My Life With George

What I Learned About Joy from One Neurotic (And Very Expensive) Dog


By Judith Summers

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For anyone who has ever loved an incorrigible pet or known what it was like to lose a loved one, My Life with George is the hilarious and moving account of the impossible but adorable George.

When Judith Summers first met George, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who would change her life, she and her young son, Joshua, were mourning the deaths of her husband and her father, who had died barely two weeks apart.

It was love at first sight. George was the ultimate upper-class pooch, and seemingly the perfect puppy, brimming with love and joy and complete with “the kind of film-star looks that made strangers stop in the street and coo over him.”

But, as Judith soon discovered, George was as time-consuming as a full-time job and as expensive to run as a Ferrari. Willful, possessive and badly behaved, he refused to eat anything other than organic roast chicken, destroyed her work, and suffered from every allergy and illness under the sun. On top of that, George was horribly accident-prone. Stuff happened to him. His vet bills alone have run to $25,000, and George is still only nine years old!

It wasn’t long before King George ruled the roost in Judith’s home. But even after he drove away one of her suitors, she couldn’t fathom giving him up. Just as his naughtiness was boundless, so was his devotion to her and her son. A foot-warmer on cold nights, a good listener, and a fierce (okay, not so fierce) protector, George was always by their side — and much of the time underfoot.

For anyone who has ever loved an incorrigible pet or known what it was like to lose a loved one, My Life with George is the hilarious and moving account of the impossible but adorable George, and of the wonderful way in which he helped to fill a huge void in the lives of both Judith and her son while driving them absolutely barking mad along the way.



It was 1998, and the first week of November. The clocks had recently been turned back, marking the official start of winter, and as I walked my nine-year-old son, Joshua, home from school, the darkness was drawing in.

In past years, we’d returned home on afternoons just like this one to find all the lights blazing. As we’d come through the front door, we’d hear loud jazz or flamenco music coming from the CD player, usually mixed with the highbrow tones of a Radio 4 chat show, and often the soundtrack of a video playing on the TV. A deeply animated, and occasionally infuriated, male voice rose above the cacophony. Udi Eichler, my husband and Joshua’s father, was seated in his favorite chair at the end of the kitchen table, talking on the telephone.

Invariably Udi was surrounded by a sea of newspapers, political and literary journals, magazines on speedboating, half-read Booker Prize contenders, cups of cold black coffee, unanswered letters, scrawled-upon notepads, topless pens, and open blue plastic pouches of Gauloises tobacco. Oh, yes, and his beloved Psion Organizer, a machine from which he was never willingly parted. Often he was juggling two telephone calls at once—one on our landline, the other on his mobile, which was tucked uncomfortably between shoulder and ear. Stuck between the fingers of his right hand, the thin, moist roll-up looked more like a badly rolled joint than the ordinary cigarette it actually was. As Udi puffed steadily on it, dripping ash everywhere except into the pristine ashtray in front of him, wisps of smoke rose slowly into the air and settled in a ghostly halo above his head.

This year, as Joshua and I walked down our street, I had a leaden feeling inside me. Our house was dark and silent. There wasn’t a single light on in the kitchen, and there was no John Coltrane or Gypsy Kings music seeping through the sash windows. I chatted brightly to Joshua as we came up the path, hoping he wouldn’t notice how different things were from how they’d once been, but I don’t think he was fooled for a minute.

“How were sports today, darling?”

“It’s not sports, it’s football. And it was rained out.”

“Oh. What a pity! What did you do instead?”


“Oh. Nothing at all? Didn’t Miss Sandra suggest anything?”

“She was busy. We mucked around in the classroom.”

“That must have been fun. So, have you got much homework tonight?”

“Just some maths. Why are you asking all these questions?”

“Because I’m interested.”

“Why? It’s school, Mum. And you ask the same things every day.”

I turned my key in the front door, but with no pleasure. There were few things I disliked more than coming home to an empty house. With Udi around, our home had been full to the point of overflowing. Now, instead of the tornado of activity he’d generated around him, there was an uncanny stillness inside the rooms. Rambling on to Joshua about what I’d done that day, I quickly turned on all the lights, closed the wooden shutters over the blackening windows, and lit the gas log fire in the grate. I tuned the radio to a rock music station and, for good measure, switched on the television. The purpose of all this was to disguise Udi’s tangible absence—symbolized by the empty Carver chair at the end of the bare kitchen table, which had once been his throne.

