On the morning of May 17 a brown rabbit bolted from a group of trees and ran across my friend Judith’s foot before disappearing. The dogs were far away in the opposite direction, so it had nothing to do with them. I told her it was the first time I had ever seen a rabbit in almost ten years of living here, although I had seen about everything else, from porcupine to wild boar. Considering the circumstances, I knew it was some kind of sign. Judith and I returned from our walk to find one of my very pregnant alpacas had given birth while we were out. A quivering white woolly creature, all big eyes and endless wobbly legs was struggling to stand, surrounded by five curious alpacas in a scene that appeared almost biblical in its charm and timelessness.
A few hours later we were in Intensive Care at Arezzo hospital, a place I had got to know all too well over the previous 17 days. My husband Alan lay motionless in bed 10, hooked up to iv’s and tubes, so sedated that he didn’t even know we were there. The doctors had already warned me that they had lost the battle and that it was just a matter of time. I told him about the baby alpaca and the rabbit, chatted on about what we had been doing as usual. It was something I’d resolved to do even though he was unresponsive, talk to him as if he could hear and understand. I told him I’d see him later and kissed him goodbye. We drove back in silence, both trying to take in his dramatic deterioration. At home, surrounded by dogs we had a cup of tea, then checked the baby alpaca. The phone rang. It was the hospital asking us to go straight back. I was astounded by my calmness as my worst nightmare unfolded, I didn’t drive too fast, I didn’t cry. We rang the bell of the dramatically named ‘Reanimazione’ ward to be greeted by the motherly doctor who had been so kind to me. She took my hand. ‘I’m so sorry, Signora.’
On the drive home we both noticed one dead magpie lying by the side of the road – ‘one for sorrow.’ In the evening of that unforgettable day I looked up the symbolic meaning of the rabbit. One interpretation was ‘the cycle of life and death’. I had had a feeling, a premonition which I barely wanted to acknowledge, that Alan would die on the day the alpaca was born and it had happened as I thought it would.
The second baby was born the next day, but the gods were determined that I should be tested even further. The mother had a retained placenta, which meant an emergency call to the vet, a life or death intervention. My diva Suri alpaca, the very definition of Miss High Maintenance, was struggling to breathe and in shock from the birth and the proximity of strangers and the inability to move or escape. The vet was very concerned, gave her an injection to help her breathe and stayed on to check that she wasn’t going to die. Fortunately, she didn’t, but I had to give her antibiotic injections for the next five days. The universe was determined I should be immersed in medical stuff for some reason.
And although I never wanted to see syringes, tubes, medicines or anything connected with illness ever again, I knew I had to face yet more. My elderly labrador ZsaZsa was diagnosed with leishmaniasis while Alan was in hospital. The treatment (not cure) is two daily injections of Glucantime for 30 days and three tablets of allopurinol daily for a year. I delayed doing anything while Alan was in Intensive Care, but I started the therapy a week ago, crossing off the days on a chart. I cried my eyes out as I gave her the first injection. ‘I don’t want to do this!’ But then I got a grip and it’s getting easier. It’s too early to say if it’s working or not, but I will keep you posted.
It has been a testing time and I’m not sure what it all means. But one thing I am sure about, despite the traumas and the dramas, I couldn’t have got through this without my animals. My friends – particularly the wonderful Judith – and my family were there at the end, but the animals were there from the beginning, when I was on my own. They alpacas listened gently as I raged and screamed at the unfairness and the horror of it all, the dogs licked my tears away after yet another desperate visit to the hospital, tails wagging as they struggled to understand why they were being left alone for hours and why I was now sitting crying on the floor. They are what kept me going and they are keeping me going now.