For the Love of a Dog

A friend of mine lost her beloved dog yesterday.

“Why are animals such an important part of our lives?” she asked me.

“They become part of the family, give us unconditional love and de-stress us,” I replied.

I got to thinking about the death of my little dog nearly three years ago and sat down and wrote something about it. 

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You lie on your bed sleeping peacefully, wrapped in a blanket for warmth, only your little black and grey head peeping out. The door bells rings and I answer with a heavy heart; it’s better you don’t know that these are your last moments on earth.

The final two years of your life have been hard as you’ve slowly declined and we’ve become your carers, nursing you from this day to the next. One afternoon, not long after Christmas, you started being sick and kept falling over. I thought you’d had a stroke but no it was vestibular syndrome, which affects your balance. Once you’d recovered, your little grizzled head had a slight tilt to it but otherwise no-one could tell you’d been ill.

I asked the vet straight out what your prognosis was; it’s better to know the truth about such things, even if they’re hard to hear. He was direct, “eventually it will kill her, from now on it’s about her quality of life.” It was sobering news.

Long walks were replaced with short ones and then disappeared altogether as your arthritis got worse and worse and you panted in pain. We visited the vet again and he adjusted your medication. Your circulation became poor and you would often shiver uncontrollably. When that happened I’d wrap you in a blanket and sit you on my lap until you stopped.

The next symptom of increasing age was senility: always a very clean dog, you started forgetting that you had to go outside to go to the toilet and would poo on the floor instead. If I told you off you just looked bemused, so after the first few times, I just quietly cleaned up the mess and worried that it would get worse.

Of course it did and after several stressful weeks of you weeing everywhere we started putting dog nappies on you and I moved your bed downstairs into the kitchen, where the tiled floor was much easier to clean than carpet.

And all the while vestibular syndrome lurked in the background, waiting to pounce whenever it had the opportunity. You had frequent mini episodes and with every one declined that little bit more. Sometimes, you would fall over flat on your side and I would pick you up and cradle you until you could stand again. One attack left you with the inability to walk straight; instead you had a strange crab-like gait from then on.

Visits to the vet became more and more frequent as I agonised over your quality of life and wondered whether I was being cruel or kind. Dogs are far more stoic than humans and despite all you medical problems you still enjoyed a little sniff round the garden and a cuddle on the sofa and two years after the first vestibular attack you were still with us.

But one morning you couldn’t get out of bed; during the night, one of your back legs had become paralyzed. It hung uselessly at a strange angle and you couldn’t stand up. My husband and I looked at one another: enough was enough. “I’ll call the vet,” I said sadly “and ask him to come over.”

So this morning, two vets in maroon uniform have come quietly to our house to end your suffering. I move your bed into the living room and keep you comfortable. We all sit round stroking you while the vet inserts a needle into you paw. Within seconds the chemicals have stopped your heart and you’re no more.

“She’s gone,” the vet says solemnly checking for a pulse. My eldest son bursts into tears and I wrap him in my arms, my tears mingling with his. The vet picks you up, your little head flopping peacefully out of the blanket, and leaves. Tension and worry swap places with sadness and relief.

We let the puppy out of the kitchen, put on some shoes and take him for a walk in the woods. Your long life with us is finally over but ours must continue.

 

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Beautiful Sophie who lived until she was 16

Is World Book Day a Waste of Time?

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Where’s Wally?

After a decade of being a school parent and at the risk of sounding like a party pooper, I have a confession: World Book Day stresses me out and I think the real purpose of it is being lost.

In the beginning, it was fun to think of who to dress up as and assemble a costume for my kids, but now I have to make my 10-year-old wear one, with the threat that everyone else in the class is doing it, so he must.

In reality, most kids raid their dressing up box and put on their favourite costume; a Disney Princess for girls or Spiderman for boys. But what have comic /film characters got to do with decent kids books? Very little. And I’m sorry but wearing a costume doesn’t encourage children to pick up a book. Most parents don’t have the time or the money to make or buy a new costume every year, so they let them do it. My household is no different, except superhero costumes have been deemed too babyish for many years.

The depressing fact is that this day has become totally commercialised, with companies vying to provide you with costumes for your little cherub at over inflated prices. Plenty of people buy them too; they feel they have to so their kid doesn’t miss out. And I’ve heard that smug parents in solidly middle class areas compete to see who can sew the best outfit. Isn’t all this emphasis on what your child looks like rather missing the point? How about spending money on actual books instead!

