Kali the Labrador came into my life when she was ten months old. Appealing, exuberant, and unruly. We developed an inexplicable bond, living in silence but inter-dependent. When she left me nine years later, I felt untethered, adrift, grief stricken. Kali was not, ‘just a dog’.
Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise didn’t think Spock was ‘just a Vulcan’ either. When Spock died Kirk said, ‘of all the souls I encountered in my travels, his was the most human’. What is this profound connection between humans and creatures, Labrador, or Vulcan? Does it symbolise something deeper, to do with the source of being itself?
Before you think life with Kali was all hearts and flowers, I need to point out that she was initially a little black nightmare. More like a missile than a loping Labrador, taking off after anything that took her fancy. Enter the Dog Whisperer.
‘It’s your own fault’, he intoned, emotionless, when I finally admitted my hands had been torn to shreds by a long lead, the result of one of Kali’s instinctual dashes. I mused on his truth as my hands were dressed every day for weeks.
The Dog Whisperer taught me to be more dog mother than adoring human. I was more physical with Kali than any other canine companion I’d had. Boundaries and consequences mattered. Stop meant stop; now! No meant no, not an entertaining interlude before yes. I learned to nip her ear when she forgot her manners, with fingernails instead of teeth, in case you’re wondering. 18 months later we were a cohesive team, but she was still wolf.
For socialisation, Kali joined The Dog Walker’s pack. She fitted in somewhere about the middle. Never a fighter and could be submissive if needed. Harry was her beau. Larger, more influential in the pack and light to her shade. She always wanted to ride with him in the van and snuggle close to him on sleep overs.
But when it suited her, Kali would race off, developing acute dog deafness on the way. Her instinct was usually pulling her towards a rotting carcass by the river. She found death alluring, rolling with enthusiasm in whatever remained. I thought this necessitated a ritual bath afterwards. She resisted.
From time-to-time Kali would get a sore right leg that would come right in a day or two. I used to wonder if she’d strained a muscle when out with the pack. Then just before COVID-19 lockdown in early 2021, I noticed that leg was flopping.
‘Textbook presentation’, said the surgeon after a neurological examination. An operation was possible, but it was likely the tumour would grow again. Here we were, wedged between a rock and a hard place.
‘She’s your soul dog, isn’t she? asked the vet as I sat on the floor fondling Kali’s ears. I looked up quizzical. ‘No matter how many dogs we live with’, she said, ‘there’s always one that’s more in sync with us than any other, and it shows’. Kali rolled into me, content to just be.
Perhaps this syncing occurs because the dog comes along at a pivotal point in our lives and can’t help but become an integral part of our psyche. Connected, inseparable like the daemons in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material’s trilogy. In those stories, every human has an animal who lives and breathes beside them. To be separated from each other is a living death; to become a shadow of a being. Yes, Kali had become my soul dog, my daemon.
Kali was five with all four paws on the floor and living her best dog life when I entered Jungian dream analysis. She began popping up in dreams, usually diving into water, often seen as a symbol of the unconscious. John, my analyst, encouraged me to notice how instinctual she was because I struggled with this, often mistrusting my judgement, and relying too much on reason. Kali was becoming my teacher.
One morning we were out walking when we heard barking from across the river. Not just any barking but the sound of her pack. Her ears pricked. To her credit she flicked me a cursory glance before galloping towards the inlet. By the time I got there she’d swum to the other side and was climbing out to join the team. Amazed, I realised that whatever hold I had on her was subservient to a deeper call.
John chuckled when I told him the story. About how I’d had to go home alone and let the Dog Walker bring back my intrepid adventurer, exhausted but glowing. As always, he wondered what I made of this in terms of my own life.
Over the years, I wondered about this, a lot. About the power of connection that took Kali across that river. What that symbolised for me. Especially around the human connection to one’s mother, our original Godde and what happens when that is severed before its time.
This was familiar territory. As an adopted person I knew a lot about connection, in part because I was so disconnected. Removed from my mother at birth, no doubt screaming my protest, but unlike Kali, with no power to swim the river to reconnect.
Human babies treated like this and then adopted, can live with what Nancy Verrier called the primal wound to the Self. A profound sense of loss, an ongoing grief seemingly etched into cells, an aching incompleteness. Knowing the source of all being is lost but not sure what or who that is, or how to find the way home.
An aching incompleteness is hard to explain because it seems to have no rational basis, particularly when a baby has been placed with loving parents. For me, the persistent feeling was to feel untethered, adrift, existing between worlds or dimensions and never feeling safe anywhere. Loving parents become bewildered by the child who can’t settle, who swings between being overly compliant, eager to please and impulsive or anti-social when there seems to be no understandable reason for this.
Searching for genetic family connections is one way people cope. I went about this with great energy but, interestingly, it didn’t solve the issue. Avoiding intimate human relationships or destroying them to avoid being abandoned can be one of the consequences until new ways of connecting can be learned. Bonding with dogs, primal beings who instinctively offer unconditional acceptance, can matter a great deal in this process.
