Part 20: Dogs are the best people

On the death of my best friend.

Today I lost Roo.

Today Roo passed away.

Today Roo was put to sleep.

Today Roo was euthanised.

Today Roo died.

I have to force myself to say those words.

Because I did not lose her - I would never be so careless with something so precious; she is not sleeping - because then I could wake her up.

No. Today Roo died.

And I am so sad.

I am crushed. I am broken.

And this sadness has shocked me. I was completely unprepared for how truly awful it would be. This grief is so real and physical that I feel guilty for feeling it – I mean after all, she is (was) just a dog.

But she isn’t just a dog (wasn’t just a dog). They are never ‘just’ dogs.

Roo saved me. From myself: from the oblivion of self-loathing; she helped me work out who I was and she helped me become a grown up; she made sure I came home at night and made sure I got out of bed the morning after.

And then later, she got me through cancer too.

She was my first dog. And she was MY dog.

As a kid I was animal obsessed; I had rabbits and guinea pigs and fish and mice and even rock wallabies, but never a dog. For reasons I understand now, but didn’t then, my parents always said no.

And I so wanted a dog.

I used to live out little fantasies in my head – where just like in the movies, I would find my perfect canine bestie and we would go everywhere together and have adventures. I used to pretend that other people’s dogs were mine and I would tell the kids at school about all these dogs I ‘had’. They wouldn’t get it: why I would make up stories about having a dog, of all things? They had probably had one all their lives, it was normal, something that didn’t need to be a fantasy. But for me, fantasy was all I had. To me it wasn’t lying I don’t think – I mean I knew I wasn’t telling the truth – but these stories in my head were so complete, so whole, so physical that somehow they felt real.

And then when I left home it was all moving from one shared rental house to another and then to the other side of the world so there was still no dog.

Finally though, after years of chipping away, I wore my partner at the time down enough to agree to let me begin the search for my Roo. Circa age 30.

I remember the first day I saw her so clearly.

They led her out and the minute I glimpsed the white tips of her toes skipping down the kennel steps, something jolted within me.

We'd had 3 cat-tested hounds to meet that day and we walked all three thoughtfully, but I already knew who would be coming home with me. And from that moment, she was my buddy – from her white tipped toes to her white tipped tail. Every weekend we would disappear together into the countryside - from morning till night - coming home exhausted, smelling like horse wee with straw in our hair. Side by side.

She would come with me to horse shows and events and wait dutifully in the car while I rode and then sit loyally ringside or under café tables whilst we awaited results. She even came away to Championships, driving across the country, sleeping with me in the backs of lorries. She never complained. She just liked being with me.

When I first started running she would come with me too – as my distances increased I tried to leave her behind but she wouldn’t stay. She insisted. Sometimes I’d trick her, for a while – but she would always catch me up, lolloping behind me quietly. Determinedly. It felt nice. To be so loved. To be sought out like that.

On nice days, whilst I carried out my chores, she would sunbathe with Gus the yard cat. Their fur warm, shining in the light. One eye always on me. Never far.

And then my relationship of 11 years came to an end.

Perhaps these weekends of disappearance were a sign that it had been ending for a long time – these dawn till dusk (and beyond) absences a symptom of something much bigger than either of us was able to understand or face up to at the time.

When finally I left, I didn’t think I could take Roo. I felt so guilty about what I was doing. And although I could never seem to find the words or the ability or the bravery to explain my feelings to him, I did worry about my partner. If I left him Roo, he would have something to keep him grounded. A reason to leave the house – something that needed him to be ok.

But he didn’t want her.

Seeing her was too painful, he said.

So we found ourselves, me and Roo, homeless and unsure. Thrown, bleary eyed out in to the real world.

I had entered the relationship a child, and was ejected at the other end in my 30s, an adult…but an adult that had, in many ways, been infantilised, protected, organised. I found myself having to truly navigate adulthood, finally, alone. My family was on the other side of the world, and I had convinced myself that everyone must hate me.

Roo and I stayed with friends for a bit, sharing a bed, till I could find us somewhere to live. A task made somewhat harder by Roo’s existence. And I was worried. And I was angry. Part of me thought he had done this to hurt me, to make life difficult – perhaps even to force me to come home…knowing that it would be impossible to find a one bedroom rental flat that would let me keep a greyhound. Now? I think it was the kindest thing he could have ever done.

But it did seem impossible then. In the end I just didn’t tell anyone about her and on the 14th of April, 2017, Roo and I moved into a place of our own and began our new life together.

