Final Epilogue: Oscar My Hero, My Saviour
I never thought I would find myself writing this final epilogue so soon. I believed Oscar was immortal..
Home Again in Paris ends with the death of Oscar’s little brother Leo. Oscar was the survivor in that story. Oscar was the symbol of my faith in life, my reason to carry on, my holy lamb. Which is why I ended the book on a note of hope as Oscar and I cross the Concorde bridge heading toward the Tuileries for a walk in the gardens.
Oscar was my hero, my saviour
Oscar saved my life twice. The first time was following the death of my wife Rebecca nearly eleven years ago.
Oscar was actually Rebecca’s dog, a fact that surprised many of my friends in France who couldn’t imagine Oscar with anyone except me. My close friends from Toronto knew how attached Oscar was to Rebecca, and how devoted she was to him.
Adopting Oscar was Rebecca’s idea. I remember the precise instant. One night we were driving home from a dinner party at her sister Rachel’s house. Rebecca turned to me and said: “I think we should get a dog.”
The idea caught me off guard.
“Are you sure?” I said. “It’s a lot of work, a dog.”
“It will be good for David,” she said. “He’s an only child. He needs to learn otherness – that other things exist in the world.”
Otherness, I thought, an interesting concept. I had to admit Rebecca had a point. David was Rebecca’s son from her first marriage. I had been his de facto father, for David was only four when Rebecca and I met. David was now seven. Like many boys of his age circa 1999, he was growing isolated in a hyperactive mental bubble of Gameboy and Pokémon monsters.
Rebecca, a lawyer, was exceptionally well organised. We were soon in my car driving up a rural highway north of Toronto to pick up our new puppy at Normandy Bichons. I can still see Oscar’s little face looking up at us from a small crib, whimpering expectantly, pleading for us to take him home. On our way back to Toronto in the car that afternoon, Rebecca cradled Oscar in her arms like a newborn baby.
Oscar quickly became the star attraction of our family life. And in no time at all, he was also the canine superstar of the neighbourhood. Everybody adored Oscar and knew him by name.
One Sunday afternoon there was an unexpected knock at our door. When I went to open it, I looked down to see two little girls, maybe six years old, staring up at me with wide happy eyes.
“Can we come inside and play with Oscar?” said one in a tiny voice.
Amused and baffled, I looked over to Rebecca for her reaction. She warmly beckoned the little girls to come inside. Their superhero Oscar was frolicking in the back garden.
Oscar slept with Rebecca and me in our bed nearly every night. In the morning when I opened my eyes, I looked down to see Oscar nestled between our lower limbs, sleeping on his back like a sea otter, his little paws pointing toward the ceiling. There were more dramatic moments. In the middle of the night when Oscar caught sight of racoons on the terrace off our bedroom, he jumped frantically off the bed and raced towards the patio door barking madly at the masked intruders. I usually got up hastily, picked up Oscar, carried him downstairs, and put him in David’s bed so Rebecca and I could get some undisturbed sleep.
Oscar’s best canine friend in those days was Archie, my parents-in-law’s old Tibetan terrier. Archie had quite a past. He’d lived in high style in Washington DC with the Gotliebs during their ambassadorial days during the Reagan and Bush père era. After the Washington power years Rebecca’s father Allan had several corporate directorships, among them Nestle, global manufacturer of many products including chocolate bars. One day Allan returned from a Nestle board meeting with his briefcase stuffed with chocolate. Archie, a notorious gourmand, somehow got into Allan’s briefcase and ate every single chocolate bar including the wrappings. The following day poor old Archie died of chocolate overdose. Oscar, who had been fond of tormenting Archie by running around him in circles in the Gotliebs’ garden, doubtless suffered the loss even more than the rest of us.
We sometimes took Oscar on long walks through nearby Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a peaceful enclave whose footpaths were favoured by joggers and strollers. In the cemetery Oscar raced about wildly, running in circles around the tombstones. Rebecca and I looked on amused as David tried to catch Oscar on a patch of clear grass surrounded by the proud mausoleums of Toronto’s grandest families.
A year later, tragedy struck. In early January 2003, Rebecca suddenly fell ill. Doctors diagnosed a rare form of vascular cancer. Everyone around us was stunned. On her hospital bed, Rebecca told me she feared that she might live only twelve or eighteen months. Don’t be silly, I told her, we were going to fight this together and get through it. She died two weeks later.
Rebecca was buried on Oscar’s third birthday – January 30, 2003 – in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. A rabbi made a special exception and came onto the Christian cemetery for the burial service. Rebecca’s gravesite was only a few hundred yards from the spot where we had once laughed as David happily chased Oscar running playfully in circles.
