and could make them feel welcome. Family members, in particular, have been greeted, each time they come to see us after an absence even of several years, with a long spell of barking.

It is a poignant bark, half in welcome and half accusing them of having left him for so long. In the case of my daughter, the barking is particularly intense as she is the only one who will allow him to sleep on the bed.

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N BETTER TIMES: Mr Chew first bought Shakespeare, seen here in a park in Paris, from a pet shop in Upper Thomson Road. The gentled-natured collie quickly became a family favourite. -- PHOTO: CHEW TAI SOO

All these years, Shakespeare has been a constant and faithful companion to me. If I have had few complaints about my health, this has in large part been due to the long walks which we took every morning without fail.

When we were based in Tokyo, in particular, we would leave the house in Roppongi at six in the morning for Arisugawa Park and back. A journey of some 3.5 km, through side streets and up and down steep inclines to reach the park where he would be allowed to run free, before heading back home by another route.

These were also discovery walks where I came upon little restaurants, sake shops and even an artisan glass maker. It also led to chance meetings with other dog owners, as shabbily dressed as I was in the mornings, but who turned out to be interesting people in their professional lives.

One was an elderly woman who had, like me, lived for some years in Geneva and who turned out to be an interpreter, from time to time, for former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Another was a Japanese jazz singer of some repute who invited me and my wife to one of her performances in a nightclub.

Yet another was the scion of the founder of a large Japanese trading company. We used to exchange cursory nods in the mornings as his dog was rather protective of her territory and would growl at Shakespeare. Then one day at a golf club we were asked by the starter if another member could join our flight of three. He turned out to be the gentleman whom I met every morning. We became firm friends after that.

Such walks continued in Paris where we moved to next. For the first few months we used to walk to a part of the Bois de Boulogne, the green lung to the west of Paris. It was wilder than Arisugawa Park and full of wild, brown hares.

To my surprise Shakespeare paid them little attention, in part I suppose due to his domestication.

Beginning of the end

THREE years on and as he approaches his 12th birthday, Shakespeare is now no longer ambulatory.

His decline has been rapid and frightening. From being an active dog scampering about sniffing at all the odours around before deciding to put down his own, he stopped leading me and started to lag behind.

A short while later he was reluctant to go too far. Next came the stumbling and tottering. He had the gait of a drunk.

We thought that it was just his arthritis that was acting up and gave him lots of painkillers. But they did not seem to work and he got worse by the day.

We took him for a scan of his spinal column. The result was worse than expected. He has cancer of the vertebrae which had metastasized. A lobe of his lungs had collapsed and his liver showed cancerous growth. With the passing of each day his condition has become worse.

Someone once said that the saddest thing in life is when a younger person dies before the older one. It is only now that I am able to fully understand it.

No doubt, Shakespeare at 12 years old is by human age over 80 years of age, but he has been with us for only 12 years.

It is too soon to lose him. Watching a constant companion, a faithful follower and a close family member waste away like this is beyond words.

Even at the risk of being overly sentimental, I can only look forward to running with him again in the pasture where we are all supposed to end our days.

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