I never can say goodbye: RIP Woody

Last week was a bit of a flat-liner for me; life consisted of patchy nights and weary bleary days of fog-brain and fatigue. By the end of my working week on Thursday I felt desiccated in mind and body and was ready to hang up my tools. As I was wolfing down some pasta (gluten-free, of course) before choir practice that evening, a text came in from my friend Nick. And it was bad news: the eldest of his two Border Collies, Woody, had been diagnosed with internal bleeding and tumours. The vet was due to go to their house that night to release him from his old age infirmity – he was thirteen and a half.

Tears welled up and dropped into my dinner. I felt the grief as sharply as if it were my dog, Bertie. That all-familiar sense of absence and loss. Beautiful Woody, who, although increasingly arthritic as he aged, still embodied so much joy, innocence and playfulness whether luxuriating in puddles or hanging out with his ‘bitser’ girlfriend Minnie, a dog about a tenth of his size. Woody had the biggest heart – he’d rush across the park to greet me with great whooping barks and then he’d dance around and make a fuss of me. He made me feel special – I used to joke with Nick that if I found a man as devoted as Woody, I’d be doing well.

On arrival at choir, I felt dizzy and spaced out and, when a fellow chorister, Steve, who also writes grants for a living, mentioned a particular grant round, I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. And that was it: the floodgates were unleashed, this time in great wracking sobs. My speech somewhat incoherent, I tried to explain how the news about dear Woody had tapped into a seam of grief. And I was so sad I hadn’t had chance to say goodbye – particularly as I hadn’t seen Woody for several months.

We’re not very good at goodbyes in our family and I am no exception.  There have always been so many comings and goings; by the time I was fifteen, I had lived in nine houses and been to eight different schools with a spell at boarding school. You could argue that all the chopping and changing of friends and places might have made us more practised in the art of efficient, painless farewells, but the opposite seems to have been the case.

Even when I make a conscious decision to leave something or somewhere that no longer serves me or gives me joy, it can create emotional upheaval. Reading recently that Frances Lincoln Ltd, a publishing company where I worked from 1988-1995, had been sold to the Quarto group, brought back a flood of memories. Started by Frances in 1977 it was the publishing house for quality gardening and illustrated books; the attention to detail was extraordinary. I realise now what a privilege it was to work there. And it was fun; trips to book fairs in Bologna and Frankfurt and to publishing houses in Europe and America. As the article notes –  there was a huge overseas market back then for books on Gloucestershire ladies’ gardens. I loved my job but was feeling a bit burned out when I left after seven years. I jumped off with no job to go to and, instead, took off to on my travels – mainly to Australia. It was a bold move back then when the concept of the adult gap year was still in its infancy.

I was given the most lavish and warm-hearted send-off – and a hand-made card designed like one of the titles on the children’s list complete with the most cleverly-worded blurb full of in-jokes and references. Although I was excited about pastures new, I cried almost non-stop the day after my leaving party, reflecting on the friendships I had formed and the many shared experiences – all those publication deadlines, conferences and overseas trips were deeply bonding. My colleagues had become part of my family. Grief can strike at your very core even when you have chosen to move on.

And that’s why farewelling an animal friend, one that has shared our life day and night over several years is so extraordinarily painful. Because we can’t intellectualise, verbalise or rationalise with our animal friends – as we might prepare for the end, say, with an elderly relative – it requires us to be present emotionally and to communicate with our senses and heart fully engaged. Maybe that’s why even the toughest and most pragmatic of people crumple when their dogs depart this life.

When I first moved to Australia, I bonded with my brother’s Blue Roan Cocker Spaniel Mudgee. Looking back, she helped me get through those first few difficult few months. She was a loving presence offering unconditional love and support. When she died, I cried on and off for weeks, great noisy sobs that shook my whole body.

A love-in with Mudgee

But there is a silver lining to this tale. After choir on Thursday I got another text from Nick to say that the vet had failed to show up and that he would bring Woody for a final sniff round Dendy Park on Friday morning.  A bit like a person with a terminal illness might rally before they finally succumb, Woody had a spring in his step, was barking and loving all the attention as his tearful human friends gathered to say goodbye. And I am happy to report that Woody got to enjoy one more weekend on earth and swam in the sea on Saturday.

