[Note: this post also was featured in the Huffington Post UK]
Once in a while you encounter a being so pure that you simply have to believe.
Four years ago, our youngest son was struggling. He was in Year 5. At great cost to himself he gave everything he had at school, at home, in clubs. But he walked every day in world that didn’t understand him. None of us understood yet that his behaviours were symptoms of undiagnosed brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.
He asked and he asked for a dog. He wanted a friend. Someone who would be by his side. No questions asked. No demands. He needed one sure and faithful friend.
Unbeknownst to us (though it later filtered back), he asked Father Christmas for a dog at the school fete. He asked for a dog that wouldn’t “bark, whine or whinge.” (No pressure there!) It was a difficult decision. If we got a dog and it didn’t work out, it could potentially have a devastating impact on him.
Father Christmas sent our son a special letter that arrived on our doorstep on Thanksgiving Day while our British-American home was full of guests. Father Christmas had found a dog he wanted our family to go meet.
The dog’s name, I kid you not, was Noel.
Our little one was barely able to contain himself when we met Noel, a five-year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Noel’s first action was to lay down to have his tummy rubbed. The grins of that day will stay with me forever. Our eldest was “euphoric”. (He was about to embark on a multi-year battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis but we did not yet know that then. Noel would be near him on many a day when he was unable to get dressed and go to school, but that is getting ahead of our story.)
We are a family built by adoption (my husband was adopted and we adopted our youngest son). We knew without doubt we had found our newest family member. He was ill. He had been rescued from doggie death row in Ireland. Like our son, he was traumatized by his experiences. He was compliant, but not beaten. His spirit was intact.
And … he was silent. (Just as our son had been when we adopted him at sixteen months.)
Like some scene from Miracle on 34th Street, Father Christmas somehow knew exactly the right dog to send to our home. Maybe he knew that we were about to enter some very, very difficult days. Years of them, actually.
Our youngest son was diagnosed with a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) the following spring. We found out that our son not only had the sensory issues and learning delays that we knew came from his early traumatic experiences, but underlying all of this the connections between different parts of his brain had been damaged before he drew his first breath. He will forever have problems with executive functioning, abstract thinking, impulse control, adaptive planning. What makes sense to others won’t always add up for our little one. Into Year Six and Year Seven his school life became increasingly torturous. He kept himself together at school and then bam! He would explode at home like a can of soda that had been shaken all day and was primed and ready to burst.
Our house was the scene over a couple of years of sometimes spectacular meltdowns. When our youngest’s brain was overwhelmed the fight and flight instinct would become all-consuming and powerful. He was not coping. Worse, as he entered puberty, his behaviours were escalating. He started refusing school. Regressing. He was confused and cornered. It was a nightmarish time. Heart wrenching. He was starting to run away. He had taken candy from shops. He was fixated on lighters. When you live it, you don’t always see how these things can creep up over time.
When things would heat up at home, we learned our own little family ballet. Our eldest would put on headphones and block it out via computer games. Noel would be put out in the garden or in the kitchen where patiently, he’d wait. My husband and I would tag team, sometimes more successfully than others. These distressing moments would come crashing down around us.
When it was over, Noel would go up to our son, tail wagging, ready for the healing. The first apologies were always for Noel. How many tears were cried onto that Blenheim coat. How many hugs he had.
Sometimes our youngest would speak through Noel. He’d say (in a Noel voice), “Don’t hit Mummy, she loves you.” “Stop throwing things, they will break.” “Don’t say mean things, it’s not nice.” “Go to your calm space.” We are learning about the whole “theory of mind” thing. For sure, Noel helped our son see the world through different eyes.
Our whole family needed this little fur ball. The walks along the river, through the field. The cuddles on the couch. The impromptu games of fetch in the garden. The big, uncomplicated brown eyes staring up into ours when we too needed a constant in a tumultuous world that could change moment to moment.
He was our shin-high reminder to slow down and just let the positives wash over us. Our very own walking embodiment of mindfulness. Noel was our regulator.
As a family, we grew. We learned techniques and strategies to support our youngest. He learned words like ‘dysregulated’ and became conversant on stress toys and calm spots and neurons that have trouble talking to each other. We built a support network in our area. Now there is an FASD Club for other children just like him. He is not so alone anymore, not so misunderstood.
