Thank you for being the dog that changed everything
You left me two months ago. I’d known for at least a year and a half that the day would come. Every dog owner has that day coming, I suppose, but when you were diagnosed with lymphoma, the ticking of the clock became louder.
I can’t imagine how life will be without you. For 11 years, it was just you and me. I believed every best-case scenario the oncologist laid out, but the truth is that you were already 12 years old. Even without the cancer, we were on borrowed time.
We met on 6 October 2006, at around 10 pm. Carol, the lady from the rescue charity Pro Dogs Direct, brought you to my door. I was to be your fosterer – I wanted a pooch of my own but was set on a Westie.
It had been raining, and you were broken: head down, tail down, no wits left, a little ginger creature, maybe three or four years old. You were unusual-looking but beautiful, so shy and skinny, with glossy fur. Your eyes were dark brown, almond-shaped and black-rimmed. Your ears and paws were a size up, as if your mum had thought you’d grow into them. For the first few days, you would sit up straight and look at me, scared. But then I taught you how to demand food, and that it’s OK to jump on the bed.
Over the coming days, my stomach turned whenever Carol telephoned. Was someone interested in adopting you? One couple was, and we went to meet them. But after our visit, they called Carol to say: “We think Pippa should stay with Nina.” I signed the adoption paper to promise that we’d be together forever.
I soon realised that your appearance was quite at odds with your tomboy antics and cheeky sense of humour. A football hooligan with a strict “no PDA” rule, you could be a total cow. Like dog, like owner. You would steal food – once, you helped yourself to a ham waffle from a table, right in front of an entire Christmas party. You would jump into the Regent’s Canal as soon as you had a big enough audience. You would play in the mud puddle on Hampstead Heath until you had a mud mask up to your ears (a great look for the commute home). You took on an Akita twice your size who’d dared to touch your ball. You swallowed a Snickers bar whole, complete with wrapper, and promptly threw it up. When I broke my wrist while playing football with you, you found that your human was malfunctioning and took the ball to the ambulance driver. When my friend lost you on a walk, it turned out you’d taken yourself off to a very nice wine shop. When we left you in a hotel room while we had lunch in the restaurant, you climbed out of the window, walked right past your beloved human and headed straight for the kitchen. That was one of the many trips we took with your best friend Pearl, with whom you would be even cheekier. The two of you were the sweetest – eating treats in synchronised positions and sleeping bum to bum. With every story, I fell more in love with you.
You taught me so much: to appreciate the beauty of lamp posts; that mud is one of the greatest gifts on earth; that dog hair sticks forever; that it’s OK to be open about what you love – in fact, that you have to be open about it, otherwise you may not get it. With you by my side, it was so easy to meet new people. I’d talk to pretty much anyone in the park while throwing your ball or, later, when you found it difficult to walk while taking you out in your special cart. Whether it was chatting to the local drug dealer about weed-salad recipes or casually checking the left hand of the cute Labrador owner for a wedding ring as he tied a poo bag, I learned that not everyone is as unhinged as the people my mother had chosen to marry. Most people just want to earn a living, have a life, be good and feel they are loved. I learned that because of you.
We were so much “we” that people mixed up our names (“Pippa has just taken Nina for a pee in the park”). If you’d been a person, you’d have been my best friend: someone to crash parties with and be the first to jump in the pool; stay in on a Saturday night, knowing we’d already been to all the best parties; decide to go camping by the sea but then check into a comfy hotel; sit in the dunes to watch the sunset and lean on each other on the way home, tired from another glorious day of doing nothing. I could always rely on you to be there, make me smile, fall asleep snuggled against my leg.
We had our things, our rituals. My favourite was our autumn walks on the Heath. On Sunday mornings we’d head to the Tube, you pulling me towards the entrance. Once we got to that rugged park and I’d unclipped your leash, you’d bunny-hop towards your favourite swimming pond, before running back and jumping on me as if to say: “Come on, the pond is open!” Then, with wet fur, you’d clamber into that famous mud puddle and spin around like – frankly – a complete muppet. You often drew an audience of people admiring the pure joy of it. On the way home, we’d get a takeaway from the Sausage & Mash café: a regular portion for me, a children’s one for you. We would eat it later, at home, after you’d had your shower. Then we’d lie on the sofa, you all wet on top of me, and a blanket over both of us to warm you up. With your gravy-daubed nose and whiskers the only things sticking out from under the blanket, your body melted over mine, it was the happiest I could ever be.
I don’t know when you got old. Much like a couple who can’t recall when they stopped saying “I love you” before falling asleep, I can’t remember when we stopped taking a ball to the park, or when our Heath walks became a problem. All I know is that for the past year and a half I’ve had three vets on speed dial. It wasn’t just the lymphoma – you also had Cushing’s disease, allergies, arthritis and glaucoma, the latter causing you to lose an eye before Christmas 2015. Our vet found your enlarged lymph node when he was checking your remaining eye three months later. I didn’t know how to take the news. Thankfully, it was “only” low-grade lymphoma. We were given a year.
But then, not quite a year later, your neck and chin began swelling at a visible rate. One morning you looked as if a hundred bees had stung you. The lymphoma had gone high-grade. When I couldn’t speak to our oncologist immediately, I felt so helpless that I literally banged my head against a tree. The eight months that followed were hell. Since lymphoma can make glaucoma worse – and since losing your other eye was not an option – I put drops in your eye 10 times a day. I had chemotherapy drugs in my fridge and rubber gloves for handling them. Each day, I was constantly reminded that we didn’t have much time left.
Our oncologist worked out a treatment plan that would give you one last summer. I bought the red cart to take you to the places you liked, rather than leave you to rot at home. The heavy chemotherapy provided good results, but at the end of August, we had lost the fight. It was a matter of days, maybe weeks. I took you to the Heath for one last paddle, Camber Sands for a noseful of sea air, the local dog show to scoop the prize for Best Oldie. We saw your friends, and you had a steak every day. Sometimes two. Your road trip to the rainbow bridge, as animal people call it, was peaceful. There was no hope left, and no panic; we just lived day by day.
When David the vet and the lovely nurse came to our house, you knew why. We didn’t have to bribe you with treats to get the catheter in. You had your last steak and afterwards, you were out of puff – the lymph nodes must have been pressing on your throat, so it was a choice of eating or breathing, and that’s not life. When David injected the drug into your vein, you were in your bed by the window, under your red blanket, with steak on your last breath. I held your head and told you how much I loved you. It didn’t take a second. I gave you your favourite toy and a few treats for the journey. On 28 September 2017, just before 1 pm, the “forever” of the adoption paper was over.
Six o’clock in the morning is always when I miss you most. You used to wake me up at this ungodly hour to demand breakfast. I’d feed you, make myself a coffee and then we’d go back to bed. At 6 pm, your dinnertime set a break in my working day. Sometimes I would have a glass of wine and talk at you while you scoffed and slurped. I still have a recording of you drinking – how could anyone make such a happy sound? But six o’clock no longer means anything, because you are no longer there.