Milly had been my pet for fourteen years.
The day she died was when a part of me died too, another little piece of my heart.
She was given to me at eight weeks of age, a tiny soft bundle of fluff. From the minute I held her, she clung to me as if her life depended on it, and in a way it did, and mine on hers.
“Mrs Wilson, this is our way of saying sorry for your loss. We know how lonely you will be without Mr Wilson, so we thought a puppy would keep you company”, and all the girls from the gymnastics club that I taught at, stood on my front door step, some crying, and handed me Milly.
She did help with the loneliness. I had lots of friends, but at night time when they were lying next to their partners in bed, comfortable and warm, I lay on my side of the bed, feeling alone - awake for a lot of the night.
I used to say that if I had a dog, it would not be allowed to sleep on the bed (mainly because I knew Ben would never allow it) He would to say to me “They’ve been digging and getting into all sorts of stuff in the garden and you want that on our bedspread? No way!”.
We didn’t get a dog when Ben was alive anyway. We were always busy with our work, I sometimes worked at the weekend and he travelled with his job - it wasn’t fair if we couldn’t walk a dog each day, and I certainly wouldn’t want to leave it with just anyone, if we weren’t around.
My sister Vanessa had a dog she rescued from the dog pound. She was lively but with a sweet nature, but looking of her, you would think she was mean and tough. Her head was square and rather large, she had a solid body and big teeth, but when you got to know her, you realised she was just a soft marshmallow. My nieces and nephews adored her and played rough and tumble all the time, and the dog was much more fearful of the kids than them of her.
When Vanessa’s family went away on their last holiday, she asked if I would come and just feed Lila before work for two mornings. Her friend was coming to stay at the house but couldn’t come for two days after they left. “The neighbour will walk her both mornings, and then pop in during the day, so could you just feed her first thing and give her some love?” she asked almost running out of the door before I could say anything!
It was an easy task as we lived just down the road from my sister. I was greeted at 7am by a big softie, licking my face and wanting me to play. “Sorry Lila, I’m just here to feed you and give you a few pats”, which I did, wiping my slobbery face on my sleeve. And even after that, I realised then that I couldn’t wait to have a dog of my own.
Ben got really sick, and for a long time he needed a lot of care. So it was never the right time for us to get a puppy or even a fully grown dog. “When you get well, we will get a dog Ben” I would tell him, “We’ll take it to the park every day and when we go away together, the dog comes too”.
But for the time being I put the idea right out of my head. It was enough dealing with work, a home and a very ill husband.
The first time Ben was in remission, he was so weak that it took weeks before he had regained his strength, but then thankfully Ben could walk again without needing to rest and catch his breath.
Then the big C came back again, taking us all by surprise as he didn’t seem to have any signs or symptoms that anything was wrong. He was a fighter though , and fought hard to not let the insidious disease beat him.
Once again he went into remission, and we went away as much as we could. We knew that our time together was probably limited so made the most of weekend trips to out of the way places, offering the peace and solitude that was much needed for Ben and myself.
Ultimately, we both knew after trying intermittently, and after so much chemotherapy, that children weren’t going to happen for us. It was tough staying positive knowing we would be childless, and it would only ever be just us, but our main aim was just to keep Ben alive.
He died peacefully one night the week after the cancer had returned, and this time it had spread throughout his body. It was both unexpected and yet not a total surprise. I knew that Ben would have wanted to go quickly rather than to hang on, and unselfishly, for my sake.
I was of course beyond sad. The gentle and loving man I had married was gone. I had no children to look at and think ‘You’ve got your dad’s eyes or Ben would have loved seeing how clever his son or daughter had turned out to be’ but I tried to tell myself that I was lucky to have wonderful memories, which was true, although sometimes that didn’t seem enough.
Milly became my best friend. I could never imagine how much comfort a little fluffy dog would bring to someone. On a cold and rainy night, we would snuggle up together on the couch and keep each other warm. I would to say to her most mornings when she jumped off the bed to go outside, ‘your dad would never have allowed this you know!’
It’s funny how you talk to your dog as if they are human beings, even though you know you won’t ever get an answer. Maybe them not talking back was a good thing, especially when asking for an opinion on how you looked! “Oh, I really need to colour my hair” I would tell Milly and she would just stare at me or run off.