My son’s junior school does do some good book related activities, like a book swap and cushion and a clue, where the children wrap up a book so the title is hidden and then bring in some clues so that other children can guess the title. So why not make these the focus of the day and add in story telling and creative writing, rather than stressing out parents and a lot of children by wanting them to dress up too?

I have two boys. The teen is an avid reader and has been ever since he learnt to read. The pre-teen is the polar opposite; he’d rather do anything than get out a book. Yet they have both been brought up exactly the same: read to at bedtime since they were babies, given a variety of books to read and encouraged at every opportunity. They’ve also watched their parents reading every day; all the things the experts tell us to do if we want our children to be life long readers. It frustrates us no end that he isn’t interested but putting on our well-used Harry Potter outfit this morning, won’t make any difference.

I’m sorry if you feel differently but I’m looking forward to World Book Day next year when we’ll take part in this pointless dressing up exercise for the last time. In the meantime I’m going to be thinking of how to deal with the real issue; getting my son to read.

The joy of flash fiction

Recently I have discovered the genre of flash fiction. I particularly like the category of creative non-fiction, where you re-imagine an actual event. Usually you have a tight word count, say 500 words, and at first I found this really difficult but now I like the challenge and I think it’s improving my writing and editing skills. Why use 5 words when 1 will do?

Here is a story I wrote today about that moment 30 years ago when Mum and Dad took me to Liverpool University, said goodbye and left me in my room all alone…

Liverpool's famous waterfront skyline

Ilona

On an overcast October day, there is an unusual amount of activity in Chapel Street because it’s time for my parents to take me to university.

Liverpool will be my home for the next three years, while I study geography and prehistoric archaeology. A large, bustling, grimy city, it couldn’t be more different to the reserved village I grew up in, where there is one bus on a Sunday and even the neighbourhood cats have nothing to do.

I prepare myself for this adventure eagerly, going into town to buy some new clothes: denim jacket, jeans, a couple of stretchy mini-skirts and some red leather ankle boots. Then I childishly label all my new stationery and books with my name and room number and get my hair cut.

Dad gives me his late mother’s trunk. Light brown, with bands of reinforcing leather, it’s slightly squashed at one end where it was stored upright in Maggie’s garden shed for decades, and covered in labels from long ago trips to European destinations. I love it instantly and fill it with my clothes and bedding. A new kettle and mug set that work colleagues have given me are also packed, along with my books and rickety bike. I’m ready.

We climb into the blue and white camper van and set off along the motorway. Arriving at the leafy campus hours later, the first thing Dad does is haul a yellow box of apples out of his van that came from work and look for someone to give them to. Spotting a second year student called Jez, he walks over and asks if he’d like them.

Jez is unfazed by this unexpected question and accepts Dad’s gift, saying “Yeah they’ll eat,” while I cringe and avert my eyes.

My room is on the top floor and we struggle up several flights of stairs with my luggage. Single bed, desk, chair and sink make up its utilitarian furnishings and the walls are scuffed. But the sun shines through the double doors which look out onto the leafy quad and it quickly becomes home.

Mum and I unpack and then she keeps asking me if she can do anything else. I say no repeatedly and finally realise that she doesn’t want to leave.

“I think it’s time you left. Supper will be on soon and I need to go to the dining hall,” I say impatiently.

We hug. Mum sheds some tears, Dad looks sad and then they’re gone.

Feeling tense and wanting to get the first hurdle over, I persuade myself to go downstairs. “Come on! You’ve been desperate to leave home for months. This is your chance to start again,” I tell myself.

I brush my hair, grab my handbag and lock my door. As I make my way to the stairs, another door opens and a slim blonde girl walks out. We exchange hesitant glances and then introduce ourselves. Her name is Ilona and she becomes my first friend.

THE “I’M DOING IT” CONVERSATION

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Our teen

We have a pretty good teen on the whole. He walks the dogs on his own, pops to the shop for me when I’ve forgotten something for tea, lays the table and is very concerned about politics and the environment. But he is 13.

This morning I was sitting in bed reading another blog about parenting and laughed out loud. My other half wandered out of the bathroom and asked why.

“I’m reading a post on Facebook about a teen who never answers his mother when called and then swears blind that he did,” I said. He smiled and said, “Well our version is the ‘I’m doing it conversation’.”

Let me enlighten you…

Several times a day, I’ll call up the stairs and ask our teen, who spends most of his time in his bedroom, to do something.

