Poignant and inspiring tale of one woman and her dog
When Judith Summers husband died suddenly, leaving her with a young son to bring up on her own, the eight-year-old suggested they get a dog to help fill the void. It proved more than therapeutic, as Ed Thomas discovered LOSING her husband and father to
When Judith Summers' husband died suddenly, leaving her with a young son to bring up on her own, the eight-year-old suggested they get a dog to help fill the void. It proved more than therapeutic, as Ed Thomas discovered
LOSING her husband and father to cancer within a fortnight changed the life of a Hampstead author forever.
Within a matter of days, the two most important men in Judith Summers' life had gone and she found herself a widow in her 40s with a young son to bring up alone.
The house felt empty as the autumn nights grew darker and darker - too big for Judith and her eight-year-old son Joshua now that the documentary maker, psychotherapist and larger-than-life father figure Udi Eichler had gone, aged just 56.
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Nowhere was his endless chatter, the sound of the radio or the smell of his cigarettes. No longer did the stream of friends and colleagues come calling. Life was, all of a sudden, very different and rather lonely for mother and child.
One night a few months later, sitting at the quiet kitchen table, Joshua said: "Mum, I think we should get a dog. If you and me had a dog, well, we'd have someone to talk to when we got home."
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That's exactly what they did, and their life again changed beyond what they could have imagined.
After trips to dog shows and talks with experts, the pair fell for the charms of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and took an adorable pup from a breeder in Henley back to their Hampstead home.
Overnight, the house went from being a quiet and solemn place to a frenzied pooch pad where carpets were peed on, tissue rolls were shredded and mornings were rudely announced with a wet nose and a friendly tongue. Twice-daily walks were taken on the Heath and the whole way of living was refreshing and animated once more.
Judith admits that having a dog was no substitute for a husband and George the spaniel did not stop them missing Udi.
But he did bring fun back into their lives and the house felt more like a home again.
The experience over the past nine years has formed the subject of Judith's latest book, My Life With George - Surviving Life With The King Of The Canines.
As she explains at her home in Well Road, she found that writing about the ups and downs of being a dog owner was one way of addressing her grief and moving on.
"Before I started writing this book earlier in the year, I had never written about losing my husband," says the novelist and historian.
"People said I should write about being a widow - but it was always too personal and too close.
"But I found that when I sat down to write about George, it all came out."
Far from being a sob story or "woe is me" tale of loss, My Life With George manages to be both moving and also hilarious at the same time. In writing about the void her four-legged friend was filling, Judith is able to recount humorous anecdotes which gives the story a much wider appeal.
Run-ins with other animals on the Heath, the intricacies of medicating her hound (a particularly memorable, nasty and hilarious image is "a lubricated and gloved finger inserted into the rectum") and angry outbursts from Hampstead folk outraged by certain excretions are just some of the laughs along the way.
"I've spent half my life scooping up poop from the pavements," she says. "But George has given us so much pleasure. He has been a catalyst for bringing a lot of fun into our lives again."
The dog has proved one of the most expensive additions to the family's life, with many trips to the vet and the need for doggy toothbrushes, hair combs, dog shampoo, special food and sheer time and devotion.
He also caused problems when Judith started dating again, becoming jealous of the attention she lavished on a man. But she has no regrets and wouldn't part with her pooch for anything.
"George is such a beautiful creature," she says, stroking his soft ears on a garden chair.
"I've grown to adore the new lifestyle required of a dog owner.
"Because of George, I am out on the Heath every day come rain or shine and I've really come to appreciate Hampstead.
"There is nothing better than a crisp winter morning on the Heath when no-one's around and without George I would never have experienced things like that."
The response to the book has been extremely good, with sales going well both here and in the US. It is also being translated into six other languages.
A decade after experiencing the huge pain of loss, life for Judith Summers is happy again. Other books she has penned in the meantime include studies of Casanova and his female conquests, a history of Soho and a handful of fictional works.