Critically, one year ago he moved into a specialist school where he is cognitively supported and where they have lots of sensory outlets for him to help him self-regulate (including school dogs). We have found the right medication to help him focus. His meltdowns have almost entirely stopped. We seem as a family to be entering a better place. Our youngest is more even, calmer, more comfortable in his own skin – though of course we have the teenage years ahead. Our eldest has come through the worst of his CFS/ME (knock on wood). I changed from a very stressful job with lots of international travel to one where I now work full-time on raising awareness of and support for those with FASD. We are all of us hopeful that things are on a safer and more settled path.
Sir Noel, the Sweet One walked with us out of the darkness to this brighter place.
Earlier this month we started to notice Noel seemed to be out of sorts. He had been coughing. There were visits back and forth to the vets. Fireworks season here in England in early November really affected him. His heart never stop racing, his breathing became laboured.
Noel was staying closer to us all – visiting our eldest in his room more often. He was curling up with my husband more persistently. He very uncharacteristically (once) protectively snarled at the door when the postman came. I think I knew what I was seeing. I let him sleep curled up behind my legs for weeks. My dad had heart problems. I think I knew.
And so we found ourselves a bit stretched out, concerned as we entered this holiday season – the same time of year when Noel first entered our lives. This year, our youngest and I bowed out of early Thanksgiving festivities and stayed home instead. Noel spent that day by our son’s side, curled up peacefully for hours next to him on a furry blanket. Our little one had just had a complicated hand operation, trying to give more motion and strength to a hand that had also been damaged by prenatal alcohol exposure. They needed each other that day, those two. I am so glad they had that time. So proud that our family had learned enough to not force our son into a social situation that he was never going to manage well. Relieved we have the confidence now to structure our lives to help meet his needs, to change the environment around him to allow him to succeed. To focus on the positives and not let the negatives consume his whole world as they were starting to do.
The next day Noel was having more trouble. He was quietly seeking sunshine and warmth and simply standing there. I guess some might say he was moving into the light. Eyes locked together, that last night I fed him bits of chicken by hand when he was having trouble eating, stayed up with him in the early hours. Bleary-eyed I went off to a meeting in London the next morning while my husband brought Noel to the vets. He was going to be escorted to an animal hospital for tests personally by the vet, who loved him too. He died 15 minutes after my husband left. Noel needed to be alone to let us go. Just like my dad.
I was in a room full of medical professionals who were discussing FASD at the Royal Society of Medicine when the urgent calls and texts came. These were some leading academic experts on intellectual disabilities, but the thought flashed through my mind, could they understand this? I greatly value their insights but there is no way a book could teach this – the unquantifiable, sometimes inexplicable reality of the ups and downs of life for those living on the FASD spectrum and their families. The tectonic plates had just shifted in our little one’s world. I had to get back before our boys came home from school. I left the experts to their PowerPoints.
Oh, what a heartbreaking conversation as our little one’s world crumbled. As he locked himself in his room blasting “The First Noel” over and over and over again. As he called on the genies to make the wind swirl backward in a reverse tornado to bring him back. As he panicked about whether Father Christmas might be angry that the Christmas Dog had died. When he alarmingly said he wanted to die and go to heaven to be with Noel. When we realized he was blaming himself, thinking Noel’s stealing of a forbidden piece of toast with cheese that had been left down low a few days ago might have brought this on.
The next day he once again used a Noel voice to say it’s okay, he had found Grad in heaven, he wasn’t alone anymore and he wouldn’t leave his side. That he had found a whole field of Greenies (his favourite treat). Our son was thinking abstractly, and Noel was helping him still to find his way forward. But there is a hole, a huge gaping hole in our little one’s world. It’s one thing to say that love never dies, but another thing entirely to process it.
We are a family that believes in Christmas magic. While initially we were thinking it would be better to wait before finding another four-legged companion, we realised that due to our son’s perseveration, the way he can sometimes fixate on things, this space needs to be filled.
And, wouldn’t you know it. A sweet puppy named Joy (I am not making this up – I couldn’t make this up) is coming into our lives in a couple of weeks, right before Christmas. She is traveling to us from Bulgaria. Another adoption. Father Christmas wasn’t mad at all. He knew.
Yes, we needed a certain kind of dog to get us through these past four years, and we had the best. Sir Noel, The Christmas Dog’s love for us and his faith in us was transformative.
But that isn’t the end of this story.
Joy will follow Noel.