Please tread softly.

My daughter would have been 24 today and I feel the need to type. My first pregnancy and all that usually entails. The joy, the pride, hopes for the future and a healthy dose of fear. Everything progressed normally in every way. I puked, it got better, I bloomed and then felt like a whale. Everything was ready, the Moses basket made up and waiting. I went full term and had a normal labour. I delivered a beautiful, perfect baby girl, with a thick head of red hair. But she never took her first breath.

No abnormalities inside or out. The post mortem later revealed nothing wrong whatsoever. “It’s just one of those terrible, sad, mysterious things” they said. She’s normal, your delivery was normal and you’re fine. Fine?

I won’t describe my feelings over the next few days or the pain of having to remain on a maternity ward. Of having to sign consent forms for the post mortem and knowing where she was going when I finally let her out of my arms and my sight. Seeing the vicar, going to the town hall to register both birth and death and making funeral arrangements.

Some things are still so painfully vivid and yet others are hazy. I can’t remember the outfit we chose for her to be buried in. I know she had a picture of me and her father in one hand and a tiny pink silk carnation in the other. So why can’t I remember her clothes? I remember screaming ‘don’t touch her’ when they asked if they should cut off a lock of her hair for me to keep. I regret that decision now, I think.

I remember thinking how cruel it was. If she ‘wasn’t meant to be’ why couldn’t I have miscarried at 6 weeks? I went to one SANDS support meeting. (Stillbirth and neonatal death society.) I listened as a woman wept while she told her story, of her little boy who died at 2 weeks old of a heart defect – and I felt overcome with jealousy. She had looked into her child’s eyes. I never did that. She took out pictures and another piece of me died inside. I have pictures. Pictures of a perfectly normal looking baby girl with bright red hair. But I’ve always kept them hidden. Because I know, in those pictures, she’s gone. And it just doesn’t seem right. I wish she’d lived, even if for just an hour – so I could proudly display her picture with those of my sons.

Her cemetery is next to a garden centre and on the funeral day I went in for flowers. There was a pregnant woman outside smoking. I’d never felt rage like that before. How I went passed without screaming at her, I don’t know. I did nothing wrong – and I was about to bury my daughter. Here was a pregnant smoker, who in my opinion did not deserve to be carrying that child.

The funeral. Tiny white coffin, carried by one. I’m not sure if my family have forgiven me for that day. Grief affects people differently in strange ways. I felt like I was holding on to my sanity by the thinnest of threads and so wrapped up in my grief I couldn’t cope with anybody else’s. I requested no one else be there, but me and her father. Utterly selfish in grief. Then the part I hated the most. A container of soil handed out towards me. I took a handful. And then I stood looking down at this tiny white coffin that contained my hopes, my dreams, my child – and all I could think was ‘he wants me to throw mud on my baby’. Opening my hand and letting that soil fall, is still the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

Over the years, I have lost other people I’ve loved. It’s so different though. Obviously no one should have to bury their child – but the grieving process is so different. Usually, amongst your grief, you have those fond memories to carry and reminisce. Stillbirth grief differs though, because you don’t know. As well as losing the physical presence, there’s so little to remember and smile about. It’s about the not knowing. The what ifs. And what could have been.

I suppose if you spend enough time in cemetery’s this phrase seems cliché. But it was the first time I’d seen it- and it’s stayed with me.   3 graves to the right of my daughter, a baby boy’s grave has part of a Keats poem. It reads:

Please tread softly, because you’re stepping on my dreams.

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The supervising Collie, part 2.

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Not long after his noise sensitivity and hiding issue manifested that I wrote about HERE,  we thought Dex was beginning to show signs of aggression. Upsettingly for me, it also seemed to be aimed primarily at me. He would be lying near me chewing a bone, or even sleeping upside down in another room – and would suddenly come flying at me growling or barking and would sometimes tug at my clothes. Within seconds of this apparent madness, he’d be back to my normal dog again. For a while, it was so frustrating as there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. I could simply walk across the room and would suddenly get accosted. He never bit me, but it was a bit scary. Then one day, I had the light bulb moment.

It was fortunate that Dex was in my son’s bedroom while I was in the lounge, as the few seconds it took him to get to me, made me realise what was going on. It was hot and I decided to open the lounge window. As I opened it, it made a horrible noise and I just had time to think “I must oil those hinges” before a distressed, snarling dog came flying at me. Bingo! This has something to do with noise. It didn’t answer all questions, but it was a start. However, once we had this base to work from, everything fell into place. Trial and error showed there was a 2ft ‘danger zone’ in front of the lounge window. If he was in the room with me, the growling would start as I approached this zone. This is what I mean when I say, a lot of problems occur because of a Collie’s ability to anticipate. Anybody can open any window in my home, with the exception of the lounge. He’s far worse with me when it comes to this window, which I’ll talk about another time – however, we now have a work around.

