THE LOVE OF A DOG How a puppy helped Amanda Brookfield cope with loss
A series of losses blindsided author Amanda Brookfield. For the first time in her life, she didn’t know where to turn. Then along came a golden doodle called Mabel…
Every life has its peaks and troughs, but I’ve always been an optimist. Ms Look-on-thebright-side. Ms Tomorrow-isanother-day. Even when my marriage imploded after a quarter of a century, I managed to count my blessings, which were many – two wonderful sons, loyal friends, good health, a strong career, lots of hobbies – and ploughed on. I threw myself into my work. I dated other men. When I fell in love with one of them, it came as no surprise. Life was back on an even keel, just as I had expected.
The thing about trouble, however, is that it arrives when we dare to feel safe. When we are looking the other way. And so it was that on the afternoon my mother died, I was deep into this new, contented phase of my life, rushing round my local shops en route to a leg wax. Seeing a missed call from my sister, I didn’t ring her straight back but flew into the supermarket instead. I bought bread, milk, ham, tomatoes and ran to the car, thinking only of the importance of not being late for my appointment. Then my sister called again and a cold prickle at the back of my neck told me it was serious. Mum had suffered a massive haemorrhage and had been given only a few hours to live.
Shock makes you calm. It’s like that moment of numbness after injury, before pain kicks in. I cancelled the leg wax, I left food for the cat, I remembered to lock the back door, I packed a toothbrush and I set off for the hospital, driving south as fast as London traffic would allow. Only one thing mattered. Even so, it was my sister who made it to the bedside in time, not me. Mum was cold when I got there, but only just, and it haunts me still.
Platitudes see you through the first stages of loss: Mum, who was 81, had a mercifully quick end; she was reunited with Dad,
whose death 20 years before had left her devastated. But grief is a long game with its own rules. And a few months later, when the man I had fallen in love with suddenly decided to bring our relationship to an end, I hit a wall. Grieving for Mum, I felt as if I had lost a chunk of my past, my ballast. With this new sorrow it was as if I had lost my future, too. Some said I should chase after the man, persuade him to change his mind. But you cannot demand feelings. Love is there or it isn’t. As strong as a fact. The ground dissolved beneath my feet. A chasm opened up. And I fell in.
There was no way I could throw myself at work or anything else this time. It was all I could do to make it through each day. To realise I was capable of such despair was almost as bad as the despair itself. My old positive self was like the memory of someone else. Weeping became my default activity, regardless of where I was or who I was with. Misery doesn’t give two hoots about shame. I couldn’t sleep, eat, read or even watch telly. Nothing going on around me felt real. I was too busy drowning in my own emotions. Indeed, it felt almost as if, after years of being a novelist, making up stories of imagined lives – stories with happy endings – the harsh facts of my own much flakier existence had crashed over me like a tsunami. I saw myself with new eyes: divorced, single, untethered. A flapping guy rope. Alone.
Unhappiness does all sorts of things to you. Your confidence goes, for a start. You stop seeing the point of taking care of yourself. You stop wanting to go out. You stop feeling worth any attention. You feel unloved and unlovable. Above all, you feel lonely. Every writer grows used to solitariness; we relish it. Books don’t get written without it. But this aloneness was different, frightening and visceral. The house and the air around me hummed. My body ached with isolation. It removed my power to think straight. It was like being struck down by an invisible disease.
In the immediate aftermath of my meltdown, close family and friends rallied to my aid. They rang and visited in shifts. They put food on the table, listening with saintly patience as I talked endlessly about my woes. Misery is, among other things, so repetitive, so monotonous, so selfish. But as the weeks passed, I knew that the intensity of such care could not last. They all had busy lives to
‘Mabel has brought a happiness I could not have imagined’
[continued from previous page] return to and I hated to see the worry on their faces. Especially my sons’. So one day, I lobbed out the idea of getting a puppy, just because it was something to talk about other than my pitiful state, a future plan where there was none. I wanted everyone to feel that it was okay to leave me alone.
In truth, the notion of actually becoming a dog owner was terrifying. I was clearly not up to looking after myself, let alone a puppy. Besides which, pre-meltdown I had grown to love the order and peace that comes from one’s offspring having left home. A puppy would blow all that peace to smithereens. It would need training. There would be mess to clear up, as well as endless exercise in all weathers. Dog hair would coat my nice furniture and pleading eyes would track my every move, burdening me with guilt as I tried to go about my daily labours. Writing was hard enough without that. As sole owner, I would also lose my freedom to come and go, jeopardising a social life that was already close to non-existent, thanks to my new fragile state. Talk about a ball and chain.
But, somehow, one conversation led to another, until one day I found myself driving to Wales to meet three eightweek-old golden doodles. There was no obligation to buy. It was simply a day out – a break from life in the abyss. Until Mabel tottered into view. The pudgiest of the puppies, with fur the colour of clotted cream, molten chocolate eyes and apricot-tipped ears, she waddled over to me for a nuzzle and flopped on to her back, inviting some tickling of her little pink barrel of a tum. I was a goner! Supposedly the one in charge, there was no doubt that day who had the upper hand.
Mum used to say that one of the secrets to happiness was feeling needed, and maybe that was what kicked in as I drove Mabel home to start her new life in London. She curled into me, a ball of fluff, so afraid that I could feel her heart pounding through my jeans. The urge to protect her surged through me.
Happiness is a slippery customer. It can’t be summoned, but arrives in its own time, often on tip-toe when you’re at the point of giving up. I fell in love with Mabel, but there was no instant cure for my state of mind. Puppy training was tough, full of moments of humiliation, as well as hilarity and triumph. Getting to grips with Mabel’s glorious, matting coat of blonde fur was, and still is, a daily struggle. But, from the start, the sweetness of her nature was like balm. Exuberant, optimistic, sensitive, loyal – she is tonic for any soul. She loves everybody, but me most of all. She reads my moods, my body language, like a detective. The clipclop of high heels and she doesn’t open an eye. The squeak of my trainers and she is bouncing like a loon. Every walk is a social event. People want to say hello. I have discovered the world is a friendly place after all, and still with room for me inside it.
One day, I found myself back at my desk, itching to work. The relief was momentous, like rediscovering a lost love. It wasn’t ideas for a new novel that came to mind, but jottings about my journey with Mabel. For The Love Of A Dog poured out, a memoir of a middle-aged optimist who had lost her optimism, a writer who couldn’t write; a daughter who had lost her mum, a lover who had lost her love. A grey landscape into which Mabel blew like a blessing. She has brought all the mud, chaos and mess I feared, and a happiness I could not have imagined. My too-quiet, too-sedentary novelist’s life has been turned upside down. Due to some mysterious knock-on effect, I am now busier socially and with work than I have ever been. In short, I am living life again, as well as writing about it.
Familiarity may breed contempt between humans but, with the right dog, exactly the opposite is true. Every day my bond with Mabel grows. I may find companionship with another person one day but, for now, it is a golden doodle who is sharing my path, helping to light the way.
◆ For The Love Of A Dog: A Memoir Of Meltdown, Recovery, And A Golden Doodle by Amanda Brookfield (Head of Zeus) is out 1 November.
Amanda: ‘Mabel loves everybody, but me most of all’
Close bond: Mabel brought joy back into Amanda’s life and even inspired her to write again