Friday, September 16, 2011

A Good Day to Die

Hearing that someone you love is about to die is never easy. It's even more difficult when you're 12,000 miles away and can't get there to say goodbye. There's an overwhelming desire to just see that person one more time.  You cast your mind back to when you last saw them. What did you talk about? Was there laughter? Laughter's good. Did you leave on good terms? Did you wave? A wave is treasured.

Nellie is my aunt. A very close aunt, despite the fact that we live 12,000 miles apart for much of the year. She has no children of her own but lots of nephews and nieces whom she always spoilt rotten when we were little. She's just coming up to her 90th birthday, but I don't think she's going to make it. Last night I received a phone call from my cousin to say that the doctors thought Nellie might only have 24 hours left. They were just going to make her comfortable. Nellie is frightened of dying. I know she is. And especially of dying alone. She's not very good with pain either. I need to tell them this. I need them to know that she won't like it if they close the curtains. That she'll like the television on, even if the sound is off. And she likes her hair brushed... get someone to do that for her. Hold her hand. And let her keep her teeth in, because she hates to be seen without them. She'll want to look presentable. She was always very clothes conscious. And remember, hold her hand.

All my cousins will be with her. She won't be alone, I'm sure. But I should be there. Instead I'm here, 12,000 miles from where I'm needed. I should be the one holding her hand. I'm the oldest niece. I was four when I went to her wedding. She was the aunt who was always laughing. And nothing made her happier than to be surrounded by nieces and nephews. She loved us all.

So now I'm just waiting for another phone call. I can't do anything else from this distance. I'm hoping she'll just drift away... isn't that what we all want? I hope the sun will shine; that she'll gaze out of the window at the clouds floating by and think to herself, yes... this is a good day to die. But I know from experience that it doesn't always work out that way. So now I'm just sitting. Looking at old photographs, remembering happy times. And waiting for the phone call...


Monday, September 5, 2011


Out walking at the weekend I came across a... well, would you believe it... a Push-Me-Pull-You. There it was, as plain as day, doing much the same as I was, if the truth be known. Just taking advantage of what might well turn out to be the last summery weekend we see this year.  It sat there, minding its own business, soaking up the sun, not knowing quite which way to look under such close scrutiny.

Kristal didn't know what to make of it. Which head should she address? Which way would it run if she dared to spook it?  One small pup could cause havoc in a paddock of Push-Me's if given the chance, so we moved on to bother some badgers. Well, they would have been bothered if they'd been home. Evidence suggested that they'd recently been evicted.

Up in the field, the crop had been harvested and so we were able to stand in the midst of nothingness and soak up the sense of  S  P  A  C  E .  Kristal didn't know which way to run first.

She had a lovely time charging up and down the tracks made by the huge harvester and leaping over the stubble. Whenever I'm in a field like this I'm reminded of the harvesting episodes in Tess of the d'Urbervilles - the back-breaking work; the long hours. And I think of the many paintings of villagers gleaning what they can from the fields once harvest is over. I bend down to assess just how much useful grain I might be able to salvage... and then I wonder what I'd have to do to it before it was any use to me...  and how long would that take me? Yes, there is something to be said for progress... I'm so glad I can just pop down to Waitrose.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Does my bum look big in this?

                             Go on, tell me....  does my bum look big in this?

Don't you just love a dog in uniform? Kristal has her blue and gold Guide Dogs jacket now. I had to shorten it by an inch all along the back to hoist it up a bit. Reminded me of my mother putting HUGE hems on my gymslip and saying, 'Don't worry, you'll grow into it.' I was always conscious of that deep hem. It seemed to signify a particular socio-economic bracket wherein you have to make things last. This trait has stayed with me. I never throw away a garment made from good fabric because one day I'll re-style it into something more up to date. Consequently,  I have a wardrobe full of clothes awaiting renovation and can't find anything that's fit to go.

The jackets the pups wear help to identify them to shop owners and the public. They don't guarantee us entry into places.... that's at the discretion of the owner or manager as only fully qualified Assistance Dogs are legally allowed to enter areas otherwise closed to dogs. We've rarely ever been been refused entry. Most people recognize this important aspect of the training but, occasionally, we have to fight our corner and sometimes accept defeat, despite our best PR efforts. The jackets help to identify the pup as a working dog in training and the public generally know not to disturb the pup. When I give talks in schools I emphasise the point that when the dog is wearing a jacket it's working or training.... the children catch on to this quickly. I liken it to their school uniform. When they're in uniform, they're in learning mode. I sometimes hear children in the street explaining to their mums... 'no, Mummy, it's wearing a jacket so you're not supposed to disturb it.'

Jackets go through various design stages and are constantly being assessed. Some pups don't like anything passed over their heads. Some, especially those with curly hair, sometimes find that the jacket tickles them. Some fabrics or fasteners irritate. If a pup is unhappy wearing a jacket it doesn't bode well for its future when asked to wear a harness, so we have to handle this stage sensitively.

Kristal is now four and a bit months old and showing definite signs of her ability to anticipate and grasp what is required of her in certain situations. When she sees me putting on lipstick or combing my hair... she knows I'm off out somewhere and she definitely wants to be included. The other day I'd put on my lippy and popped upstairs to get something. When I returned, she was sitting on the doormat with my shoe in readiness and her lead in her mouth! Admirable, except for the fact that both these items had been up on the kitchen worktop, supposedly well out of her reach.

Come on.... I'm waiting for you!

We're free running now and Kristal loves it. I take a whistle with me and every now and then practise the RECALL. She's very good. Soon I'll have to free run her in places where there are more distractions. That's always a testing time. I try to stay relaxed, but usually I'm on pins, hoping whichever dog I've got is not going to embarrass me or make me run a mile in order to catch up.

On free runs, Kristal supplements her diet with rabbit droppings which look exactly like her Royal Canin kibble. Probably taste the same as well. So far she's not been tempted by horse poo, but that will come. It always does. When out walking a bridle track, if I see a pile of horse poo ahead, it turns into a bit of a race between me and the dog to get to it first. Shouting 'LEAVE IT', from a distance, has no effect at all. I wish horse riders would give a thought to the mess they leave behind along country roads. I appreciate it's not likely they're ever going to be persuaded to carry poo-bags as dog walkers do, but they could be a little more considerate about where they allow the horse to drop it, surely.
We've not had many sunny days this summer, but now that Kristal is bigger it's a real pleasure taking her on a longer walk. Not too far, because young dogs have tender bones and joints and damage can be done by over-doing exercise. But she enjoys a walk in the park or cross-country, and chilling out is essential when so much of her training takes place in the busy High Street or station or in shops surrounded by lots of people.

Chilling out.

This is one of the perks of puppy walking. A walk in the sunshine with a young dog who is beginning to respond well -  who enjoys being with you just as much as you enjoy being with her. This is the essential basis of the teamwork that will be required for her future role.