I loved my little flat by the seaside. It was the upstairs of a small terrace house that faced directly onto a green (perfect for late night greyhound wees). It was small. But it was warm, and clean. And it never felt too small – even with a contraband greyhound – because it was ours. Our own little space in the world.

For the first time in my life I was in charge completely. I controlled my own space, organised my own bills, arranged my furniture and pictures exactly how I wanted and planned my own meals and did my own grocery shopping. Always with Roo by my side. My constant.

Even more than before we came as a package. Where I went, she went.

But I was also pretty lost. And I am not sure I liked myself very much. I am not sure I really knew who I was. I kept having to check my own thoughts – ‘is this actually what you think Suze? Or...’

And I was drinking too much. And going out a lot. Partying and heartache is a dangerous mix. Because I was grieving then, in my own way, on many levels. And I probably wasn’t doing it very well.

Knowing I had Roo waiting for me though, meant I got home. And the following morning, when the hangover threatened to steal an entire day, it was her little face, starting to grey around the nose, that would peek around my bedroom door and get me out. Walking Roo was ultimate therapy; with her trotting calmly along beside me, the fresh sea air in our faces, I was slowly able to make sense of the mess in my head.

In the end, it was me that Roo kept grounded. Me, who needed a reason to leave the house – me that needed something that needed them, to be ok. And I will always be grateful to my ex-partner for allowing me this.

During this time of mess in my head, Roo also helped me meet Steve. We were helping mutual friends set up for their wedding and Roo had just done a massive greyhound sized, never quite solid, turd right in the middle of the walkway – Steve walked past just as I was embarrassingly trying to shovel it into a too-small poo bag.

Later we arranged our first date that revolved around Steve meeting Roo for a walk. I could possibly come along, if I wasn’t busy.

And oh how turbulent the next year was. Trying to navigate a new relationship through the mess of the last. Neither of us had been single very long when we met – timing could have been better - we both had ‘baggage’ and hang-ups. My self-esteem was low. The process rattled me. And I was still drinking too much. But I had Roo still. A little wet nose in my hand when I needed reminding. A constant companion to cuddle on the sofa, when being alone in my flat lost its excitement. A friend to trot along the beach and stare out to sea with. A buddy by my side for an afternoon pint in the sun when I just needed to get out and be a part of the world.

Somehow though, we navigated a path through this turbulence and arrived safely on new shores. The three of us. After two and a half years I returned the key to my little flat (which had begun to feel smaller and smaller in recent times – the sofa not quite as cuddly when it needed to accommodate two humans and a greyhound more and more often), left the seaside and embarked on a new adventure; a two bed terrace in Norwich.

Surprisingly, Roo took to being a city dog very quickly: she enjoyed skipping through the city, making friends and stealing kisses outside cafes.

About a month later, I was diagnosed with Stage 3c Bowel Cancer.

And so began Roo’s year long sofa-side vigil.

She would sit on her chair opposite me, sometimes with her paws crossed daintily, other times with her head dangled precariously towards the floor, waiting patiently for the day I could start walking her again following my surgery, and then again every chemo cycle. Being able to walk Roo was the first goal of every stage of my recovery.

After surgery she was happy to wait by my side as I shuffled along till I had to turn back, when the stabbing pain in my abdomen became too much to bare – building my fitness and mobility back up slowly, trying to make it to a further tree or post box with each outing.

She would trot along by my side, never pulling or lunging. Stopping for sniffs but never that interested in other dogs; a warm nose in my hand every now and then.

In between cycles, when I was too poorly to move, when I could just about get up to let her into the garden for a wee, she never really complained. She just returned to her chair, across from me on the sofa and waited. When I could sit up she would lounge next to me whilst I attempted to beat Netflix, watching episode after episode of ‘Grace and Frankie’ and ‘Escape to the Chateaux’, head on my knee. And then, when I felt well enough to don all the layers against the cold sensitivity caused by oxaliplatin and waddle round the block, she was only too willing to re-join me – always gently, always at my pace.

Whilst all of this was going on though, almost without me noticing, she grew older. She had stopped running with me a couple of years earlier but she started wanting to go out less, and walk less too. Her face got greyer and she’d been diagnosed with arthritis just after my operation; if she went on too long a walk she would be stiff for a couple of days. But she seemed happy – content with life. She’d still charge around the garden, tail windmilling – her mad 5 minutes. She was still digging holes.

