Our schnauzer will always be waiting to greet my father on the tennis court again | Natasha May

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Schnauzers are not like golden retrievers – they do not court the attention of strangers.

Our schnauzer saves her enthusiasm exclusively for family members. When Laska greets us, she will almost faint from the exertion. Her love finds a physical manifestation as she squeals and bounds and wags her tail frantically.

Her devotion comes with serious separation anxiety, which means she goes with us anywhere, including tennis in Kingsford on Tuesday nights.

She is used to the tennis courts. She knows within the fenced synthetic grass the balls are not for her. Her triangular form sits on the sidelines like a small silky-black umpire watching the game.

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I am still learning to keep my eyes on the ball. But half an hour into the hit, in my peripheral vision I see that new people have come onto the neighbouring court to ours and Laska is bounding towards them.

I hardly see who these people are, only the black blur of Laska’s ecstatic leaps.

It’s unusual because Laska only acts that way greeting family. The exception being when she mistakes someone for a member of our family. This actually happens quite often and we are always able to tell who she thinks it is because there is usually a pretty decent resemblance.

When I was in high school, she would often run up to girls who went to my school, wearing the same uniform, with brown hair and a similar stature.

When the point is over, I turn my gaze to the next court and I know immediately who she thinks it is.

His hair is the exact same shade my father’s was – a silvery hue with a gradient, which is darkest at the cranium and becomes almost white by the time it touches the hair line.

There is a pang in my heart when I see him. Both Laska and I have had the same recognition, but where her tail is wagging with joy, my chest is heavy with the kind of pain that is now familiar to me whenever something reminds me of him unexpectedly.

The first time I felt it was seeing his walker in the hallway of our home the day after he passed.

Laska’s sense of excitement is often proportional to the time it’s been since she’s last seen the family member she is greeting. Tonight is almost spot on a year-and-a-half.

Laska was a great nurse throughout his illness, but especially in the last week of his life as he became bedbound. She sat the whole time cosied up against the bed’s base.

Laska, 2022, age nine
Laska, 2022, age nine Photograph: Natasha May/The Guardian

She was in the room when he passed, for the hours afterwards and when the crematorium came and put his body in a plastic bag.

I look again at the man Laska has mistaken for my father. He seems quite chuffed at this dog’s enthusiasm for him alone among his three other companions.

As he starts to play tennis with them, I see he has a mean serve and a muscular physique for his age.

It’s been years since I saw my own father able to run on a tennis court. Vascular dementia was a slow decline that took away his muscle memory, and his muscle, gradually.

My mother, sister and I often continued to bring him on to the court when we played, even though he was unable to. For the most part, like Laska, he understood the game wasn’t for him.

But his last summer, an unexpected enthusiasm for wanting to participate in the game came over him. Having a hit with a racket would have been asking for a fall so we stood about three metres apart and I threw the ball gently to him. With ungainly hands he caught it, probably as I had as a toddler when the roles were reversed.

I remember the anecdote about the dog waiting at the train station for its master long after he passed.

Not registering my father’s death, Laska is able to maintain a perpetual hope she’ll one day see him walk onto the tennis court. The hard thing about being human is knowing some encounters will never happen again.

  • Natasha May is live blogger and reporter for Guardian Australia, having previously worked as the first reporter for the rural network. Twitter: @natasha__may

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