In July of 1995 I made a rash decision to move to Vancouver, Canada. I won’t go into the reasons because they’re not relevant but suffice to say it seemed like a good idea at the time.
About a year later I was up to my neck in a violent, physically abusive relationship with a Tae Kwon Do black-belt (who I will call ‘John’). We lived in the basement suite of the house owned by his parents, who lived in Portland, Oregon, and his sister (who I shall call ‘Mary’) lived alone upstairs.
I never spoke to anyone about what went on inside that house. Mary must have known because, well, it would have been difficult to hear the noise and not know full well what was happening.
My next door neighbours were Will and Helen. Will was the first white Taoist priest in Canada and Helen was from Malaysia; they were lovely people. Will and I became friends. We only ever saw or spoke to each other over the fence between our respective front yards but we developed a ritual of sorts.
Every morning at 6 A.M. he practiced his Tai Chi exercises out front; I’d make a cup of tea and take my cigarettes and ash tray to sit at the tiny, white plastic table outside the living room window at the front of my house and watch him. With my own life being such a hellish nightmare watching Will’s slow, graceful movements for an hour or so very was calming. An escape. It was really the only peace I knew around that time.
After Tai Chi practice Will would go inside briefly and make himself a mug of green tea, then come out to the fence to chat with me for a while. I think he knew what I was dealing with at home because he’d often speak to me about how to make myself mentally stronger and how to calm and clear my mind. I believe he was preparing me for what I needed to do.
Will became very important to me. My early mornings with him were like a lifeline. He taught me to breathe.
At the end of 1996 I decided I wanted to buy a Siberian Husky. I picked the breeder and placed my order. I had just over two months to wait when, luckily, ‘fate’ stepped in. I was browsing the ‘puppies for sale’ section in the local free paper one Saturday afternoon when I saw this ad:
I couldn’t understand why an animal that usually costs at least $1,000 was being offered for such a low price. Curiosity got the better of me and I called the number.
I was informed that “she’s in a box in the yard because we just got new carpets and don’t want her in the house”. I held my breath for a second, open mouthed. Incredulous.
I said “Bring the dog. I’m writing a cheque”.
Half an hour later I was sitting on the front wall outside my house, watching the corner for a car with a husky in it. Before long, a huge white Mercedes swept into view and a split second later I locked eyes with the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen. She was striking. A black and white face and incredibly piercing blue eyes. She and I didn’t take our eyes off each other as the car moved into place and parked in front of me. It was love at first sight for me.
Her name was Kye and she was a bouncy, curious and affectionate little creature. She took to me instantly. The couple I was buying her from had bought her as a companion for their eleven year old son. They were a perfect example of people buying pets based on their cuteness and not their suitability. An animal that can pull 300lbs is not automatically a good companion for a child just because it is fluffy and friendly. Especially when you’re talking about an animal that is notoriously difficult to train.
Kye quickly became my friend, my family and my shoulder to cry on. I adored her and took her everywhere I went if I could possibly get away with it.
I remember very clearly one scuba diving trip I took her on. It was the first one she went on with me. What did I know!? I attached her leash to my scuba tank (do you know how heavy those things are?) while I got into my wetsuit. Before I’d got it zipped up Kye was off and running! Not very fast, admittedly but she dragged that tank along behind her like you or I might drag a couple of bags of groceries… and she was still only seven months old! Lesson learned.
Then there was the time I thought it would be a great idea to take her rollerblading. Me on wheels with no brakes attached to an animal that’s built for pulling and running! It was a short trip.
The funniest though, was the time I took her to Grouse Mountain in the middle of Winter when she was about one and a half years old. Struggling down on the way back Kye must have seen something that excited her because she reared up on her back legs and powered herself forwards in a move that happened so fast I completely lost my balance and fell face first into the deep snow. The humiliation didn’t end there. She kept going for about six or eight feet and although I’m glad I didn’t let go of the leash (I’d never have seen her again) I could have lived without the snow getting shoveled down the front of my coat as Kye dragged me along behind her.
The following Summer Helen left Vancouver to return to Toronto. Her family lived there and she missed them.
The morning of Christmas Eve, 1997. Will finished his Tai Chi and came straight to the fence. He didn’t go inside and make his tea and therefore hadn’t put on his glasses either. It’s strange how little it takes to make things seem ‘off-kilter’.
I also noticed that he’d cut his hair. I wanted to say something but politeness prevented me. A more accurate statement would be he had hacked at his hair. I wasn’t sure what to say. In addition to his unusual appearance Will seemed uneasy. He didn’t say anything but looked as though he wanted to. I asked him what he was doing the next day, not knowing what arrangements he might have with family or friends. He said he wasn’t sure yet so I told him he should come and spend the day with me and John. I told him to come over at 8 am for breakfast and that he should stay for Christmas dinner too. He nodded, smiled and then turned and walked inside his house.
