My grandmother used to tell me a possibly apocryphal tale of my return home from the hospital as a newborn. Apparently, my mum placed me on the bed and nipped out of the room to get something, but on her return moments later I had vanished. Panic ensued until I was found down the side of the bed with the newly acquired boisterous Rottweiler puppy, happy as a clam. So began my love of dogs, or so the story I like to believe goes!
The Rottweiler puppy, Heidi, grew into a strong and fearsome beast whose lead would be attached to my pram to help my mum haul me up the steep hills of our Kent home. Heidi would also guard me in the days when it was still normal for mothers to leave their babies outside the high street butcher or baker. When Heidi eventually succumbed to cancer, another Rottweiler, Tilly, came to live with us. Tilly truly was a queen amongst dogs. We children were able to wrestle with her while she only ever moaned gently in mild protest. She was the softest, sweetest creature you could ever meet but try to enter our home uninvited and she took on the appearance of a hell hound! All it took was “it’s ok, Tilly” as any of the family opened the door and she would return to complete docility. Tilly absolutely hated thunder and during storms would be found trying to cram her bulk into the back of wardrobes.
By this time we were living on the edge of a windswept moor in Yorkshire and black clouds were gathering in the form of my mum’s breast cancer. During the course of my mum’s five year long illness Tilly’s black furred neck absorbed buckets of my tears. I clung to her and she pushed her strong body back against mine to let me know she was always there for me. When my mum died, a confused Tilly’s basket was often surreptitiously moved into my bedroom and when my dad was away with work we would be virtually glued to one another.
I went away to university completely unmoored by mum’s illness and death. I was like a tiny boat tossed around on a wild sea and would remain so for many years. While I was away Tilly became gravely ill and my dad had to do her the kindness of ending her suffering from bone cancer. At this stage of my life I had effectively stopped myself from feeling anything, as a defense mechanism, so I can’t actually tell you how I felt. Feelings were far too painful to allow. In a decision characteristic of the stupidity of many I made around this time I allowed myself to be persuaded to seek comfort in the form of a tiny abandoned brindle Staffy pup that I was to call Pickle. I let myself love her but I should never have taken her on as my life wasn’t set up to give a dog the care and attention it needs. I came to London to find work and secreted poor Pickle in my rented home, unknown to my landlord. It broke my heart to have to leave Pickle at home while I worked, as Staffies are very needy dogs who don’t do well in their own company for extended periods. Her reproachful eyes when I returned home filled my already guilt filled soul to overflowing. Eventually I split with my boyfriend of the time and Pickle had to be rehomed. She went to live with a family who ensured she was never alone, but for years after I would have constant nightmares where I had to try to save her from peril. I resolved that I would have to wait until the time was right to get a dog.
Many years passed as I spent my 20s and 30s living a wild London life and finally getting the mental help I had needed for so long to deal with my mother’s illness and death. Then I met Tim. They say things happen when you are finally ready for them and when I met Tim that was certainly true. Years of damaging relationships finally gave way to real love and care. One of our favourite pastimes became weekend walks in Greenwich Park “stalking” dogs we loved. I see couples doing this now and am frequently approached by them, so now realise this wasn’t as nuts as it felt at the time! We married quickly and hoped to start a family. However, it was not to be. Within months of our wedding we discovered that I could not have children. The sudden and hopeless diagnosis was shocking and my heart was broken. The discovery of my infertility also coincided with things going very wrong at work. In the end I accepted redundancy and left. At the time we were living in a rented house and Tim, being the loving man that he is, was immediately on the phone to our landlords begging them to let us have a dog. A cat was deemed acceptable but Tim asked whether a dog as small as a cat would be ok and this is how we ended up falling in love with miniature dachshunds.
Searching for a puppy was the beginning of my putting my broken heart back together. In short order I found someone who had a little girl puppy dachshund and I went up to be interviewed by the breeder (exactly as it should be!) to check I could provide a good home. Luckily I passed the test! In February 2010, just after my 39th birthday, Nutkin came to live with us. She was a thing of utter beauty and I fell head over heels in love with her. Here, at last, was something I could love totally unconditionally. We became inseparable. A year later our little family grew as we brought a second dachshund puppy, Snake, into our lives. We felt like a slightly odd, but very real, little family. We were healing after all the pain.
