24 May

A Tribute to Smudge  9 April 2004 – 5 February 2021 (aged 16 years, 10 months) 

The loss of a loved one, human or animal, creates a void; an aching, heavy place at the very core of our being. For every space that they once inhabited, there is only the memory that someone precious was once there. The pain of grief is raw for those left behind, bereft, disbelieving and lonely, desperate to hold and feel the warmth and vitality of the one who is forever missing.

Whilst writing my new book for middle grade and young teens, PJ and the Paranormal Pursers – The Mackenzie Poltergeist, I was experiencing the anticipatory grief that accompanies the knowledge that a much-loved member of our family, who had been sick for a lengthy period, probably wouldn’t be there when it is published in July. In my case, it was my best furry friend who has been my faithful companion, entertainer and comforter for many years. In the book, four youngsters are drawn together following the death of loved ones in the search to prove that there is life after death, something that I guess we all, no matter how sceptical, hope for as the antidote to the inconceivable finality of parting for the final time. 

They say, whoever “they” are, that you should write about what you know. Sometimes, that’s a hard process as your heart is wrenched from your chest, reliving or even just anticipating the emotions that inexorably accompany the inevitability of death, and the inconceivable truth that those you love are suddenly gone, never to return. 

Recently, we lost our beloved Jack Russell, Smudge, after a long, hard fought battle with illness and disability. He was coming up for his seventeenth birthday in April, and he had been with us, for fifteen and a half of those years, bringing joy, laughter, love and the loyalty that few human friends can ever match. 

For two years, my partner, Andrew and I put our lives more or less on hold to give Smudge the intensive care and love he so richly deserved. During the last year, the year that COVID struck, I am grateful that we could work from home and remain by his side 24/7. There are few good things you can say about COVID but it did allow us to devote our time and attention to Smudge's needs, which became ever greater as the weeks and months passed. During the last six months, I cried rivers, as Smudge’s ability to enjoy all the little things he loved, gradually ebbed away and his independence was stolen from him. We became his eyes and ears, his legs, his nurses, his constant companions, sleeping each night on an airbed in the living room so that he never felt alone or afraid and we could tend to any need at any time of the day or night. I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable, wondering each day, whether it would be our last together. I sobbed myself to sleep on many a night, the anticipatory grief almost as bad as the actual grief that was to come. 

I don’t care what anyone says, the loss of a beloved pet is just as terrible as the loss of a human; sometimes perhaps, even worse. Animals, unlike most humans, bestow a lifetime of unquestioning love, loyalty and trust in us. They are vulnerable and characterful in equal measure, wholly reliant on us to feed them, walk them, and try to understand what they are telling us when they seem sad or in pain. They are noble creatures, deserving of as much respect for their lives as any living creature. 

As a tribute to my beloved boy, I decided to dedicate my first blog to telling his story and, in the coming weeks, I will add to this story. Those who are familiar with my writing will be aware that I have an interest in exploring the afterlife and the paranormal. I believe that in the days following our loss of Smudge, he sent signs to let us know he is still here in spirit, but more about that later. Perhaps I’m just a crazy dog lady, but maybe, just maybe, there is more to this story than has already unfolded. 

I began writing this piece when Smudge was still with us, a few months ago. I was lurching through it, his death knell sounding in my head. It was like writing an obituary before he had gone. I had to stop as the ever-present sorrow I felt spilled over with every word I wrote. Now, it really is the obituary, and I write it in his proud memory.

Smudge in his first year with us, 2004

The Best Eighty Quid’s Worth 

Smudge came into our lives, as many beloved pets do, after the wheedling of my then, thirteen-year-old son who promised, as thirteen-year-old sons do, to take care of his every need. Inevitably, my son looked after Smudge’s every need for oh, at least a couple of hours, then, it was over to me. Who could have foreseen that?  

We decided that we'd look for a Jack Russell as one of my previous doggy loves had been a little white one who stole my heart many years ago.  He was a happy, friendly boy, called Ollie, who made it his business to befriend and trust everyone. Sadly, as the 'runt' of the litter, he wasn't as robust as some of his ilk and we lost him all to soon to kidney failure when he was only seven years old. During his short time on earth though, he convinced me that Jack Russells, with their huge personalities, bundled up into small bodies were certainly my preferred canine companions and I longed to have another of those little laughing boys around.

