This week, the Mail’s revealed astonishing stories of near-death experiences. But best-selling novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford may have the strangest of all.
Published in the Daily Mail, UK, Friday, January 31, 2014
Next month I will sit down at my familiar desk, dust off my trusted IBM typewriter and begin the manuscript of what will eventually become my 30th novel. The characters are already formed in my head, and the plot has been swirling around my mind for months.
But perhaps I will pause, imperceptibly, before I type my opening words. Because for the past 17-and-a-half years, the sound of the key hitting the paper has been the signal for my beloved dog Chammi to take her place beneath my desk.
Here, my most faithful of companions would wait in quiet contentment, looking at me knowingly as if to say: ‘There’s work to be done. Let’s get started.’
Chammi, whom I named after my favourite drink, champagne, rarely left my side. She preferred to sit on her duvet in her dog bed listening to her favourite sound — the tapping of the typewriter keys.
After a day hard at work, however, evenings were always for play. And there was one game above all others that would entertain my darling Chammi, and that was a good round of chase.
The long corridor of our Manhattan apartment provided the perfect setting for what became a much-loved ritual for us both. Every evening, Chammi would let out a squeal of delight as I moved to leave my office. I would chase after her as she bolted ahead of me, before she finally allowed me to scoop her up and hug her close.
Occasionally, I would hide in an adjoining room to surprise her as she capered up the corridor – I would crouch down behind some furniture to see a black nose and large expressive dark eyes enter, searching for my face.
But we will never play those games again, never work together on a book, nor enjoy in unspoken delight our unwinding at the end of the evening.
Because Chammi is dead. On her last night – the only time she had ever been unwell — she wandered up and down the long corridor where we often played, searching for me in vain.
It was as if she knew that death was calling for her, and that she had to see me and my husband Bob one last time.
And thanks to a series of strange and unanswerable coincidences, we were able to race home 2,500 miles from Los Angeles to New York to be with her for the precious final 30 minutes of her life.
I still wonder how I knew to cancel a hair appointment and pack our bags instead. What instinct drove me to change our flight and end our trip a day early – for, as it turned out to be, Chammi’s last moments?
Chammi was the third dog we’ve owned. All our dogs have been Bichon Frises, but we didn’t choose this pretty sweet-faced puppy. Our other dog, Beaji, chose her. What a wise choice it turned out to be.
Beaji joined us in 1997, four years after the death of our first Bichon Frise, Gemmy. Beaji was lively, bouncy and filled with fun. We’d had her for several months when the vet suggested she might benefit from having a companion.
So we went back to the breeder we’d used in the past, taking Beaji with us. We decided that if this new puppy was going to become Beaji’s companion, it was up to her to choose the newcomer, not us.
The litter that awaited us shared the same champion grandfather, so the new puppy was to be Beaji’s cousin. We placed Beaji in the midst of the swarm of pooches, stood back and watched. Puppies gambolled and played among themselves, ignoring her.
But one rather timid little dog, which looked rather like a drowned rat, walked gingerly over to greet Beaji. They sniffed each other, and the quivering puppy hurried away, with a delighted Beaji giving chase.
The choice had been made, and all that remained was the chance for the two to bond. We were going away for three weeks, so the breeder kept Beaji with the new dog, whom we called Chammi.
When we returned, we found they had bonded. A lifelong friendship had formed, and their contrasting personalities complemented each other perfectly.
Where Beaji was outgoing, energetic, friendly and greedy in equal measure, Chammi was the canine equivalent of Greta Garbo. She was terribly shy, hiding from other dogs on her walks. So private was she that she couldn’t even bear to ‘do her business’ in public.
Darling Chammi had a strict routine, too. As well as our nightly chase up and down the corridor, she would eat once a day, like clockwork, at 5pm.
Lord only knows how she knew just when the clock reached five every evening, but she did. She would sit in the kitchen and wait patiently for her favourite cooked chicken and carrots to be served.
Bob and I never managed to have children after I sadly suffered two miscarriages in the early days of our marriage. Despite this, I don’t believe our dogs were child substitutes. But they certainly were our dearest companions. Their devotion and care for each other never failed to amaze us.
As Beaji started to suffer from ill health and diabetes, Chammi developed an extraordinary, telepathic bond with her canine roommate.
