The older she grew, the harder it was to let go. Lily had been part of my life for 17 years. I was with her all day, every day. Now, there are only the empty spaces and silences where she once was.
My daughter was seven when Lily came into our lives. I had realised I wouldn’t be having any more children, and was raising my daughter as a single mother, so I wanted my family to feel bigger. I longed for her to have a companion, even if it wasn’t a sibling but rather a valiant and kind border terrier. My little girl fell in love with her immediately as, of course, did I. It was simply impossible not to.
We were going through some tough times, but the minute Lily scampered through the door, something shifted for us. You cannot feel too down when a dog is beside you. You have to be present for them and fully focused on the moment, as so many people have realised after welcoming new pets during the coronavirus lockdown.
Everywhere we went, Lily came. I even took her to work with me daily, which was quite unusual at the time, though it took me some time to reach the offices of my publishing company in Soho with her in tow: everyone wanted to pet her and stop me to ask questions. She became quite well known and spread joy wherever she went.
When I sold my company and thought about what to do next, Lily was right there beside me. But I didn’t initially anticipate quite how integral she would be to my future career.
In the end, it was she who determined the direction I’d take, thanks to her fussy eating habits. Not only did she not seem particularly hungry, but her skin was bad, she was scratching a lot and had nasty sores on her stomach.
Seeing how uninterested she was in her dog food, I decided to cook her something myself one day: minced lamb, vegetables, rice and grated apple. To my surprise and relief, she gobbled it up straight away.
After two or three weeks of these home-cooked meals, her skin had improved immeasurably, that greasy dog smell had gone and she seemed so much livelier, too.
With no healthy, ethical, high quality dog food available commercially, I decided in 2008 to start up my own brand of pet food; and that’s how Lily’s Kitchen was born. I reasoned that there would be other dog owners in my situation, who wanted something better for their pets and would be prepared to pay a bit more for it. My hunch turned out to be correct.
Lily was the chief taste tester, which was handy given how picky she was. Every single recipe has been eaten by her.
So it goes without saying none of this would have happened without my Lily there to spur me on. There were plenty of times on the journey when I thought, “I can’t do this, it’s just too hard”; when people weren’t listening or taking my recipes seriously. Many times I wanted to give up. But then I’d look at Lily’s face and it was like she was telling me: “Come on, you can do it, Henrietta. You have to carry on.”
She was a very determined character and saw the good in everyone, canine or human. That is the thing about pets: they are so incredibly forgiving, and during this period especially, when loneliness has reached its peak for so many people, it’s amazing to have a dog present to force you to put aside your worries and bring yourself back into the moment. This no doubt explains why so many have acquired dogs in the past four months.
It’s why losing Lily during lockdown was a doubly hard blow. She was 17, and I knew she couldn’t go on forever. But if I’m honest with myself, on some level I assumed she would always be there. I spent more time with her than with any of my family or friends. She was a key part of who I was. Who I am.
But as with all good things, the end did finally arrive for Lily, earlier this month.
Over the years, she’d had three operations on her back legs and, though she still walked every day, progress was slow. She would potter around the house like an elderly lady. She was deaf and I learned to hand sign for her. She followed me wherever I went. The sound of her paws on the floor provided a comforting soundtrack to my daily existence, which perhaps I only fully appreciated after returning from the vet’s to a house now shrouded in silence.
It’s comforting that she had seemed really happy until a few days before the end. Then, suddenly, she started to appear quite disoriented and we’d find her in odd places in the house, a little unsure where she was. I asked my brother, a vet, what he thought was going on, he uttered the words I did not want to hear: “I think you’re going to have to say goodbye. It’s time now.”
I went into the garden and picked every bloom I could find. Then I filled the car with the flowers, placing them around Lily’s bed, and took her on her life’s final journey. The vet said it was the right decision, but that didn’t make me feel any better. Still, for Lily’s sake I had to be strong, and I tried my very best to hold it together as we said our painful goodbyes. I’d have hated to prolong any suffering for her, and amid a tidal wave of grief, I did what had to be done.
The outpouring of sympathy and support following her death has been little short of overwhelming. Lily touched so many lives, even those who never met her. We’ve received so many kind messages on social media and I’m also incredibly lucky to be at home now with my daughter, now aged 24, and partner at this time, so we can all grieve together.
It’s wonderful to see how many people have turned to dogs during the pandemic. Suddenly, our lives have changed beyond recognition and they’ve realised there is space for a pet.
They’ve created a positive out of a negative, and are now finding, just as I did, that a dog really does brighten your life.
Your whole mood changes when you stroke one. Hours of therapy couldn’t have the same effect. Even one or two minutes with Lily made all the difference to me.
For the first 10 days after her death, I more or less hid myself away. I’m starting to emerge again now and make sense of a life lived without her.
Lily was my moral compass. With her by my side, I always knew the right thing to do. She was an irreplaceable friend and she’ll stay in my heart forever.
As told to Rosa Silverman