We found Smudge from an advert in Exchange and Mart and, after a call with the seller, we went, together with my dear, now deceased Dad, to see him at his Falkirk home. I have no idea what had happened to the wee fella, who was now one year old, but  the current owner had got him from Dog’s Trust. Unfortunately, the seller’s wife had taken a dislike to him. How anyone could have disliked Smudge I don’t know, but a clue might have been that when he saw us, he rolled on his back in excited submission and delightedly peed in the air. This, we discovered, would be a habit for some time, whenever Smudge got excited. Many a visitor to our home was greeted with wet shoes! He was a beautiful boy, white, tan and with big black spots and sooty smudges over his fur. Needless to say, our hearts were melted in moments and within an hour, he was travelling home to Fife in the back of our car. My Dad ever afterwards described him as “The best eighty quid's worth you could ever have.” How right he was.

Soon, as dogs do, Smudge had ingratiated himself into every part of our lives and hearts and became the centre of attention forever more. He was strong willed, a deliberate comic, I am sure, and the most loyal and treasured companion who saw us through good times and bad. His character was so like Ollie's, that I sometimes felt that Smudge was his reincarnation. When he wanted company in the night, he would leap up on the bed with ease, his short, stocky legs propelling him upwards to snuggle up in the covers, shoving us around until he found his spot. Amazing how a small dog can become the size of an Alsatian when he’s sprawled on your bed! When he wanted a walk, he would circle several times, his little white tail wagging furiously and, run out to the hall. As soon as the lead was lifted, he would race up and down the stairs several times, defying me to catch him if I could. For a small dog, he had the strength of a behemoth and would pull my shoulders from my sockets and once outside, become an immovable object, when something caught his attention.

Needless to say, Smudge brought joy to our lives, with his wickedly laughing, earnest brown eyes and jauntily smiling mouth, his cheeky ability to charm everyone and his sparky personality. To me, he was more human than dog, and therein lies the problem. Some people are able to see their dogs, simply as animals and a wonderful, but short and transient part of life. Others, like me, tend to anthropomorphise them, seeing so much more behind the knowing and beseeching eyes than many would give them credit for. I had always given Smudge a ‘voice’, translating his thoughts, I am sure accurately, on most occasions. He was even more of a comedian when he had a voice and I swear, he knew when he was ‘speaking’. He would give me that suspicious look that said, “I know you’re speaking for me, but what on earth is coming out your mouth now?” Or, “Really, Mum?” 

Smudge adored Christmas and of course, he always had his own sack, full of presents to open. He would dance around as excited as any child as we started the opening for him and he would gleefully take over to tear off the paper, eager to find what goodies were inside. Needless to say, whenever anyone got presents on birthdays or Mother’s Day, he would sit there looking for his bag of presents and give us accusing looks if nothing materialised for him to open. 

Smudge's first Christmas with us - 2004

Smudge loved a good sleep, and when Andrew, my partner arrived, when Smudge was six, he found his soulmate! Together they would close their eyes on an afternoon, sprawled on the couch together, ‘thinking’ as Andrew would put it, or ‘guarding’ as I suggested on behalf of Smudge. It was a true love story between them that endured and strengthened over the years to the extent that Andrew said that I would have to be strong for him, when Smudge departed our lives. 

The house was always filled with love, laughter and warmth as Smudge’s little docked tail (he was one of the last to undergo this procedure before it was outlawed), waggled furiously at the smallest of pleasures; dumping a slimy squeaky egg on my face if I lay on the floor trying to exercise or stretch my back (‘weggy’, as we called it, was a favourite game); or shaking a rubber chicken to death; demanding Scruffy Bites, ‘chocklits’ and dental sticks when the cry of ‘Mummy’s ‘ome’ went out on my return from work.

Smudge’s New Reality - Living with Vestibular Disease and Kidney Problems

Smudge remained a perennial puppy right up until one terrible October night in 2018, when he was fourteen and a half.  Just hours before, he had been his puppyish, playful and energetic self, and we’d headed as usual, for bed. We awoke to find him pacing the room, turning in circles, panting and unusually, incontinent. He kept falling over and was totally disorientated. We feared something dreadful had befallen him and we rushed him into the veterinary hospital at 4am. (Why is it always in the wee, small hours)? Tests were run, and after an agonising few hours, the verdict came. Smudge had suffered a vestibular episode, something neurological that affects the balance and causes a tilt of the head. He would survive, we were told, but would need medication. We breathed a sigh of relief, thrilled (and thanking the deities (and of course, the vets)), we took him home to rest. 