Udi had died five months before, at the age of fifty-six. He’d steamrollered into my life thirteen years earlier, wearing a fur-trimmed coat he’d bought in an Oxfam shop and a black fedora given to him by the American writer Saul Bellow. An extrovert Mitteleuropean who overflowed with joie de vivre, he was a renowned maker of TV documentaries; and he was also training to become a psychotherapist. Brilliant, charismatic, provocative, and with the gift of the gab, Udi had interests that ranged from art through to windsurfing, and he could hold forth for hours on any subject from outboard motors to postmodernist literature. If there was one adjective you could never have used to describe him, it was boring.

Udi had the knack of dominating any space he occupied, be it an office, a kitchen, or a dinner party, an arena in which he delighted in prodding—or rather exploding—his fellow guests out of any complacent views they might hold. Far from being an intellectual snob, he treated everyone with the same respect: from writers such as Bellow, whom he had met through his work as a TV producer, to Joseph, the Ethiopian mini-cab driver he had befriended. Udi spent hours, sometimes months, helping acquaintances and friends sort out their personal problems. He was genuinely fascinated by everyone with whom he came into contact.

Perhaps he was so generous with himself and lived life with such gusto because his own childhood had been hard. He’d been born with a clubfoot in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Austria, to a narcissistic seventeen-year-old mother, Gertie, who then worked her way through six husbands in almost as many years. As for Udi’s real father, he had little to do with him.

When Udi was a troubled thirteen-year-old, Gertie sent him to England for a fortnight’s holiday with Gus, the owner of a Bohemian restaurant-cum-jazz-club off London’s Fulham Road and the only one of her ex-husbands who took any interest in her son. To Gus’s horror, at the end of two weeks Udi announced his intention of remaining in England for good, and refused to go home. When Gus turned him out with a five-pound note in his pocket, Udi threw himself on the mercy of the Home Office. He felt British, not Austrian, he told the powers that be, and he wanted to stay here forever.

The Home Office of the mid-1950s was a very different place from the strictly regulated, bureaucracy-laden organization it is today. Bewildered, and perhaps amused, by the thirteen-year-old Austrian’s determination, its civil servants not only granted him leave to stay but took him into care. After packing him off to a young offenders’ institution for six months—they simply didn’t know what else to do with him—they found him a place at the Inner London Education Authority’s only state-run boarding school, a marvelous institution near Ipswich called Woolverstone Hall. From there, he went on to study economics at university, and then joined the staff of BBC Television under their graduate general-trainee scheme.

Initially Udi hadn’t been my parents’ choice as a perfect partner for their precious younger daughter. The thing was, they’d never met anyone like him—few people had—and they didn’t know what to make of him. Recently separated from Diana, his wife of twenty-four years, Udi was eleven years older than I was. Having married at the age of nineteen, he already had two grown-up daughters, Tabby and Hannah, who’d been brought up in a unique, psychotherapeutically based community in Kew, West London. Udi drove around on an old motorbike wearing a battered crash helmet, a floral shirt, and skintight black leather trousers my father disparagingly called his lederhosen. His shoes were leprechaun green. He chain-smoked roll-ups, and dropped ash everywhere, distributing it across carpets, tabletops, and clothes as if he were performing some sort of benediction rite. His conversation ranged from Nietzsche and libertarianism to the most intimate questions (a typical opening gambit to a perfect stranger might be “Tell me about your first sexual experience,” and the odd thing was that the stranger usually did). Questions such as these might have gone down well among London’s literati, but in conventional, Jewish middle-class society this kind of behavior was greeted with suspicion, not to say scandalized shock.

I was in my thirties, however, and still unmarried, so my parents accepted Udi. And from the moment their first grandchild, Joshua, was born, Udi could do little wrong in their eyes. In time they grew to love my oddball and outstandingly hospitable husband dearly, and he them.

Although he was overweight, smoked like a chimney, and ran on endless liters of strong black coffee, Udi always seemed to enjoy good health, so my constant warnings to him about obesity, heart attacks, and lung cancer fell on deaf ears. But by May 1997 he was looking and feeling awful. His skin had a gray cast, he was troubled by pains in his chest, which he insisted were caused by indigestion, and he’d often come home from work and fall asleep on the sofa. This was highly unusual behavior for a human dynamo who ordinarily didn’t go to bed until three in the morning, then woke up four hours later, refreshed and ready to go.