Christmas morning at 8:23 my phone rang. I know the time because I was looking at my watch wondering where Will was and thinking about going round to fetch him. It was Mary. She told me I should go out to the back of the house immediately because something was wrong.
I opened the back door and walked up the driveway towards the alley that ran behind the houses on our street. A policeman walked towards me. There were three others standing by Will’s garage. There were also two police cars and a big white van. Will’s large, Greek landlord was there too.
The policeman asked me if I was a friend of Will’s. When I said I was he told me to go back inside and said that someone would come and see me soon.
At that exact moment I stopped thinking. My mind was blank and yet it was racing all at once, so fast I couldn’t make head or tail of anything in it. The next thing I knew I was sitting in the arm chair beside the window in my living room, not even four feet from the white plastic chair outside that I’d sat on every morning for the past year.
I watched two uniformed officers walk past my window and come in through the open door. One stood to my left between me and the door and the other crouched down in front of me on one knee. I read the embroidery on his body warmer. It said ‘Victim Support’.
The officer told me that at around 6 am, Will had dressed himself in his ceremonial robes, gone to the garage and hung himself.
I don’t remember anything else but at some point the police officers had left and I was sitting there holding a white teddy bear. The bear was wearing a white t-shirt with those words again, printed on it in blue letters. ‘Victim Support’.
I will regret for the rest of my life not asking Will the previous morning if anything was wrong.
I went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. I was staring at the kettle, waiting for it to boil, when John suddenly came out of nowhere behind me and punched me on the back of my head. He grabbed my hair, yanked me backwards off my feet and pushed me onto my knees on the floor facing the corner. Still holding tightly onto a fistful of my hair he pushed a handgun into my right temple and started yelling at the side of my head. He said that if the police ever came to our house again he’d kill me. He was furious, shaking, red-faced and I honestly thought he wasn’t going to wait until ‘next time’. I was terrified.
I remember trying to cover my head with my hands… as if that would have saved me.
Suddenly Kye was there, snarling and growling in a way I didn’t recognise. I was shocked but it worked. John let go of my hair and after giving me a swift, hard kick on my right hip he walked away. I looked at Kye. She just sat down beside me while I stayed on the floor and composed myself. My head was hurting and my eyes were sore from crying all morning and she started to lick my face. That amazing animal had possibly just saved my life and now she was comforting me too. I hugged her for what seemed like several minutes then got up, straightened myself out and took her for a long walk.
I knew I had to leave. Of course I did. It’s not as easy as that though. Ask anyone who’s been in a similar situation. You blame yourself and think that if you’re better somehow all the terrible things that are happening will stop. So you try hard to be nicer, more compliant, only nothing ever works. It just gets worse. I only wish that the straw that broke the camel’s back had come in a different form than it did for me. In yet another fit of fury a couple of months later and I’m guessing as a new and amazing way to exert power over me, John picked Kye up by the scruff of her neck, put her down on the floor and held her there while he delivered three punches to her wriggling body. As difficult as this is to read, it was many times more difficult to witness.
That was the instant I made the decision to leave. That was never, ever going to happen to Kye again. Two weeks later I had moved into a condo with a one year rental agreement I couldn’t afford. It was the first place I found where I was allowed a pet larger than a cat so I took it despite how much of a struggle it would be for me to manage financially.
I spent just over a year in that condo. It was beautiful and situated in a very trendy and popular part of Vancouver called Kitsilano. It was a five minute walk from the beach and an easy bus ride to and from my job as a consultant at a prestigious headhunting firm downtown. It was the best year of my life but it wasn’t an exclusively happy one. I’d been through a lot and I found being alone and far from home very difficult at times. But Kye was always there with her incredible ability to know exactly when I needed her to come and rest her chin on my knee.
It is 100% true to say that she was the only reason I got out of bed every morning to go to work. I had to, to feed and care for her and keep a roof over our heads. It is accurate to say that she saved my life again just by being there and giving me a reason to not give up fighting to get my life straightened out. I had to work my ass off that year to pay the rent and bills and I only just managed to keep my head above water. There were times when I only had enough money to buy food for one of us and obviously Kye’s needs came first, so I went without.