Me: “Can you get in the shower please.”

Teen: “OK Mum.”

Five minutes later not having heard any movement I’ll climb the stairs to his room, suspecting that he’s engrossed on his phone or reading a book and not doing what I asked.

I open the door to find him lying on the sofa.

Me: “Why haven’t you got in the shower?”

Teen: “I’m doing it!” in an aggrieved tone.

Me, through gritted teeth: “No you’re not, you’re lying on the sofa looking at YouTube/reading your book.”

Teen: “Well, I’m doing it now!” picking up his phone/book and retreating again.

Me, in a stressed tone: “Come on, give me your phone/put the book down and go do it.”

Teen with his best flounce and putting down the offending article: “OK”

Objective achieved I retreat to the kitchen, grumbling under my breath. I wouldn’t mind so much if this was an occasional occurrence but this conversation plays on a loop all week and then when we get to Monday morning, oh joy, it starts all over again.

It isn’t only mine I know, teens all over the world do this as part of the letting go process. But it would be nice if, for once, the teen did things the first time of asking; there would be less stress all round.

Whenever I see parents with small children, I come over all nostalgic and think “You don’t know how easy you have it!”

What Is Love?

Today being Valentine’s Day, my Facebook feed this morning was full of pictures of hearts and flowers accompanied by soppy messages. But a post by fellow writer, Judy, made me smile, as she got right to the heart of the matter as usual. She inspired me to set my own pen to paper.

Like many an old tradition, this day for lovers has been hijacked by crass commerciality of the worst kind, which just makes me cringe. To be brutally honest, most of the things we’re supposed to do today, leave me cold. As I have been with the same man for 25 years, at times a long and very difficult journey, this is what I think love is really about…

Is it about a card with a badly worded message? No, it’s having a husband who works a 12-hour day in London without complaint to support his family.

Maybe it’s an overpriced bunch of roses? You’re wrong, it’s reading Harry Potter to your son every night for two years as he loves the books so much.

Is it an expensive watch, carefully chosen from the local jewellers? Not at all. It’s walking the dogs in the pouring rain without argument because someone has to do it.

Perhaps love is expressed by a beautiful pearl necklace? Not really, far better to have someone who’ll put the washing in without you asking and do a big supermarket shop.

How about a meal out at the latest place to be seen? Not for me. I’d far rather be brought a cup of tea in the morning from someone who knows that I’m the “mummy monster” without it.

Surely, a weekend away counts for something? It’s a kind thought but a truer test of love is not telling your wife how much danger she and their son are in as she struggles to give birth to him.

Oh come on! Doesn’t your favourite bottle of wine mean anything? It’ll taste pleasant but living with someone who knows from my expression or tone of voice exactly how I’m feeling and soothes me with a kind word or a gentle caress is worth infinite bottles of plonk.

Love is being there through the good times and the bad, facing the unexpected together and not letting one another down. It’s knowing that most of the time family life is mundane and repetitive, as well as stressful and relentless and not walking away because you’ve tired of it. It’s about committing to one person, even though some of their habits drive you crazy because you know they’ll always be there for you.

My husband is actually in Barcelona on business today, while I keep the kids entertained in grey, drizzly Wales but neither of us minds at all. When I arrive home in a few days, after a very long drive, he’ll come out and unpack the car, order us all pizza and help me put the children to bed. It’s exactly what I need him to do. No more no less.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’ve Got The Peri-Menopausal Blues

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It’s been 6 months since I posted on here. What can I say? I’m busy! Among other commitments, I’m doing a wonderful post-graduate diploma in journalism with the London School of Journalism which is really broadening my horizons in terms of career paths and pushing me to write things that I would never have considered before. It’s also showing me that actually I can achieve whatever I want to if I put my mind to it; a very necessary boost to my self-esteem.

For our last assignment we had to write a 5 minute talk for a radio show, on any topic. Inspired by a hilarious conversation I had with friends on the way to a Christmas party, this is what I came up with. Sit down with a cuppa and imagine Jenny Murray introducing this on Woman’s Hour…

If you’re a woman, it’s an undeniable fact that eventually you’re going to go through the menopause. Just as your body changes as a teenager, growing breasts and hair in alarming places, one day the periods you’ve endured for years will come to an end.