On that cold January morning, I stood numbly next to Allan and Sondra Gotlieb as Rebecca’s coffin, the top inscribed with her name in gold letters and a star of David, was lowered into a dark and deep grave where, one day, I will join my wife.
My entire world stopped that day. Everything went silent. David, now ten years old, left to live with his father in London. One of the saddest photographs I have kept shows David, Oscar and I together on the small sofa in our sitting room. It was taken one week after Rebecca’s funeral. In the photo Oscar is wedged between David and me as we both clutch him. I’m wearing a black cashmere overcoat and my Nuffield College scarf, my wedding ring on my right hand. David and I are painfully attempting to smile at the camera. Oscar seems to be smiling too, his little pink tongue visible. The next day David left on a plane for Jupiter, Florida to join his father at their family home before starting a new life in England.
I found myself alone in a vacant house that was suddenly frozen in time. Every morning Oscar, confused by the morbid silence that had engulfed our home, stared at me sadly, querying me with a quizzical expression.
Nothing was important to me any more. I quit my television show, which was on every Thursday night in prime time. I lurched through my full-time job running a national newspaper, but numbly retreated behind the closed doors of my corner office. The only thing that mattered to me now was Oscar. I had to take care of him. Oscar became my reason to carry on. That is how Oscar saved my life.
Many continued to associate Oscar more with Rebecca than with me. When I called the Rosedale Animal Clinic to make an appointment for Oscar, the receptionist looked through the computer records for Oscar’s file and said: “Oscar Gotlieb?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I replied.
I soon adopted another bichon to give Oscar a companion. Leo was already two years old, abandoned by heartless owners who returned him to the breeder like a piece of unwanted merchandise. Leo’s cheeky, extraverted energy enlivened the sullen ambience of our house while I slowly emerged from shock and took refuge in depression. Our devoted housekeeper Stella, who I had kept on despite her considerably reduced duties, took care of Oscar and Leo full-time every day as I struggled to carry on running the newspaper. It didn’t last.
In the summer of 2006, Oscar, Leo and I boarded a long haul, one-way Air France flight across the Atlantic. No return ticket. That’s how I found myself in France again, crossing a threshold into an unexpected second life in the country that had once been like home.
The move to France was fabulous for Oscar and Leo. We started off in Fontainebleau where every day they enjoyed walks in the chateau park that once served as the promenade of French kings. They raced up and down footpaths once used by Louis XIV and Mary Queen of Scots in her youth. They poked about at the edges of the Grand Canal built by Henri IV. And they darted across the Cour des Adieux where Napoleon abdicated. I also took them to the Fontainebleau forest every day where they came face-to-face with foxes, deer, and wild boar. David, now a teenager, came down from London to join Oscar, Leo and me on lavender-scented holidays in Provence. It was an idyllic period for two little bichons.
The move into Paris offered Oscar and Leo a different sort of paradise. Home Again in Paris tells that story. My beloved little Leo dies at the end of the book following a long battle with Addison’s Disease. That was the second time Oscar saved my life.
The night after Leo died, I carried Oscar across the road to the Seine and, holding him up as we both looked across the river toward the twinkling lights of the Place de l’Alma, said: “It’s just you and me again, Oscar.”
When Oscar turned thirteen in January, I began feeling vaguely worried because I knew he was getting old and was entering the final chapter of his life. I honestly believed Oscar would live to maybe 15 or 16, but I was nonetheless starting to feel anxious. I began obsessively filming him with my iPhone on our walks through Paris, often taking him to locations where I’d been with Rebecca so I could have memories of both of them at the same spot.
My closest friends had been gently asking me for some time if I was prepared for my life after Oscar was gone. “He has so many connections with Rebecca. It’s going to be hard on you. You have to be prepared for life without him.”
I suppose I’d been saying the same thing to myself, while still believing in Oscar’s immortality.
One day in my Paris flat on Quai d’Orsay, I uttered Rebecca’s name to Oscar. I suppose I wanted to see if he might still remember her after all these years.
To my astonishment, when Oscar heard the word “Rebecca” he began to whimper and licked my hand before looking about the room as if expecting Rebecca to come through the door.
I never said Rebecca’s name to Oscar again.
The realisation that Oscar might not be immortal made me take two decisions this spring that, looking back, were instinctively fortuitous.