I used to walk to Kits beach every night with Kye at about 9 pm, after most other people had gone home. We watched the Symphony of Fire from there one year, sitting on a blanket with a bag of doggy treats and a latte from Starbucks on the corner of Cornwall and Yew. Sometimes I’d let Kye off the leash for a while to play with the other dogs in the surf until my nerve ran out and I’d call her back to me before she realised she was free to run away. She’d never had a garden of her own to play in so that was all the freedom I could give her.
In 1998 I met ‘Mark’ and moved with Kye to Vancouver Island. In 2002 Mark and I built a beautiful custom home on a plot of land in Sooke, a small village on the south coast. This house would have a huge garden for Kye, a space of her own that she could run around in free from a leash. I was excited and nervous about it all at the same time. Siberian Huskies are masters of escape and champion hole diggers! The fence around the garden had to be at least six feet high and start about a foot under the ground. Three builders worked for a day and a half on that fence after the house was finished and I watched from the patio, Kye from inside in the living room, as the last panel was lowered into place. I walked around around the fence one time. I’d already walked around it several times during the past 36 hours but this time was almost ceremonial. Even the builders knew what a big moment it was.
I opened the patio doors expecting Kye to launch herself outside and run at near light speed around the huge space. Instead, she slowly took the step down from the living room to the patio and just looked up at me. She didn’t even know she was allowed to run and play. My heart broke seeing her not know what to do with her freedom. The builders noticed too. I grabbed a ball and threw it right to the end of the garden. Kye flinched after it but stayed rooted to the spot. Ken, the oldest of the three man fence building team trotted over to the ball and threw it back to me. Kye sprang to life and jumped up to it as I caught it. I threw it again and she was off! She chased the ball to the end of the garden, pounced on it once and then started running flat out in circles around the perimeter. She bounced around, leaping like a deer and dodging builders who pretended to try to catch her. I felt like my heart was going to burst.
With all the space at the new house it was the perfect time for Kye to have a playmate so in January 2003 I ordered a puppy that was due shortly from a champion Sibe breeder back on the mainland.
Kye’s name (although spelt incorrectly) is Hawaiian for ocean. I decided that the new puppy should be the sky so she’d be named Lani. I picked her from this photograph sent to me by the breeders (Lani’s on the left) and the first time I held her, on March 30, 2003, it was like holding a tiny live teddy bear. That’s how she earned the nickname Little Bear.
Kye didn’t take to Lani at first and there were times when I wondered if I’d done the right thing. Kye was used to being an ‘only child’ and seemed to struggle with sharing her territory with Lani. After a few weeks, when Kye had also learned that Lani wasn’t one of her stuffed toys, things settled and the two of them got along well. Lani followed Kye everywhere and often instigated wrestling matches on the lawn in the garden. They didn’t last long. That is, until Lani was about a year old, then Kye began to stop holding back.
My shambles of a personal life had been taking a slow turn for the worse for about two years and in 2005 I was forced to acknowledge that yet another relationship was over. I booked a two week visit to the UK to spend some time with my family and landed at Gatwick airport on October 5th, 2005. While I was here I did a great deal of soul searching and considered my limited options. If I went back to Canada there was no telling how long it would take to deal with my divorce and in the meantime I’d have to stay with Mark. Things between us had deteriorated to the point that when he became angry he was frightening and I’d been there before. If I stayed in England I’d be able to get on with re-establishing myself immediately and rebuilding my life again. The down-side of that plan was that Kye and Lani were still in Canada and I would have to set about putting plans for their move to England in motion from here.
The procedure for bringing the girls to England would take about a year, beginning with rabies vaccines and continuing on to blood tests and waiting periods. Effectively it was in-home quarantine. It would feel like the longest year of my life but unfortunately it seemed the best way to go about things and I decided that was what I had to do.
On February 23, 2006 I had the first of what would turn out to be many conversations with Mark about my intentions for the girls. I was a little surprised and immensely relieved to get no resistance from him whatsoever. That all changed a few weeks later when his mercenary side took over and he realised how much bargaining power he had. He knew he couldn’t argue with me over Kye because she was mine before I met him. I bought Lani while we were together though and that spelled trouble.
On March 29th, Mark told me he wasn’t going to let me take Lani. If you knew him the way I do you’d know, as I knew, that this was simply a tactic. I knew exactly what was coming and he and I both knew exactly how I’d handle it. I just didn’t think he’d sink that low.
I made several tearful phone calls to Mark begging him to not split the girls up and to let me take Lani too. He didn’t show any signs of backing down and I was due to fly out there soon to take care of some of the necessary vet appointments. I was waiting for him to tell me what he wanted, all the while considering the possibility that I might have to go to Canada and steal my own huskies. Then, finally, a week before I flew out there, Mark told me his terms. If I signed away my interest in the .35 million dollar house we’d built I could have Lani.