But how much do you really know about the process? In the same way that no-one tells you what giving birth is actually like, nobody discusses the menopause either. Is it embarrassment, in the same way that many of our mothers refused to enlighten us about sex, or indifference, because it’s only a “women’s issue” and therefore something we should just get on with by ourselves? Perhaps it’s a combination.

Actually, your periods don’t stop over-night; usually it takes several years, as your oestrogen level gradually decreases. This process is combined with many other symptoms and is called peri-menopause.

During a recent phone call with my own mother, I confided that I may have reached this point.

“Why, what’s happened?” she asked.

“My periods are getting closer together and I’ve been having awful dreams. I’m convinced that somebody’s in the bedroom and they’re going to attack me, or sometimes I think the house is falling down.”

“Oh, I had the same experience and thought I was going mad,” my mother said. “One day I mentioned it to the doctor and he was really offhand and told me it’s a very common menopausal symptom.”

There were two other facts I learnt that day: you’re likely to start your menopause around the same age as your mother and the whole process can take years and years.

“Oh that’s just fantastic I thought,” slamming the plates into the sink as I got off the phone, “It’s bad enough that I’ve put up with periods and PMT for decades and now my mother’s telling me I’ll experience years of physical and mental carnage before my menopause is complete.”

It’s a good job I was alone in the house, as my bewildered dogs were subjected to some very choice words.

So let me enlighten you about the delights of the peri-menopause. Most women will experience night sweats, waking up in the small hours soaked to the skin and desperate to shed their pyjamas. You may even fling open the bedroom window, although it’s November and freezing outside.

But feeling too hot isn’t limited to night time. Whichever deodorant I choose, I simply cannot stop myself sweating profusely, whenever the room gets a little too warm or I exert myself physically. I’m forever going to the toilet when I’m in company, not to empty my bladder, but to freshen up.

You’ll also find that your hormones go completely haywire. Think PMT on Ecstasy and you’re getting close. Things which never stressed you before will have you throwing tantrums like an A-lister, and you’ll be forever apologising for your behaviour. Many women also suffer from a lack of confidence and feel depressed.

As well as hormonal changes, you’ll experience physical symptoms, like your periods getting closer together. Sometimes you’ll get three weeks between your cycle, if you’re unlucky, only two. If I were you, I’d invest in some Tampax shares, because you’re going to be giving them a lot of unwelcome profit.

It’ll be hard to keep your weight down too. The mood swings will make you want to buy up the chocolate aisle in Tesco, but eating it is the worst thing you can do. Try and wean yourself off it now, because when your time comes, every single bar will end up on your middle, whether you like it or not.

And although the urge to have sex is a primal instinct, you’ll find yourself preferring to lust over men from a safe distance, rather than actually getting your kit off. When the opportunity arises, instead of eagerly participating, your ageing body will switch off your libido and tell you to go to bed and read; leaving your partner unsatisfied and you guilty and stressed. And if you do feel overcome with desire, your body will play another trick on you by making that essential part of you drier, so that sex becomes more difficult physically. Just how cruel is nature?

So what can you do to survive the onslaught of physical and mental symptoms that accompany peri-menopause? If you can’t bear having periods every fortnight then you could have a coil fitted, although be aware they aren’t suitable for everyone. Some people have had them removed after an adverse reaction. Having Hormone Replacement Therapy (or HRT) also relieves the symptoms and is very popular.

Eat a healthy diet and do some regular exercise; it’ll keep that spare tyre at bay and improve your mood. If you’re suffering from stress or anxiety, seek out some counselling and take up an activity which improves your mood and gets you out of the house.

Above all, find some friends who’re going through the same thing; sharing your anxieties will lessen them and help you stay positive.

Underneath it all, you’re still the same person and just because you’re getting older, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still enjoy life.

Brexit: the most profound decision of our age

Thank you for all the views, keep them coming and please share.

Anecdotes of an Alto

I voted to stay in the EU and many of my friends did too. Some of you didn’t and that’s fine; it was your choice to vote whichever way you wanted. Politics is something I rarely discuss, let alone write about but I can’t simply ignore an event which will have a huge impact on all of us, so I’m trying to put my thoughts into words. Feel free to comment but please keep it civilized; I don’t want any of the vilification that has happened on social media to take place here.

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Going to bed last Thursday, I was complacent about the result of the Brexit vote. I knew it was going to be close but I still thought the Remain side would win. Stumbling downstairs to make a cup of tea the next morning, this quickly turned to shock when I looked at the news headlines: “What on earth…

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