It took much nagging on my part to get him to see a doctor. As a trained psychotherapist and a physician manqué, Udi would spend ages diagnosing other people’s medical or psychological problems, yet he somehow felt he was above needing help himself. But in early June he suddenly found it difficult to swallow, and the trip to the doctor could no longer be postponed.

She referred Udi for an endoscopy at our local hospital, the Royal Free in Hampstead. Since he had a business meeting to go to immediately afterward, he insisted on undergoing the throat examination without an anesthetic, or even a sedative. He emerged from the experience nauseated and shaken. Something was clearly wrong with him, and he feared it was serious.

A few minutes later the consultant summoned us into his office, where he greeted us with the chilling words “I’m so very sorry.” Udi, he said, had cancer of the esophagus, and the prognosis was not good. In the short term he’d have a dangerous operation to remove a large section of his throat, but even so, the chances of his making a full recovery were slim.

As it happened, the diagnosis—but, tragically, not the prognosis—was wrong. The small tumor that the specialist had spotted at the base of Udi’s esophagus was but the tip of an iceberg: a huge tumor had been growing inside the lining of his stomach for an indeterminate number of years. By the time it was detected, it had broken through the stomach walls and had reached the size of a house brick. As Professor Marc Winslett, Udi’s brilliant surgeon, deduced from his subsequent MRI scans, Udi was suffering from stage IV linitis plastica, a rare form of gastric cancer. The outlook could hardly have been worse.

At the end of August, in a life-threatening, six-hour operation, Winslett removed the huge malignant growth, along with Udi’s entire stomach. He then created a tiny new false “stomach” out of a short length of Udi’s intestine. From now on, like a crash dieter who’d had his stomach stapled, Udi would only be able to eat small amounts at a time, and his weight would drop dramatically. “You always wanted a slim husband,” he quipped from the hospital bed as he was wheeled into the operating theater. “Now you’ll have one.”

Never an easy patient, my libertarian husband started to play up the moment he regained consciousness in Intensive Care by demanding that, in the name of personal freedom, he be allowed a cigarette. In vain did the nurses protest that (a) a roll-up was the last thing he needed, (b) the hospital was a smoke-free zone, (c) the smoke might kill his fellow patients in the unit, and (d) lighting up while a supply of pure oxygen was being fed into his nostrils might cause Udi to explode. Though barely compos mentis after his long anesthetic, and hooked up to countless monitors and drips, he nagged and nagged until, twelve hours later, the IC staff could stand it no longer and shipped him back to the gastrointestinal ward a full day before they were supposed to.

A few nights later, just after I’d left his bedside, Udi walked out of the ward on impulse, undetected by the nurses. Ebullient at having survived his surgery, he was determined not to waste a single hour of whatever future remained to him in staring at grim hospital walls. Held together from sternum to navel by a line of metal staples, and wearing only his pajamas and dressing gown, he bummed a lift up the hill from one of the other patients’ visitors and arrived home, without his keys, to find no one in. Taking a chance that Joshua and I were at my sister’s house around the corner (we were), he walked there in his bare feet and surprised us all. A glass of orange juice in his hand, one leg crossed nonchalantly over the other, surrounded by the family, he laughed and joked as if he was on top of the world. He seemed invincible.

Yet ten months later he was dead. What his oncologist described as “an aggressive regime” of chemotherapy—administered, the specialist admitted, with the proviso that he hadn’t a clue whether it would work—had neither given Udi the miracle cure he had hoped for nor bought him the two to three extra years of life that had been the least of his expectations. In fact, it had done nothing more than make him feel dreadfully ill, and temporarily hold back the tide of minute cancer cells that had already metastasized throughout his body.

Invisible, undetectable, yet as lethal as the spores of some poisonous fungus, they sat inside him waiting for an opportunity to sprout into life—and they did so the moment that the three-month course of chemotherapy ended. In January, when he took the whole family on a skiing holiday to Austria, Udi seemed almost back to normal. But he wasn’t. By late March, when he underwent an emergency operation to remove a small blockage in his intestines, we were told that his life expectancy was no more than six months. By early May, after a third operation, this all-too-short time scale had shrunk to a minuscule three weeks.

