James Herriot tells of a dog who died of Hodgkin’s disease and whose owner then committed suicide. The owner, Paul, had been treated for depression, though Herriot did not know it. Shortly thereafter Herriot was treating Andrew Vine’s dog, Digger, whose eyesight was failing, and one night Andrew broke down.
He sat there, head in hands, for some time then raised a tear-stained face to me. His expression was distraught.
“I can’t bear the thought of it,” he gasped. “A friendly little thing like Digger—he loves everybody. What has he ever done to deserve this?”
“Nothing, Andrew. It’s just one of the sad things which happen. I’m terribly sorry.”
He rolled his head from side to side. “Oh God, but it’s worse for him. You’ve seen him in the car—he’s so interested in everything. Life wouldn’t be worth living for him if he lost his sight. And I don’t want to live any more either!”
“You mustn’t talk like that, Andrew,” I said. “That’s going too far.” I hesitated. “Please don’t be offended, but you ought to see your doctor.”
“Oh I’m always at the doctor,” he replied dully. “I’m full of pills right now. He tells me I have a depression.”
The word was like a mournful knell. Coming so soon after Paul it sent a wave of panic through me.
“How long have you been like this?”
“Oh, weeks. I seem to be getting worse.”
“Have you ever had it before?”
“No, never.” He wrung his hands and looked at the floor. “The doctor says if I keep on taking the pills I’ll get over it, but I’m reaching the end of my tether now.”
“But the doctor is right, Andrew. You’ve got to stick it and you’ll be as good as new.”
“I don’t believe it,” he muttered. “Every day lasts a year. I never enjoy anything. And every morning when I wake up I dread having to face the world again.” “What’s the use of going on? I know I’m going to be miserable for the rest of my life.”
I am no psychiatrist but I knew better than to tell somebody in Andrew’s condition to snap out of it. And I had a flash of intuition.
“All right,” I said. “Be miserable for the rest of your life, but while you’re about it you’ve got to look after this dog.”
Like a man in a dream he bent and gathered his dog into his arms and shuffled along the passage to the front door. As he went down the steps into the street I called out to him. “Keep in touch with your doctor, Andrew. Take your pills regularly—and remember,” I raised my voice to a shout. “Remember you’ve got a job to do with that dog.”
Herriot relates an encounter with Andrew walking Digger two years later.
Andrew laughed when he saw me. He had put on weight and looked a different person. “Digger knows every inch of this walk,” he said. “I think it’s just about his favorite spot—you can see how he’s enjoying himself.”
I nodded. “He certainly looks a happy little dog.”
“Yes, he’s happy all right. He has a good life and honestly I often forget that he can’t see.” He paused. “You were right, that day in your surgery. You said this would happen.”
“Well that’s great, Andrew,” I said. “And you’re happy, too, aren’t you?”
“I am, Mr. Herriot. Thank God, I am.” A shadow crossed his face. “When I think how it was then, I can’t believe my luck. It was like being in a dark valley, and bit by bit I’ve climbed into the sunshine.”
“I can see that. You’re as good as new, now.”
He smiled. “I’m better than that—better than I was before. That terrible experience did me good.”
When I look back on the whole episode my feeling is of thankfulness. All sorts of things help people to pull out of a depression. Mostly it is their family—the knowledge that wife and children are dependent on them—sometimes it is a cause to work for, but in Andrew Vine’s case it was a dog.
I often think of the dark valley which closed around him at that time and I am convinced he came out of it on the end of Digger’s lead.