Crushing. I was living with my parents again at the age of 35 and since I hadn’t had much in the way of work since I got there I’d have nothing to my name if I agreed but, in my mind, I had no choice. I wanted my girls. Both of them.
On May 1, 2006, I made my first trip to Canada since leaving more than six months before. Mark’s mother picked me up from Vancouver International Airport and drove me straight to the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen to make the hour and a half journey to Schwartz Bay on Vancouver Island. I found out then that I didn’t have to worry about being confronted by my ex, because he wouldn’t be at the house when I got there. I was so nervous to see the girls again. Would they remember me? What would I do if they didn’t? I was on the verge of tears the whole trip across the water. I had a lump in my throat the size of a egg and I couldn’t have held a conversation if my life depended on it. The forty-five minute drive from the ferry to the house seemed to take hours. It felt very strange to be seeing all the familiar sights of my old home town. I knew I missed it but I never realised how much until I got there. Landing at Vancouver Airport has always felt more like coming home to me than it does anywhere else and being back on the Island again was especially emotional because of the circumstances.
As we pulled up to the house I began to shake. I got out of the car and looked through the glass panels on each side of the front door to the house as I walked up the steps towards it. No huskies. They must be in the back yard.
I quickly walked through the house to the lounge and approached the sliding patio doors that opened out to the back yard. There she was. My beautiful, precious Kye. If you had told me beforehand that an animal could look surprised I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, when saw me, she stared at me with her mouth open. Everything seemed to freeze for a few seconds.
Moments later little Lani appeared and I couldn’t believe how much she’d grown! I had missed out on seeing her grow into a ‘teenager’ but she was absolutely beautiful.
I opened the door and the two of them rushed inside. Kye started jumping about, rubbing herself against me, jumping up to lick my face and howling a lovely ‘welcome back’ song. Lani was equally as excited and ran around me in circles yelping and howling. It was an amazing few minutes and if I had any doubts about whether I was doing the right thing taking them away from their home they were banished right then and there.
I remember walking away from those patio doors in the living room when I left for the airport a week later. Kye watched me go and I swear she knew I wasn’t coming back any time soon. It was gut-wrenching to turn away from her.
When I got back to England I bought a pocket sized date book, the kind with with a week across two pages. I calculated all the dates and wrote in it, under every Sunday, how many weeks and how many days there were left until I could go back to Canada one more time and finally bring my girls home. For example, when I went to see Elton John perform a fundraising concert at Watford football ground on Saturday June 18th I knew that it was exactly 141 days until Kye and Lani could legally enter the EU.
The drama wasn’t over yet. On May 27th, a couple of weeks after I arrived back from my trip to Canada, I got a phone call from Mark. He told me that while he was out that day someone had gone into the back yard at the house through the side gate and not shut it properly when they left (there are details but they’re not relevant). When he got home Kye was sitting on the front steps but Lani was nowhere to be found.
The next twenty-four hours were a whirlwind of phone calls, hand-wringing and crying. I had to orchestrate a search from here and fast! Siberian Huskies are often stolen to order in Canada and if she had been stolen, or was found by an opportunist she could be taken off the Island and never seen again. Everything else that could happen to her had to be put to the back of my mind just so I could function.
I made a poster for Mark to take around to as many places as possible. To this day, when I look at this poster, I can remember how it felt knowing I may never see Lani again or know what happened to her. I was sick to my stomach and struggled to keep all the horrifying images of the possibilities out of my head.
My neighbours (dog breeders themselves) went out twice in their truck to search for Lani but came back empty handed.
When night fell in Sooke I spoke with Mark on the phone and he said he couldn’t search any more because it was so dark. I was terrified that she hadn’t been found and now nothing could be done until the next morning. Mark said he’d go out as soon as it was light and start again.
I had to wait until mid-afternoon before I could contact anyone again. My neighbours called me at about 9 pm (11 am there) and asked if there was any news. I said there was none but I didn’t tell them I was losing hope.
There really was nothing I could do. I felt helpless and I didn’t even really know how much was being done to find Lani.
At 10 pm, another phone call from my neigbours. I was standing in the office at my parents’ home when I answered it. She was back!! I literally collapsed to my knees… they just wouldn’t hold me up.
My neighbour said that he happened to look out of his front window a few minutes ago and saw her stroll up the driveway as casually as if she’d just popped out for the papers. He ran out of his front door and scooped the tired, dirty and slightly scratched Lani into his massive arms and made sure she made it back inside the house.
A vet check gave her the all clear. She had a scratch on her nose but it was superficial and otherwise she was fine.
