Friday, 25 June 2010

For a gentle, loyal friend

This dog only, waited on,
knowing that when light is gone
love remains for shining
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I thought I was doing OK. That was until I came across Junior’s school jotter from last summer. In it was his project on pets. There it was in black and white. “Ellie is my Auntie Sandra’s dog but I see her every day at my Gran and Grandad’s house” “Ellie is so cuddly” “She makes tunnels over my train track with her back legs” “Ellie likes to lick my face when I come home from school” “Ellie is the best dog in the world
I thought I had cried all my tears. Enough to fill a swimming pool. But no, there were more to come. Ellie the Boxer dog. Totally loyal, totally forgiving and always enthusiastic. She died on a Saturday morning. May 29th 2010.
Nothing could have prepared me for that moment or for the emotional devastation that hit me like a violent, black wave. I frightened myself with the noises I made as I cried for her. Not tears like the ones I shed now but great, primal wails that come from somewhere deep inside and threatened to knock me off my feet. I vaguely remember the short drive down to my parents’ house. I was in a complete daze, viewing the road in front of me through a crystal wall of tears. I felt terrified about how I would react when I stepped through their front door only to see the empty chair at the window and the muddy footprints on the laminate floor. How I actually made it from my house to theirs in one piece I will never know. We spent the afternoon as a family - talking, crying, remembering and yet in my grief I felt so alone. I was, after all only ‘Auntie Hazy’. She was not my dog. She was my sister’s dog, shared with my mum and dad. But because of her loving and giving nature she somehow invaded all our hearts. In some ways Ellie transcended ownership (although I am still very aware of how much my sister loved her and I am in no way trying to devalue anyone else’s grief by telling my side of the story).
Junior adored Ellie and saw her every day, never knowing a life without her around. She would have laid her life down for the kids, choosing to sit and watch them play at the park rather than run around with her ball. We called Junior “baby boy” only to Ellie. “Where’s baby boy?” “Go find baby boy!” Of course this was something that stuck because she met my son when he was only two days old. It was love at first sight. In the beginning I would follow her around with the antibacterial gel for those moments when she decided to wash his fuzzy hair with her tongue. And both the kids learned to walk using Ellie as a support. She never once lost her cool, even when they tugged on her stumpy tail. She was like an old Mother hen with them. One of the things that nearly cracked my heart in two when she died was the acknowledgment that my “baby boy” had died with her.
I suppose in some ways I didn’t feel entitled to grief as much as everyone else. After all, I had had all the fun of Ellie without any of the commitment or hard work. It had been my mum and dad who nursed her through the night like a sick child after her eye operation, it had been my sister who had held Ellie as she took her last breath. That moment must have been so hard for her. Despite the fact we all knew it was the right decision I am so grateful it wasn’t me having to make it.

I wasn’t ready to say good bye. None of us were. Ellie was only eight years old. You hear about dogs double that age still going strong. It seemed so unfair.
What troubles me most is not being able to remember the last time I saw her. I have racked my brains, studied the calendar, counted back the days and yet I cannot work it out. There is a gut churning guilt that comes with that. I can remember sitting in my parents’ garden one really hot morning towards the end of May. Everyone else was out so it was just me and Ellie and the birds. She lay at my feet on the cold slabs watching the baby blackbirds feeding. I remember thinking how peaceful it was and how much I loved having Ellie there as a companion. I have convinced myself that was the last day we spent together. I don’t know if it’s just too painful at the moment for my brain to process or whether I am fooling myself into thinking of that moment because it was so lovely. I know if I had had an inkling that those were the last moments with her I would have treasured them more, attached some significance to them, lay down on those slabs beside her and cuddled her until my arms were sore. But we never know what’s coming, do we. Whether that is cruel or kind I am not sure.

I remember the very first moment I set eyes on Ellie. I couldn’t believe anything could be so cute! Happiness is a warm puppy. She used to chase my IKEA slippers and chew on my toes until I yelped with a mixture of pain and laughter. I remember her as this little wriggly thing that could fit easily on my lap. She would slide down into the valley between my legs and fall asleep, her soft, velvet belly exposed for a tickle. I think of her sucking the buttons on my mum’s shirt, chewing the beak on the wooden duck ornament when she was teething. We would say “No, leave!” as strictly as we could and she would stare up through her long lashes and give one defiant yelp that would turn us to mush in an instant. I think about how excited she would get playing the ‘Findy Game’, a pastime which involved hiding a cube of cheese in various parts of the room while Ellie wasn’t looking and then shouting “Go find!” Inevitably she would always return to the last place she had found her cheesy morsel not thinking we could be creative. Perhaps not the brightest crayon in the pencil case but boy, did I love that big lump. It always made me smile when she chased the crows. Blackbirds, starlings, sparrows, seagulls were all accepted in the garden but not the “big, black crows!” Mad as a box of frogs but all the more loveable because of that. It helps to remember how much Ellie was loved, how nice a routine she had and how much she embraced life. She didn’t ask for much and she was always so happy to get what she was given.
Above all else, I think about my morning welcomes. No-one was ever as glad to see me as Ellie Pellie. When I think of her I want to remember her running to meet me, coming at me sideways because she couldn’t control her excitement. She would give me a high five and breath on me with her fishy breath, something which was not for the faint hearted! It’s strange the things you don’t mind when you love something so much.