I’m sure dog trainers will say I’m doing everything wrong, but this works. People aren’t joking when they say Collie’s can learn an enormous vocabulary. All I do now, is tell him. I say, “Dex, I’m opening the window.” He will immediately come to my side and escort me to the window. He will go very still and watch intently while I open it. Once done, he’ll now wag his tail and return to whatever he was doing. Friends think I’m mad. But telling him is a hell of a lot more simple, than having a snarling dog charge at you, at 30 miles an hour! And in case you’re wondering, yes – I did oil the hinges 3yrs ago. And no – it didn’t make any difference at all.   He just has a window-ism issue!

Introducing Dexter, the Collie that supervises me.

This is my boy.  He has some issues but is an enormous part of my life.

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We got him as an 8 week pup. His dad was a working sheepdog and his mum and nan were farm dogs that kept an eye on free range chickens, turkeys, ducks and peacocks. I got him to help fill a void and heal my broken heart when my Collie x German Shepherd died.

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Having a Collie cross, I thought I knew all about Collies. Boy, was I wrong! I’d done some research, knew about the importance of exercise and stimulation. I knew they’re classed as being the most intelligent of breeds – but I think until you are owned by a Collie – nothing can prepare you. Lots of dogs are obedient and learn numerous commands. But the thing with Collies is their anticipation and the way they watch. I always refer to Dexter as having special needs. I’ve spent loads on doggy shrinks but they haven’t helped at all. Dog trainers may shake their heads in disgust at my next sentence, but it’s been the best way for us to have a life together. We do things Dex’s way and adapt to his needs. Let me elaborate.

From 8 to 20 weeks, I’d say everything was as normal as it is for everybody else that has an energetic Collie pup. By 10 weeks, he’d only pee inside on the special puppy pad. By 12 weeks he’d mastered toilet training completely. We did puppy socialising classes, all the necessary vet checks and vaccinations – and generally introduced him to the world.

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Then at about 20 weeks, his issues started to surface. First, was an extreme noise sensitivity. It began with him drooling and shaking and hiding if a helicopter flew over, or it thundered. Fireworks are problems for a lot of dogs and for some reason the sound of putting up my ironing board fills him with terror. We’ve learned that if indoors, it’s best not to fuss him when he’s like this. It’s been hard – but now he just hides in his safe place around my side of the bed. He’s unhappy, but the salivating has stopped and it’s just the occasional tremble. This is easy to do indoors. Outside – not so much.

I live on a riverbank and have huge fields 5 minutes from my door. Unfortunately for Dex, we can still hear distant road traffic. I used to take him out at 8am. Walks became incredibly stressful. He’d never run far from me, but as soon as he’d hear something he didn’t like, he’d bolt for the most dense bit of undergrowth or hedge he could find. Sometimes he’d go down the riverbank, even into the river and he wouldn’t come out. A short walk could take hours, if I patiently waited him out. Other times, I’d come home with torn arms or be soaking wet as I’d try a different tactic of pulling him out of the undergrowth or river. I tried other tactics of just calmly continuing to walk away, but I’d get so far and look back to see the bush trembling violently with no sign of an emerging dog.

Other dog walkers became accustomed to seeing me pleading with dense bushes. After a couple of months, they’d tentatively suggest that I’d tried my best and should maybe rehome him and get another dog. In all other ways though, he is a fabulously obedient dog and I was determined not to give up. A simple tactic, coupled with another of his issues manifesting solved the problems of his main walk each day. I take him out at 6am when the world is quieter – and I have become his sheep, his job – and this means he won’t take his eyes off me. 3 years on, he’ll still occasionally hide. If it’s a motor bike, I’ll stand still and give him 10 seconds, if a helicopter, I give him a little longer until it’s not overhead – and then I begin walking again. A nose will prod the back of my leg and for a few metres he’ll be wedged so tightly up against me, my welly catches him every time I take a step. However, after a minute, he’ll go back to being a normal Collie and lope around.

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Friends think hubby and I are crazy, being over the fields at ‘that ungodly hour’ every single day. (Minus 2 days following castration, 3 days when he had a cut paw and one day in a gale as noisily creaking trees spooked him too much.) But I’ll tell you what. This 50 minutes, these 2 miles following the river with my dog are the best moments of each day. It’s a beautiful surrounding. I see foxes and deer and ducks every day. He’s obedient and doesn’t chase. He gets to socialise as it’s surprising how many other dog walkers are out at that time – exercising their dogs before going to work. Our biggest threat now is the Heron. It took off a few feet away from him one day 2 years ago and he’s still terrified of them.

I’ve just realised how epic this entry is becoming. So parts 2 and possibly 3 will appear later. I want to write about aggression that isn’t actually aggression at all – and how I became a sheep. And also, how 80% of Collie behaviour is about anticipation.