I feel so blessed to share my life with a canine companion. Woody’s departure (last night) reminds me to cherish Bertie all the more. If it weren’t for him, I would never have net Nick, his wife Saabi and their dogs (Woody leaves behind Jessie and Belle).  Even writing this post is wringing the emotion out of me.

This blog is dedicated to Woody and to all my canine friends past and present. Their gift to us silly humans who make such a mess of so many things with our supposed superior intellect and powers of reasoning is their unfailing and constant loyalty, devotion and love.  They stand by us through thick and thin; they don’t say one thing and mean another, harbour grudges, judge, change their tune, blow hot and cold,  play games (unless it’s ball-chasing) or leave us guessing. Theirs is the language of unadulterated love. They just are.  Which is why it’s so very heart-breaking when they go. RIP dear, dear Woody. You will be greatly missed.

A meeting of hearts

“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller

I aim to live as much from my heart – feeling my way through life – as from my (very busy) head . But, inevitably, living in such a mind-dominant world, my head often wins out. And I’m definitely with the Ancient Greeks who thought that the heart was the seat of intelligence and organ closest to the soul. On a physical level, our hearts are one of the most important organs in the body beating approximately 72 times per minute moving blood, oxygen, nutrients and waste materials in and out of our cells. But how many of us take our hearts for granted? I know I do.

So you can imagine how humbling it was to meet a young boy not yet six years old, let’s call him Tom, who recently had a heart transplant at the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital. Tom was born with what’s known as a TGA heart, TGA meaning transposition of the great arteries. In other words the right side of his heart was doing what the left side should have been doing and vice versa.

This brave little heart warrior (that’s what HeartKids call children with congenital heart defects) underwent major open heart surgery just a few weeks after being born. His young life has been filled with trips to doctors, specialists and hospitals in a constant round of check-ups, cardiographs, echocardiograms, radiography and blood tests. By 2013 he had undergone four lots of surgery, the last one to replace a smaller pacemaker with a larger one.

But earlier this year his heart was showing signs of failure and Tom and his family moved into Ronald McDonald House in Melbourne to wait for a donor heart to come up. I am happy to report that a heart did become available and the operation was successful. Tom has now had two clear biopsies and might soon be able to go home and start school.

I met Tom’s grandmother, Susie, when visiting mutual friends at the end of last year. So when she called and asked to come and stay for a few weeks during Tom’s recovery phase I was only too happy to help out. In fact, she was my first post-renovation guest and so my small but perfectly formed spare bathroom came into play. And, this last weekend Susie brought Tom to stay for a night. It was a short visit – and Bertie dog had to go for a sleepover with his cousin, my brother’s dog, Rocky – but one I will treasure for a long time.

I had seen pictures of Tom before his operation and he looked frail, pale and delicate. So how wonderful it was to see a strong young boy now weighing about eight more kilos and bursting with strength and energy. This little man is a solid mass of muscle and, I kid you not, could easily wrestle me to the ground. Not that we put it to the test.

Instead we got straight down to the important things in life and played games and ordered fish and chips for dinner. My mother laughed at me when I shipped over some of my childhood books and games from England: “What will you do with them?” she asked. “They’re for when little people come to visit, of course,” I replied rather impatiently. Tom loved my game Mousie-Mousie (vintage 1960s) even if half the counters were missing, the mice now have rather twisted tails and we made up the rules. Tom had his own games too, all packed in his Thomas the Tank Engine suitcase along with this Spiderman PJs, and so we played Snakes and Ladders and Monkeys before nipping out to the fish shop.

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Before breakfast the next morning, I read to Tom and reconnected to some of the wonderful books published by Frances Lincoln Ltd, in London where I worked back in the 90s. Animal Parade is wonderful read-aloud animal alphabet book and The Leopard’s Drum, a stunningly illustrated African creation story.
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Tom tucked into a cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs and mushrooms and was as bright as a button. He kept up a steady stream of questions – how old was I? (THAT old, he questioned, adding a nine for good measure), where did I work? (home? Why didn’t I work at Woollies? I think he must have been chatting to my family who don’t think freelance writing is a proper job!) and when would he see me again? Tom and his family had travelled to Melbourne from out of state, so it may be a while before I get to play Snakes and Ladders with him again.

He gave me a big kiss and a hug when he said goodbye and when I went back into my house, I shed a little tear (well quite big actually) for all that he’s gone through, for all that he is and for all that is growing up to be; a fabulous and spirited little boy.