Even as I write this I find myself realising that this is the first time I have been in my parents’ house, on my own without Ellie. I know it sounds romantic and clich├ęd but her presence is very much here. Sometimes I feel like she is a long way away but other times I genuinely feel like I could reach out and touch her. I can almost hear the clicking of her paws on the wooden floor, the clunk of her name tag on the windowsill as she rests her head down to watch passers-by. When Brian the postie comes my brain tricks me into thinking that there is going to be an explosion of sound and frantic scrambling as she attempts to gain purchase on the slippery floor. Like when one song on an album finishes and you know, without thinking which one is coming next. It’s so quiet without her...
Ellie has left such a gaping hole in all our lives, it’s almost unbearable. Only the memory of her keeps me from falling apart altogether and I know with time those memories will fade. They’ll never go entirely but I wonder if in two, three years I will still remember the feel of her velvet ears and the little bit at the top of her nose where the dust gathered. My grief feels ridiculous, like I shouldn’t be feeling this way about the loss of a dog. People expect this kind of grief to happen to them when they lose a person who is close to them. But a dog? I have analysed why I feel such sorrow, why in the immediate aftermath of Ellie’s death it felt like there was an invisible veil between me and the rest of the world. Ellie was the first living creature in a long time that I had allowed myself to love without holding back. My love for her was undiluted. Her love for me was honest and straightforward. Those are things that are difficult to give and receive in human relationships. We (or at least I) always keep back a little of myself with people in case I get hurt or let down. Knowing Ellie would never do those things meant I could love her freely. The price I have to pay for that is unalloyed grief.

People say “she had such a good life” (yes, the best) “you have wonderful memories” (yes, she brought joy to all our lives) “no dog could have been more loved” (that is for sure!) and yet the words seem empty (although appreciated). I know all these things are true but they are never going to bring back Ellie. And I just want her back!
Someone tried to comfort me recently by saying “Ellie wouldn’t want you to be this upset” and it made me smile to remember the time I staggered in the house last year after breaking my hand in two places. I was sitting on the chair at the back of the room crying and rocking with pain and my mum brought me through a frozen chicken fillet wrapped in a tea towel to reduce the swelling. Ellie came over and placed her head in my lap, looking up at me with her big, searching eyes before looking down at my hand as if she knew why I was upset.
Aw, look at that..” said my mum with watery eyes, “..she’s so intuitive, she hates when anyone is upset
I’m still not sure whether mum was right or whether Ellie just had her eye on the chicken fillet! I like to think she genuinely was concerned about my well being.

Of course, anyone with a pet knows from day one that you will most likely outlive them. At the back of your mind there is always that terror of knowing how awful it is going to be when they are no longer here. There is so much truth in the saying “Fear is a terrible journey. Sorrow is at least an arriving” Thinking about it now I knew that time was slipping away and we were never going to have the time we deserved with Ellie. She slowed down so much in the last year. Sometimes it was an effort for her to look out of the window. She would bring stinky duck over but her eyes were tired and she played half-heartedly. My morning welcomes went from wild circuits of the living room and a hot tongue face-wash to a feeble tail wag. She had so many health problems it’s a wonder we had her as long as we did. My sister had chosen the runt of the litter. No-one else wanted her (thank goodness) and with that ball of fur and cheeky face came a whole host of problems. It felt so unfair having this beautiful, enthusiastic spirit inside a body that ultimately let her down.

Ellie is irreplaceable. But of course so will any other pets we have. You never replace a dog, you just love the next one in a different way. The day we lost Ellie I swore I would never love another animal like that again, such was the pain of losing her. For comfort I Googled pet/grief and I came across this quote by Cleveland Amory.
Unlike some people who have experienced the loss of an animal, I did not believe, even for a moment, that I would never get another. I did know full well that there were just too many animals out there in need of homes for me to take what I have always regarded as the self-indulgent road of saying the heartbreak of the loss of an animal was too much ever to want to go through with it again. To me, such an admission brought up the far more powerful admission that all the wonderful times you had with your animal were not worth the unhappiness at the end
Loving anything means grieving when it dies. Because our love for Ellie was so pure our grief is at times unbearable. But I know now that you cannot have the bizarre happiness a warm wet, tongue on your face brings unless you are prepared for the insufferable sadness that comes when the licking stops. The worst days for me are sunny days. Two days after Ellie died they cut the grass in the field where we used to take her to play. The sun was out in a fluffy blue sky and the breeze was fresh. I couldn’t help but think Ellie would have loved it. A few days later, on a rainy Sunday afternoon we let go of six red balloons (Ellie’s collar was red so it seemed a fitting tribute) and watched as they spiralled up before disappearing into the grey sky. We said goodbye and my heart broke all over again with the unfairness of it. Junior and I tied a red ribbon on the fence which we pass every night on our way home. It’s poignant seeing it flapping in the wind. Only we know why it’s there and it helps us feel close to her. But it’s always sad too, like a mini goodbye every day. I know we must be grateful for our short time with our special dog. Some people never experience the undiluted happiness only a pet can bring and I feel sorry for them.
I am sure there will be other animals in our lives. I look forward to meeting them. But I will never forget our gentle, loyal friend.