All of this came to the surface during Kali’s illness because my friend Lance and I began The Two Lucky Bastard’s podcast about adoption. It emerged after we happened upon Tree of Strangers, an exploration of ‘identity in a country governed by adoption laws that deny the rights of the adopted person’ by New Zealand writer, Barbara Sumner.
I was ambivalent about the whole thing because hadn’t I already ‘done adoption’ 40 years ago after the birth of my daughter. But Lance, extrovert, more organised and technical than me, got us going. Although I’m still dragging my heels, I began to recognise that talking about these things again was bringing them to consciousness in new ways because of Kali.
As she became increasingly lame Kali became more obvious to others. People worried that I hadn’t noticed she was limping. When I explained her story, they became interested, compassionate. And she, being a Labrador who knew how to win hearts, would limp towards them, lift her paw higher, and tilt her head. Everyone leaned in. As Henri Nouwen might describe it, Kali had become a wounded healer by putting her woundedness in the service of others, me included.
Our connection deepened over her 18 months in palliative care. Everything revolved around Kali. How much pain she was in, when her medication was due, how far she could walk, or not. My life centred on what mattered for her. I was realistic about her death but unreasonably optimistic about how long she could keep going with her disability.
The silence and interdependence deepened. Partly a product of the early training when movement and hand signals were louder and more powerful than speech. But partly because the bond had become a harmonic resonance that didn’t need words, synchronised within a set of rituals that were played out at the same time each day. In a religious or spiritual sense, we had developed our own liturgy of the hours.
When we looked at each other, I felt unconditional love and absolutely known by this creature. Perhaps the only way to describe it is to say that we paid unmixed attention to each other. As French philosopher Simone Weil said, ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer’. Somewhere in here was a sense of the sacred.
Alongside that I was aware of a wordless primal connection that kept irritating and absorbing me, but I couldn’t identify what it was. My brain wouldn’t, didn’t know how to supply the information. Instead, there was a pull to sink into a deeper, more instinctual knowing. Somewhere in there I began to sense things about the separation from my mother at birth, from what every baby knows is their source of all being.
Was it possible that this connection with my dog, especially in her vulnerability, was a reflection or symbol of the connection I had had with my mother before birth? And was it possible that her nine years with me through some very difficult territory, were a healing gift, far beyond anything conscious I could dream up or have control over? That seemed far-fetched, illogical, and yet, when I let the awareness surface, it all seemed to resonate.
Over the last few months of her life, Kali kept trying to tell me things had got worse. She would start a walk with enthusiasm, quickly tire and sit down. But I didn’t want to hear what she had to say so I encouraged her with treats. After all, she’s a Labrador and almost completely motivated by food. The treats worked, for a bit. Then she started lying down. She was suffering, but I found it almost impossible to accept because I didn’t want her to go.
Eventually, I had to make the call. As I walked Kali to her death, I told her that she had to swim the river to her ancestral pack. But this time, it was the river Styx that mythical divide between Earth and the Underworld. I said she would know what to do because dogs are traditionally guardians of that portal. Somehow the mythic qualities of it all made absolute sense in those moments.
Kali was looking at me as the drug hit her heart and stopped it dead. In that moment I felt completely untethered, adrift. As though she had broken free of the invisible lead and leapt into the water, leaving me behind on the bank. The Dog Walker and I picked up our broken hearts from the vet’s clinic floor and took her to the crematorium. I couldn’t settle until she came home after fire had transformed her back into stardust.
A group of us gathered in the backyard, an illustrious band of 12 disciples, to conduct a ritual of love, loss, and hope. We sang, read a poem, eulogised Kali, gave thanks, buried her ashes, and blessed each other before heading to lunch; a ritual in keeping with a Labrador ethos of life.
My daughter, whose heart remains synchronised with mine, flew in for the rituals. In such gestures love is realised. After lunch, we headed up into the Manawatu hills to walk the Tawa Loop. As we climbed higher and higher on what was a beautiful still and sunny day, we talked about matters of the heart including what should be done with me when I died. We decided there would be no grave, no plaques, no memorials. What matters most lies within.
Nearly six weeks after Kali’s death, we’re in lockdown again. This time her beautiful eyes, warm presence, love, acceptance, unmixed attention, and daily rituals are memories. And yet, something has happened. The primal wound, so much a part of my life, has in some incomprehensible way, been attended to. That fragile tethering, not to another but to the Self, the internal source of being, the Godde if you will, seems secure.
As Simone Weil went on to say, ‘If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself’. Thank you Kali.
Why was she called Kali?
My instinct was to re-name Piper (her original name) for the Hindu Goddess of All. Kali combines both light and dark, death and life. She symbolises the need for us to integrate all our weird and wonderful conflicting parts. Kali the Labrador came to represent that convoluted process for me in Jungian dream analysis. She was such a gift that Fr John Dourley, my first analyst, recognised instantly. I hope they’re walking together now.
Call of the wild: Kali’s funeral poem
Be still – listen
hear them howl
beyond the four winds
calling in the pack
they claim our hearts
gifting unconditional love
we are head over heels
daemons now we understand
until the pack calls again
leaving us untethered, adrift.