One evening when I had come home from work a bit later than usual, and walked up to my front door, I noticed that it was slightly ajar. I didn’t feel in the least worried that someone was inside as the catch was dodgy, and I had been meaning to have it fixed for quite a while. Sometimes when you shut it behind you, it didn’t catch on the latch, but if you walked off, not looking behind, how did you know?
I was annoyed at myself for leaving it this long and not having fixed it, and then pushed it open. Millie didn’t run to the door to greet me like usual. In fact, as I walked through to the kitchen, I realised she wasn’t even in the house. I went to every room calling her name. I began to feel extremely worried.
I frantically ran to my neighbour and banged on her door. As she opened it, I quickly asked if she had seen Millie at all during the day but the answer was ‘no’. “Get in my car” she said to me “and we’ll have a drive around”.
She was nowhere to be found. I came home and rang everyone I knew who lived in the area and asked them all if they had seen her, but the answer was the same. ‘Please come back Milly’ I prayed feeling very upset at the thought that she could have been run over, or just lost and lonely out there.
My sister came over and brought me some dinner. “I can’t eat Jo, let’s go out again and drive around. She has to be somewhere.”
By 11pm I was exhausted. There was no sign of her. I finally went to bed well after 2am with a banger of a headache, knowing I wouldn’t sleep, and crying into one of her little blankets.
Once upon a time I would never have believed that a dog could make so much difference to my life, and give me so much happiness. She filled a void, greeting me whenever I came home with a furiously wagging tail and a few quick licks on my hand – letting me know how much she had missed me.
It was never ‘dinner for one’, it was ‘dinner for one and titbits for the other’. Even having a little dog curled up like a foetus on the end of my bed, made me feel brave, and gave me comfort. (And sometimes plenty of sand on the quilt cover!)
I didn’t just want Milly back; I needed her back.
It had been two days since Milly disappeared. I was lost without her. I went to work and came home, then changed my clothes and went walking around the area, scanning the same places and calling her name. Nothing.
On the third days after she disappeared, I had a phone call. “Hello Fiona speaking” I answered.
It was from an elderly gentleman who lived about twenty kilometres from my house.
“Hello Fiona. Do you own, or have you lost a little dog called Milly?” he asked me.
“Oh no, are you kidding me? Is it really Milly? A poodle X?”
“Oh ‘m not sure about that love. All I know is that she is brown and fluffy and has a name tag with Milly written on it, and of course this phone number.”
“Yes, she’s mine. Thank you, thank you. I’ll come and get her now.”
He gave me his address and I set off, crying with relief and feeling a mixture of excitement and disbelief at the thought of getting Milly back.
When I found his house, he told me how he had come outside at 6am to pick up his newspaper, it was raining and cold. As he bent down, he saw a little bedraggled dog in his front garden, quite close to him. Slowly and quietly, he walked up to her and coaxed her into his arms. He said that Milly had snuggled in and fallen asleep very quickly, so he walked next door to his neighbours to get some of their dog’s biscuits for when she woke up.
Fiona was not only very grateful to the stranger but felt that the emptiness she had without her dog was no longer with her. She felt complete again.
As soon as they neared their house in Fiona’s car, Milly began to move from one side of the back seat to the other in excitement. Her tail wagged as if it was on the top number on a speed dial. She knew that she was home and had a couple of barks as if saying “I’m back.”
“I don’t think she will run off like that again” Fiona told her sister over the phone “She is following me like a shadow – and I love it!”
Fiona couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing at the vets.
Since Milly had been back home with her, she seemed so content, loved playing throw the soft toy and bring it back, for what seemed like hours on end and standing patiently for Fiona to give a few morsels of each meal she had! It had been at least a couple of months or more since she got lost and in that period of time, Milly had seemed just like her normal self.
One morning Milly didn’t eat her breakfast, and wandered around the house slowly with her head down as if she had been told off and was in trouble. “What’s wrong little one?” Fiona asked her. “Have you gone off the lamb and veg? Fuss pot!”
But even changing the flavour of the meat roll didn’t make any difference. That same day, in the evening after Fiona changed the food in the dog’s bowl, she didn’t come to even sniff it, and was still there the next morning. “I think I should take you to see the vet” Fiona said to a lifeless little dog lying in her basket.