For a while, he did have a pronounced tilt of the head and walking was difficult. Over time, it caused his little legs to splay more and more, but he coped and adjusted well, although he was like Bambi on ice in parts of the house that were tiled. His favourite place was the kitchen, where he might find some titbit on offer, but he negotiated the difficulties, determined to carry on life as usual. I admired his spark and determination. 

Smudge's quizzical look as vestibular disease caused a tilt to the head.

Another heart lurching blow came when I took him for a walk and to my horror, he urinated a glob of dark, viscous blood.  Shaking and tearful, fearful of horrendous news that this was surely the end, once again, we took him to the vets. Tests revealed that his kidneys were failing, but the wonders of modern medicine would keep him well and comfortable, yet again. I feel I should have built a shrine to those deities who continually heard my pleas to let him get well and live. 

For the next year, life was fairly normal and peaceful, with Smudge adjusting to his new reality. Maintained by steroids, kidney medication, pills that kept blood flow to the brain and various other forms of medication, his head straightened, although his balance never quite returned to normal. His posture had changed, though, and his legs splayed quite badly at the back, so that sometimes we thought he would actually do the splits. 

In addition to medication, we tried every alternative therapy we could to try and help him. There was hydrotherapy (he didn’t like the water and became quite stressed), physiotherapy (the damage was neurological so this wasn’t going to help much) and acupuncture (he took it stoically, but it seemed to make him worse, so we stopped that). I researched desperately for something to help his legs, which were also beginning to ‘knuckle’ at the front. I found Kinesiology (taping of the affected areas to give support). We went to the vets, who showed us how to do it, but I think we all knew, it was a lost cause as the tapes just came off within an hour or so. Finally, I resorted to looking for equipment to help disabled dogs. 

I found a great company, Wheels4dogs, who sell equipment for dogs with disabilities. It is really expensive stuff and they were so supportive in allowing us to return goods that didn’t work. Nothing really helped, though; we tried splints of various sizes and density, (they either fell off, or were too rigid and I feared Smudge would actually break a leg if he slipped) and my one great hope, a doggy wheelchair consisting of wheels at the back and supporting bars along the length of his body. Smudge was having none of it though. Stubbornly, and I swear, deliberately, he refused to participate in this latest indignity and bowed forward with his front legs, tipping the thing over. Finally, I bought various types of harness that helped, I guess, in varying degrees, but not to the extent that I would have liked.

Andrew joked that the best ’80 quid’s worth’ was now a write-off several times over and the costs of maintenance had gone into the thousands. We wouldn’t have had it any other way, of course.

Each time I found something new, my hopes surged that we could help Smudge to get some of his former mobility back, only to be cruelly dashed as everything I tried, failed. Smudge toiled on though, still enjoying life as best he could, wolfing food and treats and moving to whatever extent he could. We were astonished, one night when we were all upstairs for a short time and my mother let out a yelp of astonishment. Andrew and I went running to the landing, to find Smudge, wonky and bandy, standing at the top of the stairs, panting with exertion and wagging his tail! The little fella had got bored on his own, and somehow, goodness only knows how, had made his way up the stairs to find us. We had to admire him, but needless to say, we never left any doors open if he had to be alone in the room again.

Every vet and therapist we saw, commented on what a cutie Smudge was, and what great spirit and personality he had. We managed, somehow, using a cheap underbelly harness and a collar harness to walk Smudge, now only in the back garden. For a while, he still managed to bark at horses on the telly, tell the cats to get out of his back yard, turn some clumsy circles when we shouted ‘mummy’s home’, which was the signal for his dental stick, devour his beloved doggy chocs and anticipate his short walks around the garden. He loved his food and a cup of tea which he’d ask for by sitting in front of me whenever there was a cup on the go, nodding his head at the cup, turning a circle and then sitting, wagging his stubby little tail furiously. 

Over the months, we bought several air beds (they didn’t last very long as a long-term solution) and now slept, either in turns, or together next to him on the floor. After his last ambulation around the garden, we would close the curtains before bed. Dogs have such peculiar traits sometimes, and Smudge developed one which made everyone laugh. At some point, he began to signal it was time for bed by pushing the curtains together with his nose and trying to pull them closed by pawing them with his front legs, his little back legs wide apart for balance. This went on for a few months causing hilarity amongst all who witnessed it. 