Then, about a week ago, we noticed she had a slight swelling under her chin.

‘It’s probably nothing’ we told each other. But booked her in for her six monthly nurse check-up. ‘We’ll just mention it…’

A couple of days later we knew we had to change her nurse check to a consultation with a vet.

Monday was a lovely day and I walked her up to the vets slowly, bathed in sunlight. Despite the warmth, I felt sick and cold.

Covid restrictions are still in place so I phoned on arrival and eventually a vet came out to see us. He examined her in the carpark.

‘I’m not too happy’ he said gently. But I already knew what was coming.

He took her inside to take a sample of cells from a range of her swollen glands; not just in her neck, but her chest and back legs too.

‘I should have the results later in the week’.

I cried as we wandered slowly home.

Tuesday she still got up for treats and when certain things were brought out of the fridge – chicken...cheese…sausage…but she wouldn’t come outside to sunbathe.

I took her for a slow walk down to the carpark at the end of our road – for a poo (she doesn’t like to poo at home) and some sniffs. We cut back through the little housing estate but about two thirds round it was clear she’d had enough. Her steps were shaky, she slowed right down. And this time it was me going at her pace; Roo shuffling along, me holding her hand.

Wednesday I went to work and cried all the way on the drive in. I was teaching an evening class so didn’t get home till late.

‘It might just be an infection… some antibiotics will sort her right out,’ we had lied to each other.

By the time I got back it was clear she could no longer see very well. She was shaky on her feet and disoriented. She hadn’t had a poo. We helped her up and guided her into the garden; I don’t think she could physically lower her body in to the right position. She paced about a bit – and I worried that she would fall. She was distressed. I am not sure she could navigate her way back inside. Eventually, Steve picked her up and carried her in. But she ate her tea and most of her pate filled Kong.

Later, we sat on the sofa side by side. Roo in the bed at our feet – she could no longer get herself up onto her chair. Her breathing was laboured. Every minute or so I had to check that her chest was still rising and falling.

‘This isn’t fair’ we said to each other.

‘I’ll phone the vet in the morning.’

‘You can come in now.’ The vet - young, American, pretty - came to collect me from the car.

She had taken Roo off already to get catheterised and settled. I had watched her wobble unsteadily across the car park, through the doors and I wanted to shout ‘Stop! No. You can’t.’

The test results showed that she had multiple, high grade lymphoma. There was nothing to be done. She was in pain. She was shutting down. She was distressed. I’d sat with her all morning, my hand on her chest. Listening to her breathe. Watching the slow rise and fall of her rib cage.

When I went in to the side isolation room of the surgery, she was already settled on her side. She lifted her head when I came in - she couldn't see me, but I'm sure she knew I was there; I sat down next to her and she rested her head back down on my leg. She seemed so calm, so peaceful. Quietly dignified as ever.

They left me to say goodbye and I lay down next to her, pressing my face into the back of her neck. I breathed her in. I told her I loved her. I thanked her for everything.

And as she let go of her last breath I felt the twitching of her muscles under my hand and my tears dripped onto her coat.

Steve and I gripped each other in the car park. Our tears ran into each other, our shared memories joining from their own beginnings and separate paths.

Arriving home without her, the pain was real. I curled under a blanket on the sofa and stared across at her chair, gripping her collar in my hands. I couldn’t move. I felt empty. No longer whole.

‘I don’t want this’ I said again and again. The pain was physical – my chest and throat hurt. And then I would feel terrible that I was having these feelings when so many people have lost people this last year or so. How can I justify feeling like this when Roo was just a dog?

But she wasn’t just a dog.

It’s now been 6 days since she died and the pain is still real. I feel her absence in everything I do, everywhere I look. I am not sleeping very well, and in the morning I have to force myself to get out from under the blanket.

I know it will pass. But I was unprepared for this level of grief. I have never had a dog before, after all. I lost my horse 4 years ago - and I was sad but nothing like this. Roo has been by my side for so long - my day-to-day.

And she was MY dog. It has been me and Roo through so many things. We had come as a package for so long. I have lost my shadow. I have lost a part of what made me me, when I was working out who that was.

I will never have another Roo. And I guess that is a positive thing. I will never have another dog that is just mine: I will have shared dogs that are mine and Steve’s; maybe one day we will even have ‘a family dog’.

But right now, I only want Roo

I owe her so much. She has been the best of friends.

I feel privileged to have been her human; my life is richer for having had her in it.

Sleep well Roo Dog. Thankyou. For everything.