This is the first time that I have managed to write this year – that is in 2020 – for so many reasons. How is it even possible that we are in 2020? Is it too late to wish you all a Happy New Year? I hope I can just about get away with it, although many of you will have already done “dry January” or “Veganuary” and might be well into “fit Feb”!
I have felt so low, have had so much pain and have just not been able to write anything worth reading. I am so sad. Before Christmas I lost my chronic companion, my elderly fur baby, my dear old dog Samson. Never did I imagine just how hard his loss would hit me, never did I imagine how many tears I would weep. This daft, crazy, hairy boy stands for so much more to me than just my pet.
Let me tell you about Sam. Six months after I first went on long term sick leave from my nursing job, I had begun to accept that the chronic pain in my lower back and leg were not going away any time soon. An epidural had caused a CSF leak and the cocktail of drugs that my old hospice consultant had put me on – pregabalin, oxycodone and mirtazepine – were not touching my pain. The likelihood of returning to work as a ward based hospice nurse was looking highly unlikely. The kids wanted a dog, but with us both out working very unsocial hours it was just not going to happen. One fateful Sunday I made a throw away comment that as it was looking unlikely I would be going back to work “maybe we will get a dog sooner than we thought”. The young engineer, aged 12, went online and immediately started searching animal rescue charities……
To cut a long story short, I received a telephone call to say that our family had been matched with Samson – help, hubby had been at work and had no idea what was going on. Sam needed rehoming as his human mum in Wales had been taken in to a hospice and his human young siblings were going to live with grandparents so “you don’t need to worry about the children as he is used to them”. Ever a sucker for a sob story how could I say no? “Claire, what on earth have you done?” or words to that effect came out of hubby’s mouth “you can’t even stand up, let alone walk a dog!”. Within a week we had been visited to check our home, garden and family set up, and found ourselves travelling to a foster home to meet him…..and bring him home.
You see hubby and I fell in love immediately with this beautiful, shaggy collie/retriever cross. He was timid and terrified of hubby, and when he wouldn’t stay in the boot of the car managing to squeeze past the mesh dog guard, we probably should have guessed that there might be fun ahead of us. Sammy and I bonded that night on the back seat of the car as we sped round the M25 motorway. He was shaking like a leaf but gradually settled with his head on my lap, looking up at me with big soulful eyes – from that moment he became my biggest fan, my protector and my constant companion.
Over the next months as my own pain issues worsened, Sam’s own “foibles” (sounds better than problems!) started to surface. From day one he was wonderful with the kids, was house trained, never ventured upstairs and was happy to be left in the kitchen when we went out. But……it soon become apparent that he had never been socialised with other dogs, had probably been abused by a man and was terrified of so many things. He tried to round up cars and bikes and barked at anything that moved when we took him out. At this point we were beginning to think that the rescue charity hadn’t quite told us everything……..(if they knew!).
I had my first back fusion whilst Samson started at “special” dog training classes – that is classes where the training was done by other dogs, yes really!! Whilst I was being prodded and poked with injections, physio and scans, Sam was assessed by the behavioural specialists at Dog Communications. He was deemed to be special needs – if human he would be on the autistic spectrum we were told – and the teaching dogs had picked up on his nerves and anxiety as they didn’t respond to his barking. Over the years we found few dogs did respond when he barked frantically. Meanwhile I had a spinal fusion with bone grafts which failed to relieve my pain and actually accelerated my failing mobility and EDS problems. But I now had a constant companion, a wonderful presence in the house to talk to, laugh with and cry with.
Our journeys ran on parallel rails as Sam’s special training was abandoned and yours truly had to accept that another fusion was necessary. We really did give that training a good go as the young engineer (then just entering his teens) took Samson every Saturday morning to an often muddy, wet field at a local smallholding. There they walked together around the edge of the field, whilst the other dogs were taught to socialise with various interactive activities. Sam never stopped barking when the other dogs were around, and the canine crowd never took any notice of him. Eventually the trainers felt that actually our boy (maybe boys if we include the young engineer) was finding the whole experience too stressful and wasn’t getting any benefits.