Gradually, Smudge’s condition deteriorated and ‘walking’ became more ‘hauling’ him around the garden which led to me needing chiropractic treatment. In his last few weeks, Smudge’s legs became so weakened, that he could only be carried to the garden, held up manually by Andrew, and turn in ever decreasing and tighter circles, his gait twisting his little body. He had cataracts in his eyes and his vision was increasingly impaired. He would thump his paw to tell us when he wanted to go out or when he was hungry, but in his last couple of weeks, he could only bob his head up and down to communicate.

Not So Happy New Year, 2020 

As Christmas 2020 approached, after an already dreadful year for everyone, in so many respects, Smudge became less able to do any of the things he once loved, even down to refusing most of his treats. Thankfully, he still wolfed his food and water, but he could no longer move independently. Christmas and New Year was the saddest. Smudge showed interest in his presents but couldn’t enjoy them as he once had.  I tried to ignore all the Happy New Year stuff, knowing that 2021 would be our swan song. 

There were several scares when I thought, this is it; he’s given up now, only to find a day later that he was back to thumping his paw or bobbing his head with gusto and enthusiasm. He no longer barked, and seemed to have forgotten how to wag his tail. His eyes remained bright with determination on each recovery from a bad day, and I recoil in horror, how just hours before, I might have taken that last decision to send him to his rest. I was desperate that he might end his days, without trauma, at home, maybe just in his sleep, and I resisted the final decision, hoping it was one I might never have to take. Research on the internet told me though, that dogs rarely died peacefully at home and would need intervention. I told myself that Smudge would tell me when it was time. 

The toll that the extended deterioration of my beloved boy took on me was profound. It was like watching a terminally ill child (and I did love him as a second child) gradually die, and I grieved every day, for his loss of mobility, for the loss of the things he enjoyed and for the loss of him that I knew was inevitable. I was deeply conflicted about when I would have to take action and, in truth, I probably should have taken him to the vet earlier. I did speak with them, honestly, about his condition and I was assured that although general quality of life was probably low, he seemed to be comfortable, still eating and sleeping well. In the last two weeks, however, Smudge was asleep more than he was awake, and by now, he was eating less. I would pick him up nightly for compulsory cuddles and we would gaze into each other’ eyes as I stroked his thinning body and tore myself up when I began to feel his ribs.  He was going for lengthy periods without urinating and, because he couldn’t support himself, he needed help to do a poo. We had lactulose from the vet, which made things easier, but after internet research, I helped him with an ice cube held at his back end to stimulate movement. It had become a monumental effort for him to complete the job himself, so in our last days, I also manually helped him to squeeze out his poos. 

By now, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was time, and yet, I could not bring myself to bundle him in the car and take him to the vet, where COVID meant only one of us could be with him in his final moments. Going to the vet stressed him and I resisted with every sinew, taking him from his comfortable, loving home, to the finality of the vet’s table. In many ways, I regret that now, fearing that in hindsight, perhaps I left it longer than he might have wished.

Say a Little Prayer 

I was constantly praying to every deity and guardian angel who would give me their ears, asking for help in deciding the time and to give me the courage to carry out whatever was necessary. In the end, I think my prayers were answered. Smudge needed a repeat prescription for his kidney tablets and the vet called me to say they would need to see him before prescribing another batch. I felt my blood draining from me, but knew that he would have to go for his appointment, organised for the next day. I swear I was shaking inside and out when I ended the call but there was also an overwhelming sense of relief; not for me, but for Smudge, whom I felt I was now failing with my indecision. I tried to tell myself that even if I got the news I didn’t want to hear, surely, we could bring him home for the night to say our final goodbyes and have our final compulsory cuddle. Sadly that was not to be.

On the day of our appointment, I worked, as usual in the morning, strangely calm, perhaps a little in denial. Several times I went into the living room and stole a few kisses from my boy, stroking his beautiful little head. I gave him ‘lunchies’, tuna mayonnaise, although it was more a question of me squeezing it through his teeth. I syringed water into his mouth as I had done for the last week or so, Smudge now unable, or unwilling, to drink from his bowl.  His fur was a little sticky, and his paws a little muddy after going in the garden with beloved ‘Uncle Andrew’. Before bundling him into his new blue and black puffer jacket, because it was cold and raining heavily outside, I washed his face gently and Uncle Andrew washed his paws, then touchingly, appeared with a comb to smooth out the sticky bits. Smudge sat there, on the floor, bobbing his head on his favourite cushion, looking so smart in his new jacket. My heart twisted inside my chest, as Andrew went out to warm up the car for Smudge to be comfortable. Like a woman going for her own execution, I shivered as I sat in the passenger seat for Andrew to carry Smudge into my lap. He had his new Christmas blanket wrapped around him and he sat gazing, probably sightlessly up at me,  as I stroked his head on the way to the vets. I still could not believe that anything bad would happen and that we would, at the very least, be going home for a night or two more together. I hugged him closer to me, revelling in the feel of his warmth and the sheer presence of his form on my knee.