For Ellie, who left paw prints on our hearts
1st January 2002 ~ 29th May 2010

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Read it and weep

Everyone knows I like a good read but it’s not often I feel compelled to review a book. I knew I was going to love “Dead Boy Talking” by Linda Strachan for lots of reasons. Firstly I had enjoyed "Spider" so much that I read it without coming up for air. However, Linda Strachan’s second offering of gritty realism is something really special.
To start with there is the stunning front cover and the shocking first line that snares you from the outset - “In 25 minutes I will be dead”. But I really knew I was in trouble when I looked at the clock in the car and realised I was ten minutes late collecting my son from school. I’ve never done that before. "Dead Boy Talking" just sucked me in and before I knew it I was completely engrossed in Josh’s story. I had even shed a tear by page 34. I was still thinking about what I had read well into the evening.
The timing of my picking up this book was particularly poignant. Only last week I was told that a young boy I knew had been stabbed to death outside the school I used to teach at. He was 17. Any death of a young person is heartbreaking but when it’s as needless and violent as that it makes it all the more horrific. With it comes the death of possibility and the ripples that affect the community and the people who knew the victim. Sadly, knife crime is an aspect of youth culture that continues to shock and upset us on a daily basis and one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry. That’s what makes “Dead Boy Talking” such an important book. Not only does it open up dialogue about knife crime and gang culture but it also shows us the devastating consequences that carrying a knife can have on both the victim and the perpetrator (Josh is both which gives the story an interesting and unique angle). Every secondary school pupil should read “Dead Boy Talking”. In fact, come to think of it every teacher and parent should read it too. I wish I had had access to books like this when I was at school and I will certainly be putting this on my son’s bookshelf for him to read when the time is right.
Josh's story is a stark reminder of how flimsy the wall can be between friendship and betrayal, how our actions affect others and how easy it can be to take the wrong path. Just as she managed to achieve with "Spider" Linda Strachan allows us to see the bigger picture, snapshots of the events which have brought Josh to this terrible and hopeless point. She reminds us that nothing is ever as black and white as it seems, that there are reasons people behave the way they do even when their actions are abhorrent. Despite the fact that Josh has made a terrible mistake we still feel sympathy for him. I desperately wanted this book to have a happy ending.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Linda a few times and she doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would have had much experience of knife crime. And yet she manages to capture the emotions, dilemmas and stark choices of teenagers in a way that is authentic and non-patronising. Young people would see straight through any pretence and so it’s great to see there isn’t any in this story. Throughout, Strachan manages to convey a feeling of dread and terror without stepping into unrealistic territory. In fact it is the haunting realism that makes this story so gripping. I was constantly reminded that this could happen to anyone.
The parts of the story where we see Josh lying waiting to die are harrowing, shocking and deeply moving. We are privy to Josh’s thoughts and regrets - “Typical I would only start to understand now it’s too late”. I actually had butterflies in my stomach as the clock ticked down, such was my terror at losing him. 24 minutes…19 minutes…10...3.. The thing that Linda Strachan does so well here is to make it feel like we are standing watching Josh and yet helpless to do anything about it. The mother in me wanted to reach in and scoop him off the ground, to comfort him, help him and ultimately save him. Not being able to do that only added to the heart hammering tension and horror of the story.
"Dead Boy Talking" is not an easy read. There were moments where my stomach clenched so badly I had to put the book down and take a break. I hope that this book takes other people out of their comfort zone too and prompts them to ask important questions and explore the reasons why some young people resort to carrying knives - a deep seated need to belong/"for show and to ward off trouble”. The story of how Josh is dragged into using a knife on his friend is gripping but the most frightening part is how easy it is for him to find himself in the situation. As a mother I was forced to contemplate how my own son might deal with the same pressures and choices both Josh and his friend Ranj faced. Strachan’s characters are always solid and credible. She has a knack of understanding the teenage psyche and tackles the consequences of carrying knives without being sanctimonious or patronising. Although we kind of know how this book is going to end that in no way reduces the value or importance of Josh’s story. As always, Linda Strachan manages to pull in the reader with her masterful writing and some of the most disturbingly precise descriptions I have ever read in a teenage novel. I was completely riveted right up until the heart-wrenchingly poignant finale.
If there’s any justice in the world this book will win Linda Strachan a whole heap of awards as well as a team of devoted fans. My advice? Put aside a day to read this. And don’t forget the tissues.