As she walked into the old building, Milly in her arms, Fiona had a strange feeling in her chest, stressful. She felt even more uneasy when the vet, after examining Milly, said “I think we’ll need blood tests.”
So here she was, the next day, sitting in the vet’s room waiting for the results from the blood test. Her constant companion lay lifeless in her arms. Fiona looked down at her into the dark brown eyes, sad and quite lifeless. She couldn’t help herself, tears welled up in her own eyes at the thought of losing Millie.
The vet’s words echoed in her head as if they were coming from a place far away, slightly muffled, not clear. “What did you just say?” she asked
“I’m so sorry Fiona, Milly doesn’t have long. She has a very aggressive blood cancer and it’s too far gone already.”
“But she was perfectly alright a couple of months ago. I even took her when I went hiking two weeks ago, she was ok. Are you sure? Have you mixed up her results with another dogs?” Fiona was crying now.
“Fiona, look at her, she can hardly lift her head off your arm. It’s the type of cancer that doesn’t show up until it’s almost too late”.
“Almost, so she can get better?” she asked the vet wiping her eyes with a tissue.
“No Fiona. It’s too late. I am so sorry”.
She looked down at her friend, and love of her life. Her dull eyes were looking at Fiona with love, but she hardly moved. The warmth of her soft tummy was spreading through Fiona’s body and she stroked the soft brown fur, tears fell on it.
“What shall I do?” she asked, wanting someone else to make the decision.
“There would be no point in taking Milly home – she won’t improve. Why don’t you spend as much time as you would like with her here, and then we can put her out of her misery, kindly and lovingly.”
Fiona felt numb. ‘I must be dreaming, and I’ll wake up soon and Milly will be clambering over me on my bed. Please let me be dreaming. I don’t think I can do this…not again’ she thought fearfully.
She doesn’t know how long she sat with Milly but Fiona turned when she heard the door open, and a kindly voice told her “We are ready when you are Fiona. It’s the kindest thing we can do.”
Fiona kissed the head of her beautiful dog and let the vet nurse take her out of her arms. She remembers seeing Milly turning her eyes towards her as she left the room, and felt as if she was saying to her “I know you don’t want to.”
She doesn’t know how long she sat in her car crying her eyes out - not wanting to go home to an empty house.
The staff from the surgery all came out after locking up and the nurse knocked on her window, which she wound down. As she handed Fiona the little pink collar and silver letter M that had hung from it, she said “Millie went very peacefully. She didn’t move. I will ring you in a day or two and you can pick up the urn Fiona. Can I ring someone for you?”
“No thank you.” Said Fiona clasping the collar in her hand. “I’ll ring my sister now and she will stay at my place with me tonight. Did she just close her eyes and go to sleep?” Fiona needed to know how peaceful Millie felt. It mattered to her.
“Yes, so peaceful.”
Fiona’s sister came over, with some dinner and they sat together eating in silence. Fiona felt quite sick with her headache but needed something to eat. It did help slightly. “I don’t know what I shall do now without her Jo.”
Her sister didn’t say too much. There was no point in saying “You will get over it in time, or one day you can get another puppy, or it’s very raw now but will get better, honestly.” None of those were what Fiona wanted or needed to hear, so all she said was “It’s so sad Fi and will take a while, but I’m here for you, whenever you need me.”
“Thank you, Jo. Goodnight.” As Fiona slumped on her bed, she slid her hand under her pillow and placed the collar there. She imagined that she was cuddling her little dog and a warm in her heart, and at peace.
It became a ritual. Each night Fiona would put the little collar with the M letter hanging from it under her pillow, and each time she went for a walk, she would take the collar out and put it into the pocket of whatever she was wearing. If she didn’t have a pocket then she just held it tight. That way it was as if Milly was always with her doing the two things that they both loved. Sleeping on the end of the bed, and going for a walk.
It was a special bond that could never be broken. It had helped Fiona cope with the loss of her beloved Ben - now this habit, or ritual was helping her cope with the loss of Milly.
Humans or animals. The love might be different but a loss is just that. It’s something that takes a tiny piece of your heart, each time.