When Beaji was kept in by the vet overnight for treatment, Chammi always knew instinctively when we were going to fetch her. She would shake with excitement until we took a cab to pick up Beaji. Then she would sit, looking out of the car window, with a bright smile that was almost human.
In the vet’s office, she would sit in the waiting room until Beaji was led in by a nurse. Chammi would race over, desperate to nuzzle her Beaji. Seeing the two of them together showed me that true love does not restrict itself to humans.
But their precious time together was running out. Beaji’s health declined, and a few days short of her 15th birthday, she was taken to the animal hospital. When we realised she was going to leave us, we bought Chammi in to say goodbye.
You might think this was a step too far. But while Beaji was in hospital, poor Chammi had been wandering around our apartment, searching helplessly for her friend. Seeing her so restless and lonely, I remembered that someone had once told me that dogs need to smell ‘death’ to accept the loss of a loved one.
And so we took Chammi to see her darling Beaji. She licked her, nuzzled her and we took her home. Beaji died the next day, put to sleep in our arms.
But, back at home, the strangest thing happened. My bright, sensitive Chammi never searched the rooms again for her companion. It was if she had accepted and found closure from that last farewell.
It was Chammi who comforted me over the next difficult months, but she also grieved. One occasion sticks out, when Bob and I took her away to stay with friends.
When we arrived, Chammi and I went to rest in the bedroom. And when I shut the door to our room, I saw the back of the door was covered from top to bottom with a framed mirror. Chammi glanced up and saw what she must have thought was a window, with Beaji’s face staring back at her.
In her delight, she ran forward and smashed into the mirror. She fell back stunned, and I opened the door. Chammi ran on to the landing, searching desperately for her lost friend. Her look of bewilderment and loss when she realised Beaji wasn’t there will stay with me for ever.
Together we got over the loss of Beaji, and by the time Chammi was 17 – around 122 in human years – we’d re-established our old rhythm, her by my feet as I tapped away.
Then came that fateful trip to Los Angeles. We gave Chammi a hug goodbye and left her in the devoted care of our house manager, Mohamed, who lives in whenever we go away.
Then, halfway through the week, I decided to fly home earlier. Was it a sixth sense? I will never know.
The night before we left, we went to dinner. When we arrived back at the hotel, the message light was flashing on the phone in our room. The voice message left me cold.
It was Mohamed, saying poor Chammi was staggering around the apartment making high-pitched screaming noises. He thought she might have gone blind.
Then he called from the animal hospital. Chammi was sedated but the vets believed she had a brain tumour and had suffered a seizure.
Bob and I hardly slept that night. All I could think of was Chammi on her own for the first time in her life, wondering if we would get back in time.
When we arrived at the hospital, Chammi was in a cage, lying away from us and hooked up to a drip, but when I put my hand into the cage and stroked her head, she turned her little face to me. She managed to turn her body, and licked my hand. I kissed her little dark nose and Bob did the same, and she wagged her tail with happiness.
Thinking she was going home, she tried to get up, but her legs failed her and she started to yelp.
The vet came to sedate her, and we went outside to talk. An MRI scan had confirmed a brain tumour, and Bob and I were unanimous in our decision.
We couldn’t keep our beloved Chammi alive for our own selfish sakes. Much as we loved her, we had to let her go. It was our final gift to our dearest little friend.
We had 30 minutes with Chammi first, holding her in our arms, kissing her and telling her we loved her, and we were with her. ‘You are going to join Beaji now,’ I whispered.
Then, the vet gave her an injection and those beautiful, bright, loving eyes closed for the final time.
Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, but that’s exactly what Chammi did – she slipped gently away.
Somehow, I managed not to cry. I hadn’t wanted her to be scared or upset by my tears. It was only when we stepped outside that I wept. Bob and I clung together.
We went back to our apartment and saw her toys sitting on the sofa and her little bed underneath my desk. The corridor where Chammi had loved to play chase seemed to echo in her absence.
But I couldn’t have let her live and seen her suffer. She had just one night of ill health — and a lifetime of love.
As much as we loved all three of our dogs, we won’t try to replace them now. Each time we’ve had to say goodbye, the hurt has been like a physical pain.
In a way, Chammi almost chose the right time to go. I had just finished my novel Cavendon Hall – and Chammi always knew when a book was finished. Perhaps somehow my dear old friend and writing companion realised that her work was finally done.