I should have known it was all too good to be true. We were too happy. Life was good. Nutkin was such a character. Greedy and lazy, she loved to be held in my arms and would stay there quite contentedly for as long as I could hold her. Her warm, slightly rounded body filled the space where a child should have been and she was just fine with that. A few weeks ago I had a little chat with Nutkin about how she had to promise me to live to a ripe old age. I wanted to see her face go grey and for her to finally, painlessly succumb to old age many years from now. This wasn’t to be.
A week and a half ago Nutkin tripped on the stairs and had a fall. She seem a little shocked but fine physically immediately afterwards. But when I came home from shopping later on she was subdued and not herself. I took her straight to our local vets who said she was probably just bruised. Oh, if only I knew then what I know now. It haunts me, tortures me, but I wanted to believe the vet. Why didn’t I insist on a referral to a specialist there and then? But I didn’t. I wanted to believe she was ok.
In the evening Nutkin seemed fine. She was walking ok, ate her dinner hungrily and snoozed in her sleeping bag as normal. However, when we were woken by the alarm the next morning Nutkin didn’t leap up to attack our faces to demand her breakfast as she usually would. Her back legs were completely useless and she couldn’t stand. My insides turned to ice and I rushed her straight to the vet. He examined her and immediately referred us to Fitzpatrick Referrals, aka channel 4’s Supervet. By the time we got Nutkin to Fitzpatrick’s, which is over an hour’s drive round the M25 from our South East London home, she had lost any sensation in her back end. Colin the vet, told us that she had a burst disc and it was pressing on her spinal cord. Surgery at this stage would give her a 50/50 chance of being able to recover enough to walk again. It was a no brainer. Just do it. I’d have sold a kidney to pay for it if we hadn’t had insurance. Not operating because of expense was as inconceivable to us as it would be if it was your child. She is, was, our child.
After surgery Colin called me to let me know that she had come through it ok and her spinal cord looked healthy. That said, because she had lost all sensation in her body below the burst disc she would need to stay at Fitzpatrick’s for a couple of weeks to see if she stood a chance of the spinal cord recovering from the compression and Nutkin being able to walk, or at least go to the toilet by herself. In the first few days after surgery there was not much change but she seemed to be recovering well from the operation. Seeing her was heart breaking as she didn’t understand a thing of what was happening to her. We had to face the fact that she might never walk again and may, in fact, always be incontinent. This was scary but I told myself that, if a vet nurse can learn how to express a dog’s bladder, I could too. I researched other dogs with paralysis and saw how happy they were. All that mattered was giving her as happy a life as we could. I could do it. When I got the news that Nutkin had recovered an inch more feeling down her back I was overjoyed. Any progress was a brilliant, brilliant thing.
Then on Friday morning I got the phone call. I have always hated phones. My reluctance to answer phones frustrates my husband immensely. But when my mum was ill every ringing phone seemed to bring more terrible and terrifying news. So it was on Friday. Colin said he had examined Nutkin that morning and, after how pleased he had been with her progress the previous day, she seemed suddenly worse. There is a very rare condition called myelomalacia where the spinal cord starts to die after injury. It’s excruciatingly painful and results in death within a few days. We had three choices: an MRI scan, wait and see or euthanasia. The world stopped. I stopped breathing. We gave the go ahead for the scan and waited for a return call. Two hours later the call came that was to break my heart into smithereens. My dearest, darling baby girl, my love, my life, was dying of myelomalacia and there was only one choice left, to end her pain.
So she’s gone and I am broken. Tim is broken. Snake is alone for the first time in his life. I am no stranger to grief and grief this is. As real as any I felt for my mum or the children I will never have. I feel like I am walking around with my chest cut open. I don’t know how I will cope. She’s everywhere and nowhere. My arms are achingly empty. But cope I will because that’s what we do. I’m sure this piece feels like it ends abruptly but that’s exactly how I feel right now. A sudden stop. An unwanted end.
I wrote this to try to help myself a tiny bit by expressing my grief and to try to explain to those whose first instinct is to think “it’s only a dog” why, for me, such a statement is a nonsense. Dogs are my life as people are my life. My love for them is no less real, no less important. Nutkin saved me in a way no human being ever could. She helped me put my shattered heart back together. Now I have to try to do so again.