The countdown continued uneventfully. A good thing because I don’t think my heart could have taken much more.
On January 16th, 2006 I flew out to Canada one more time on the mission I’d planned a whole year for. To bring home my girls. I’d ordered crates in sizes recommended by Air Canada and had them delivered to the house in Sooke and bought everything they’d need when they arrived home and arranged it in the hallway in anticipation of their arrival.
The day before I travelled back to England with them there was very nearly another disaster. Kye and Lani’s paperwork had to be examined and signed by a government approved vet, of which there was only one in town and he was due to go on holiday that afternoon. Thankfully, with the help of direct service couriers, everything was sorted out at literally the eleventh hour and we were ready to go.
I repeatedly checked and double checked my bookings for the homeward flight, made sure I had all my receipts and booking confirmations for putting the girls into the cargo hold on the plane and had them all together with my own plane ticket. I was certain nothing else could go wrong but still couldn’t help feeling terrified of something preventing the girls from being allowed on to the plane.
My flight home with Kye and Lani was on January 23rd. When I arrived at the cargo drop-off point I was asked to put the girls into their crates so that the staff there could check them for size and comfort. I was told that my crates were too small and for a minute I panicked. Conveniently, these types of problems are anticipated and I was able to purchase a larger crate for Kye on the spot and move Lani into Kye’s crate. That in turn that meant I had to check the smallest crate in as excess baggage. The staff then decided there weren’t enough air holes in the larger of my two original crates which was now to occupy Lani and I had to be driven across the airport to have some drilled into it by a man who was on site for that purpose. By now I was almost beside myself with worry in case we missed the flight altogether and if it hadn’t been for the incredible patience and kindness of the staff I think I would have worried myself into a fit.
Everything was finally in order and my paperwork was brought out ready for me to sign so that I could release the girls into their care for the journey home.
It was at that point that I was presented with a bill for the princely sum of $3,753.78. I almost fell on the floor! I told the man dealing with me that I’d been very careful to make sure I knew exactly what costs were involved and where and that this bill was a complete shock. He told me the (thousands of dollars worth of) fees I had paid to date were travel fees and not cargo fees. I didn’t understand the difference but it was now 4:40 pm and since all the delays with the crates had left me with 35 minutes to get to my boarding gate on the other side of the airport I didn’t have time to argue. Thank god for Visa, is all I can say about that.
I was allowed through to the back of the cargo area to put Kye and Lani into their crates and say goodbye to them before I raced to the gate for boarding my plane. My heart was pounding but they were uncharacteristically calm and simply laid down when I closed the wire mesh doors once they were inside. It was as if they knew what was happening and were perfectly ok with it.
I watched from seat number 26A on Air Canada flight number AC854 as the cargo vehicle drew up and went just out of sight. I tried hard to see if I could see my huskies’ crates being loaded but my vision was blocked by the wing of the plane. I kept telling myself over and over, “They’re on the plane, Sarah. They’re on the plane”.
Surprisingly the flight went very quickly and it wasn’t long before I was back home and on the phone to check on the status of Kye and Lani. There’s a special number to call if you can’t wait to find out if your pets are alright after they’ve travelled.
I was told that they were both fine and that they had behaved ’like a couple of princesses’ – coincidentally one of Kye’s nicknames is Princess.
I had to wait two hours before I could pick them up, to allow time for them to settle after their flight. I expected it to feel like forever but the time passed quickly and it was soon time to head back to the airport once more.
At 3 pm I arrived at the Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow airport. There was a brief wait in a surprisingly comfortable lounge when their arrival papers were processed and delivered to me while the vet checked the girls over. A tense ten minutes passed and then the door behind the desk finally opened. In true husky style my girls led their handler out and walked towards me and I was overwhelmed as first Kye’s and then Lani’s leashes were placed in my hands.
It was finally all over. I couldn’t believe they were here. Taking them home and letting them out in my own garden was an incredible feeling I’ll never forget as long as I live.
What was the point of all this…?
Kye will be fourteen years old on March 27th, 2010 and while my vet still tells me she has a heart as strong as a two year old’s I am more and more aware of how fragile she’s becoming.
At around midday on November 29th, 2009, she fell over on the wooden floor of my hallway at home and she couldn’t get up. I had to lift her onto her feet and hold her until she stopped shaking and could stand on her own.
It frightened me a lot and I felt the need to write down all the memories I’ve been so careful to collect in my mind. I’ve only just started really by writing what I have so far but I don’t want to forget anything, good or bad, and possibly, maybe I might share it with someone else.
I guess that means you.