THE LOVE OF A DOG How a puppy helped Amanda Brook­field cope with loss

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY THOMAS SKOVSENDE

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.

CHAL­LENG­ING TIMES

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.

NEW BE­GIN­NINGS

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.

BRIGHT FU­TURE

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

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