Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

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HE was part of the family, our faithful companion, our walking partner, our couch buddy, the children’s playmate.

Now he is gone and we miss his cold, wet nose and the pitter-patter of his feet on the kitchen floor.

He was so loved and we are so desperately sorry to say goodbye.

It’s been a painful week.

Henry, the family dog, has died, leaving behind a void in our lives.

When the end was nigh, we knew it and he knew it too.

His hind legs had seized up and were folding beneath him. He had stopped eating and drinking and he found it difficult to walk, each step an agonising struggle.

My parents bought him home as a puppy 15 years ago.

A furry bundle of energy, tearing up and down the garden, his legs moving too quickly for his body so he would tumble head-first into the bushes with a yelp.

He had a thick, shaggy coat which came down over his eyes so he had to cock his head on one side to see.

Only a few weeks old, he was already a master at begging for scraps, whimpering softly and lifting one hairy paw to your knee so it was impossible to resist sneaking him a crumb.

We thought long and hard about what to call him but the usual doggy names – Bingo, Scooby, Buddy, Mungo – just didn’t seem to fit.

It was my mother who chose Henry. She said he had the personality of a little boy rather than that of a mutt and therefore needed a traditional moniker.

He fit into our lives perfectly – as though he had always meant to be part of the team.

He was incredibly naughty, constantly foraging for food and always refusing to come when called.

But this stubborn streak endeared him to us all the more.

And he did plenty to keep us entertained.

He would bound off into the bushes in the park, emerging 10 minutes later covered in mud after rolling in a filthy puddle. We would get him home, drag him up to the bathroom and get the shower on him, only for him to escape dripping wet, hurtling down the stairs to shake all over the carpet.

His first winter it snowed. He took tentative steps out into the garden, confused, disorientated. He sniffed the air and then gave a huge bark before launching himself into a snow drift, completely disappearing from sight.

But as childlike as his enthusiasm for new experiences was, he also had remarkable intelligence.

He could sense when someone was unhappy or unwell. His little black face would appear beside you and he would nuzzle his head into your hand, as if stroking his silky ears would right the wrongs. It usually did but if you still needed comfort he would stretch out and allow you to use his warm tummy as a pillow.

He was easy to talk to and it never mattered that he didn’t talk back. He was just a loving listener whose serious brown eyes made you think he understood every word.

When we were younger, my sister, brother and I would argue over who he loved best.

But the truth was Henry only had eyes for my mother. She was leader of the pack and he would follow her around all day long, getting under her feet and snuggling up to her whenever she sat down.

It was devastating for her when it became clear his journey was over.

On his final walk, he collapsed on the pavement and she had to carry him home.

She rang the vet who told her it was time to say goodbye.

When the shots were administered, she held him close, feeding him squares of chocolate and stroking his paw.

Grief is our final expression of love, the last gift we have to offer.

People often sneer at those who mourn their pets or think “getting another one” will put everything right.

But actually it’s not unusual to feel devastating loss when a pet dies.

Lord Byron’s inscription on the headstone to his dog, Boatswain, illustrates the pain perfectly.

It reads: “Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices.”

I found it very difficult to tell my children Henry was gone.

Having never had a pet, they had adopted him as their own, a patient playmate even in his old age.

It’s a hard lesson to learn – that the joy of owning an animal goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreak of losing one.

My daughter was tearful but more stoic than I thought she might be.

“Will he ever come back?” she asked. “I would like to hear him say ‘woof’ one more time.”

“No,” I replied sadly. “He can’t come back.”

“I won’t forget him then,” she said.

And neither will I.

Email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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