I meanwhile had to accept that another fusion was a means to an end. Without corrective surgery first – fusion at the correct point of the spine! – I couldn’t be referred for spinal cord stimulator consideration. Eight hours of surgery and four nights in hospital later, I returned home battered, bruised and knowing that I had permanent damage to my nerve root. The consultant had been able to identify an actual problem and I knew it wasn’t in my head. How many times had I cried onto that black, fluffy head that no one understood and people thought I was imagining it?
Sam was there waiting for me on my return home, as he was after every trip away be it for hospital stays or just a few hours. Over the years he knew when I was having a bad day and as I started to faint frequently as my POTS symptoms worsened, he began to anticipate it and was always there when I came to on the floor – ready with a tail wag and a lick of concern. The last decade saw my movement and mobility deteriorate and as I worsened, so did Samson. My decline was due to a myriad of health issues, Sam’s due to old age. We never knew exactly how old he was, but last year he was at least 17.
We both started to experience increasing problems from arthritic joint pain and two years ago, as I increasingly had to mount the stairs at night on hands and knees, Samson became agitated at night downstairs. Initially he would watch me climb the stairs and settle at the bottom, but soon he wanted to be upstairs and sleeping at my side. Suddenly I was stuck between two snoring boys!! This only lasted for as long as he was able to climb the stairs and last summer the pattern was broken after a week spent at his human grandparents’ home.
I think that it is commonly accepted now that animals can be so beneficial to our health in a multitude of ways and Sam definitely became a therapy dog for me. A mad, barking, exceedingly hairy one, but I knew that I was his number one. He followed me wherever I went even nudging the toilet door if he thought I had been in there too long. During the increasingly frequent “bad” days when the pain and dislocations have become hard to cope with, he has always been there to comfort me and I loved him in return. Towards the end of the year he was having more problems walking and couldn’t stand up on the wooden floors in the house. I actually bought him little doggy non slip socks and the first time that I put them on, he walked as if he was wearing concrete boots – but they did help.
As a family, we knew that a difficult decision lay ahead of us – the vet had already warned us that Sam had a dental abscess that couldn’t be healed by antibiotics alone. But at such a great age we weren’t sure that surgery was the right thing to put him through. Our aim was to keep him happy and comfortable and to see both boys come home for Christmas – he seemed on track. Then one evening he began to behave strangely – even by his standards. He was unable to walk in a straight line and kept walking round in circles, and then as the night progressed he became increasingly distressed. Hubby and the lovely girl spent the night on the floor camped out by his side, whilst I spent it feeling guilty that I couldn’t be on the floor with him.
The difficult decision had been taken out of our hands and by 9am hubby and I had arrived at the vets. The journey there was awful as Sam cried in distress and I knew that his well being had to come first. But as the vet examined him and diagnosed a probable brain event, the sudden realisation that I was about to lose my beautiful boy hit home.
The journey home was incredibly quiet as we both tried to “be brave” and hold it together. I failed completely, but hubby had to drive. The feeling of walking into the house and knowing we had left him behind was indescribable. Hubby lost it on seeing those silly little non slip socks…….then we had to call the boys with the news. My guilt that I couldn’t keep him going until the politics student returned from university still hasn’t gone yet. I knew that I would find it hard, but I didn’t know just how tough it would be to adjust to not having my constant companion with me.
I miss him every morning when I come down the stairs, every time I come home to an empty house, every evening when I’m not being pestered to get his dinner. I have refilled his water bowl, heard him snuffling in the night or caught the sound of his feet running down the steps in our back garden. If you had asked me a few months ago if I thought it possible to miss his barking at the back gate, I would have thought you mad…..but yes, I miss that too. Most of all I miss his unconditional love.
I have recently started the application process to be paired with an assistance dog, something I had been looking into before Sam died. It is completely irrational, but I feel so guilty. There is a huge Samson shaped hole in my life and it represents so much more than my pet – my protector, my number one fan, my chronic companion.