The first decision was about Home Again in Paris. I had originally wanted to publish the book in paperback. With this in mind, I sent out a number of queries to agents and publishers. As an established author with several books published by major houses, I thought surely there would be interest in my book about Paris. But a personal memoir is not the same thing as a non-fiction book about the global media industries. It’s a harder sell. To make things even more complicated, the book industry is an inward-looking, slow-moving world currently going through a turbulent business crisis. Weeks went by with either no replies, courteous rejections, or ambiguous signs of potential interest.
I finally contacted a book business veteran and asked him, as a friend, for a frank assessment of my memoir. He got back to me promptly saying: “It’s a publishable book, no doubt about it, but publishers won’t see it as commercial. You will get it published but it will take some time – next spring at the earliest, probably autumn 2014.”
That was all I needed to know. Oscar was now thirteen. In the fall of 2014 he would be nearly fifteen. I wanted this book to exist while Oscar was alive. It was a book that simply could not be published after Oscar was gone. That is why I decided to self-publish Home Again in Paris as an ebook. The reason was Oscar.
Despite the devastation of Oscar’s loss, I am desperately relieved and grateful that the book exists as a tribute to Oscar and Leo.
The second happy decision I took was to spend the entire summer with Oscar in Paris – just Oscar and me. I declined all holiday ideas, including a generous invitation from friends Gwyn Campbell and Marianne Ackerman to bring Oscar down to their place in Provence in late June. I didn’t want to expose Oscar to the canicule heat of southern France. I took no holidays.
As a university professor, I was free from May and didn’t have classes till early September. Every morning all summer I got up and spent the entire day with Oscar. When we were at home, I started working on my next book, a psychological thriller loosely based on the murder of French banker Edouard Stern. When I needed a break, we took long walks all over Paris – to the Champ de Mars, on the Invalides esplanade, along the banks of the Seine, on the Champs-Elysées, in the Tuileries, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, through the Latin Quarter. Oscar’s last few months were especially happy as he walked around Paris with me, amused by my obsession with photographing and filming his every movement.
I will never know why Oscar died suddenly. Over the previous several months, he sometimes seemed disoriented but I put that down to his age. He was never ill. Leo was the sickly one; Oscar was always robust. Then in mid September I noticed that he was drinking water more frequently than usual. I took him to the vet and a blood test revealed he had high liver enzymes – nothing serious, but slightly high. A few days later, I took Oscar back to the vet for an ultrasound. It revealed that all his organs were normal – no inflammation of the liver. I was hugely relieved.
A couple days later, however, Oscar began vomiting. I took him back to the vet clinic where Oscar received antibiotics and anti-sickness medication. A gastro-intestinal ailment was suspected. But Oscar’s condition worsened over the weekend. He was lethargic and disoriented. I knew something was seriously wrong.
Instinctively, I spent the entire weekend carrying Oscar to places that I wanted him to see, fearing it might be the last time. On Saturday afternoon I took him to the Champ de Mars so he could lie on the grass and gaze at the Eiffel Tower. In the evening, I took him to the banks of the Seine where we watched the boats go by near the Pont des Invalides. On Sunday, as his condition grew worse, I took Oscar to the Invalides and later carried him to the Pont Alexandre III where he had a magnificent view of Seine. Then I took him home.
On Monday morning, Oscar appeared dizzy and confused in the apartment. I put him on the large William Morris sofa on which Rebecca had once rested during her final illness. Oscar fell asleep toward noon. He had another vet appointment at 3 pm.
About an hour later I looked over and noticed that he hadn’t moved. I walked over to check on him, nudging him gently and calling his name.
In his sleep Oscar had suffered a massive seizure. He was in a coma. I called the vet in a panic and thirty minutes later he was at my apartment. The vet examined Oscar and informed me almost immediately that Oscar’s condition was beyond hope. I tearfully said goodbye to Oscar before the vet quietly put him to sleep. Like Leo, Oscar was at home with me when he died.
I now have the urn containing Oscar’s ashes, at home next to Leo’s urn. They will be buried together, most likely in the Paris pet cemetery about which I wrote in the book.
The hardest thing is Oscar’s absence. When I awake in the morning, I look down to see Oscar on my bed but he is not there. When I’m working at my desk, I look over at the sofa on which Oscar was always perched, but he is not there.
Hardest of all is coming home. In the past when I left the flat Oscar always sat in the window, poking his fluffy white head through the small open space, watching people go by in the street below, always on the look out for me. And when he finally spotted me coming down the Quai d’Orsay waving at him, he began barking madly to welcome me home.
Now when I return home, I look up at the window, but Oscar is never there. The window is dark, empty and silent. And my heart breaks.
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