The Green Mile to our Last Goodbye

Just as the cruelty of COVID has prevented loved ones seeing each other in hospital, the vet came out to the car to take Smudge, alone, for an examination. This followed a discussion on the phone when I updated her from the last call a week or two earlier. She promised she would phone us back to discuss his condition shortly. Andrew and I spent a tense time waiting for the call, although, the phone rang rather sooner than I had anticipated. I put it on loudspeaker so that Andrew could hear too. I was still calm, but I think we both knew what was coming. 

“I’m really sorry, but Smudge has anaemia and his oxygen is low,” the vet said. “He might have a tumour that’s bleeding or has had an internal bleed. I really wouldn’t be comfortable letting him go home tonight, because he could, at any time have difficulty breathing and that would be terrible for him and for you. I think it’s time for him to be put to sleep.”  I let out a wail of misery, barely able to breathe myself. Andrew had tears running down his cheeks. I told the vet that yes, we couldn’t have Smudge going into distress or experiencing any fear or pain and that if this had to be done, so be it. She told us that if we liked, she would bring him to the car after putting a canula in his leg and we could sit with him together, to say our farewells. After that, only one of us could go in to be with him. It felt so cruel after all these years of being the three of us that now, at this most desperate of moments, only one of us could stay with Smudge in his final moments. We understood, of course, but it wasn’t easy. As Smudge’s mum of fifteen and a half years, I would go to be with him, but Andrew had been his beloved ‘unk’ for ten of those years, and I know Smudge would have cherished his presence too. It couldn’t be, though, and we have to be grateful for small mercies that at least one of us could be there with him in these troubled times. 

Smudge was brought back to us, still in his jacket and bundled up in a thick towel. The vet laid him on my lap and told us to phone when we were ready. How would we ever be ready to say goodbye to this frail little bundle who had bolstered and enriched our lives for so many years? Conscious that they were waiting for us inside, we spoke to Smudge, stroked his little head as he closed his eyes and dozed. I told him how much I loved him and held him close as both Andrew and I had tears rolling down our faces. After a short while (too short) we agreed it was best to call and not upset Smudge with our distress. The vet came back and helped me out with Smudge so that I could walk the Green Mile with my beloved boy. I have never felt such despair, and yet, deep down, I knew I had to let him go to his rest. 

It was all very calm and peaceful. Smudge lay down on a thick towel on the table. He didn’t seem distressed in the least. I realised that his deep fatigue was probably as a result of the anaemia and that was a good thing for him as he didn’t seem particularly aware of anything untoward. I held his paw and stroked his head, keeping him steady as the vet inserted the syringe into the canula. She explained that his heart would stop but not to be afraid or surprised if there was twitching or air expelling afterwards as this was normal. He went so quickly and so peacefully, and for that I am grateful. She left me to have a few more minutes with him and again, I held his little body, stroked and kissed his head, telling him how sorry I was and how much I loved him. We agreed I would leave his coat and blanket for now (I couldn’t walk out with an empty coat in my hands) and I would pick it up when I collected his ashes in a week or so.

There was a deluge of icy rain, befitting of this, the bleakest of days, as I walked out of the surgery. I couldn’t see for the tears or breathe through my sobbing. Andrew got out of the car and we clung to each other, knowing that a huge part of our lives was gone and could never be replaced.

It was a body blow, returning home and seeing Smudge’s things where he left them and the flashbacks of him in the spot from which he had been taken only a couple of hours before. Our grief was livid and raw, the depth of misery intense, as the reality set in that our boy had gone forever and we would never laugh with him, cuddle him, stroke his head or reach out to feel him breathing again in the night. The last six months had been nightmarish, exhausting, sometimes frustrating, but I would honestly have done it all again, forever, if need be, just to know that Smudge was with us. The tears rolled down our faces, staring at Smudge’s empty little spot, the heartbeat of our lives snuffed out. 

"So I said to him - why the long face...?"  Smudgie the bar room bore (as we used to call him in this favourite position)! 

Forever Loved, forever missed, farewell my beautiful boy. Rest in peace, wherever you are.

Next – I'm Only Talking to My Dog Today

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