During the half hour ride from Tullamarine Airport to St Kilda a couple of weeks ago, I imagined how Rocky would greet me. I had not been away for more than a couple of days since we began our relationship and even then, Rocky stayed home, with my wife when I was away. Now we had been gone for more than three weeks. Rocky had stayed with our children, a few days with my daughter and a few days with my son. When I spoke to them from Vietnam–and in the next blog, I will write about Vietnam and dogs–they told me Rocky was fine. He didn’t miss us at all. I was both relieved and miffed.
So I expected to be greeted with unqualified affection, with leaps, vigorous tail-wags, joy-filled panting and more. Ah, imaginings. How often does fantasy match reality? How often are our dreams realised, our hopes fulfilled? Not that bloody often. And yet we continue with our fantasies. Well at least I do.
Through the screen door, I could see Rocky sitting there at the end of the short entrance hallway, his head cocked to the side, his back legs, in the usual way, spread out beneath him for what I always assumed was stability. He did not move when I called out his name. He seemed detached though mildly curious. When I stepped inside, he slowly walked up to me, sniffed my shoes and the cuffs of my trousers and half-heartedly placed his nose within a few centimetres of my crotch. No small snort of delight was forthcoming. Even my crotch proved not to be of any real interest. It stirred no memories in him. Then he walked away and lay in the hallway, a furry disengaged dog torpedo.
At first, I thought he had forgotten me. I remembered that long ago time when my daughter was a toddler and I was what we journalists called a visiting fireman. We firemen were flown around the world—ah, those were the days when newspapers could still afford to send firemen overseas at the drop of a news editor’s hat—to cover some sort of unexpected crisis or a potentially heart warming and circulation lifting human interest story. I was a human interest story fireman back then—in the main, I didn’t do wars though I did do a couple of natural disasters, medium level ones. I covered stories like the missing sailor off the coast of Nauru and an Australian back packer missing in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
(Both were found safe and well. I managed to convince the missing sailor, who had spent three weeks in a dinghy before he was rescued, to give me the exclusive story of his ordeal. And hand over the diary he had kept. Pure gold! For no payment! For that effort, my editor rewarded me with a three year posting in London.)
This time though, when my daughter was still a toddler, I had been away for four weeks in India on what we journalists refer to as ..ahem…a junket, this one sponsored by the Indian Tourist Office, at the end of which, having stayed at the best hotels in the country, including the Taj Palace in Bombay, I spent two weeks recovering on a houseboat in Kashmir. You can imagine what I did those 14 glorious days.
When I arrived back in Melbourne and walked through the arrival gate, my brother-in-law was there holding my daughter in his arms. I rushed towards her, my arms outstretched, my heard melting with longing. My daughter contorted her body into the wriggly snail position, placed her blond head on my brother-in-law’s shoulder, and turned away from me. Shocked, I wondered whether those two weeks in Kashmir had rendered me unrecognisable. I eventually concluded that she had simply forgotten me. A month is a long time, I thought, in a toddler’s life.
That moment has stayed with me, vivid and clear. It came back to me, as if it had happened only yesterday, when Rocky greeted me as if I was a stranger. My daughter slowly got over her consternation at my desperate attempts to quickly re-establish the fact that I was—and would continue to be—an important person in her life but sometimes, I do wonder whether she completely got over my absence back then, whether something changed, a small but real change perhaps, perhaps the first of the small and not so small disappointments that we all experience in the years of growing up.
Rocky has grown more affectionate, less distant and sulky over the past two weeks. But some things have not returned to the way they were before we went to Vietnam. He no-longer wants to sit on my lap at night. He does not always come when I call. His greetings are not quite as enthusiastic as they were. He retreats to his bed and curls up in a ball when he knows I am about to go out. Will things never return to the way they were? They never do.
Here’s the thing: I have concluded that Rocky suffered separation anxiety. I fear only the dogs of the middle class—and of the so-called elites—experience it. I doubt that the dogs of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City would have a clue what Rocky is on about. It is a middle-class affliction, this separation anxiety syndrome. It is a syndrome which a surprising number of well-educated and successful people I know, have told me they have fallen victim to in their childhoods and which they have come to believe, is the cause of their difficulties with making commitments.
I do hope Rocky continues to improve but a friend, a separation anxiety sufferer, tells me he is unlikely to ever recover completely. We will see.