A three-week death sentence was not only deeply shocking but virtually impossible to take on board, particularly since Udi still seemed as much of a live wire as ever. Fired up on a self-administered morphine drip, which was delivered to him at home by a team of palliative-care nurses he nicknamed the “Death Squad,” he continued to go out for coffee with his friends until he was too weak to do so. From then on he held court on the living room sofa, and later in a hospice, where a steady stream of friends, family, and acquaintances came to bid him farewell. So many arrived—some from as far afield as America—that, like the PA of a busy government minister, I had to keep a diary of their visits and limit the length of time they stayed so that they didn’t all swamp us at once.

To be frank, making thirty cups of coffee a day and handing out comfort and tissues to a stream of distraught people as they left our house in floods of tears was not the ideal way to spend the last days with my husband—and, to make matters worse, my father, who lived in France, was dying of cancer at exactly the same time and I couldn’t get away to visit him. But this was Udi’s death, not mine, and he had the right to conduct it in whichever way he saw fit, so I bit my lip. Others saw his constant socializing and blunt, stoical attitude to his imminent death as heroic, almost saintly. I interpreted it otherwise. Terrified of dying, Udi was avoiding being alone with those to whom he was closest: me, who had been his partner and wife for the last thirteen years; Tabby and Hannah, his much-loved grown-up daughters, who moved in with us during the final weeks to help care for him; Nathaniel, his adorable four-year-old grandson; and, most of all, eight-year-old Joshua, who sat on the hospice bed, painting his father’s toenails bright pink. Udi proudly showed them to all his visitors and laughed, but the laughter held a bitter ring. He adored Joshua, and the thought that he would not live to see him grow up was unbearably painful to him.

Joshua had known from the start that something was seriously wrong with his father. The huge operation, which had left him with a scar reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster down his stomach, could hardly have been kept secret. Neither could the months of chemotherapy that had sapped Udi’s strength, made him bad-tempered and tired, and caused his hair to fall out. Besides, as a psychotherapist Udi didn’t believe in keeping secrets from anyone, even children. It was always better to face the truth, he insisted, even when it was painful to hear.

“Is Dad going to get better?” was a question Joshua had often asked me in the beginning.

“I certainly hope so!” I’d answered, in the kind of indignant voice that made it sound like a given. It wasn’t a lie. Despite the terrible odds, I’d honestly believed that Udi would survive. He’d always been a lucky so-and-so who sailed close to the wind in his personal relationships as well as professionally. He courted danger, yet somehow always managed to avoid it at the last minute.

Not this time, though.

As the months went past, despite my best efforts to keep up a cheerful and superficially normal home front, Joshua’s face had begun to look as washed-out as his father’s, and the question he’d asked me most frequently changed to “Is Dad going to die?”

“I hope not,” I’d replied at first, and later, “I don’t think so.” Joshua had made me promise not to lie to him: if Udi was going to die, he wanted to be told about it before it happened. So when I could avoid it no longer, my answer to his most FAQ had become “There’s a chance that he will”; and then, “Yes, he might.”

When Joshua countered innocently one day, “If he does, will I get the day off school?” I realized how little he understood of the enormity of what was about to happen, and what impact it would have on his life.

After Udi received his three weeks’ notice from Professor Winslett, I had to become more blunt with Joshua. I knew that Udi would talk openly about his imminent death, both to visiting friends and on the telephone. If we didn’t tell Joshua, he was bound to listen in to one of these conversations, which might be even worse than hearing the news from us directly.

So in the end we decided to tell him that, yes, Udi was probably going to die, and quite soon. It was a decision I immediately regretted. What was death in the mind of an eight-year-old? The thought that his father might do it—whatever it was—at any moment terrified him. He became nervous in Udi’s company and only gradually relaxed again so that, by the end of the three weeks, he was designing a pyramid-shaped tomb for Udi and nursing him alongside his sister Hannah. “I’m so proud of you, Dad,” I remember him saying as he tended Udi on the last day of his life.

Outwardly calm and resigned to death, inwardly raging at being deprived of his future and suffering the ignominy of his body’s final breakdown, Udi died at dawn on the 3rd of June 1998. “So damn much not yet lived,” he’d written to Professor Winslett a few weeks before. “Even though I have packed at least two lives into my time, it just hasn’t been enough!” His cremation a week later, attended by more than two hundred and fifty people, was a secular celebration of his charismatic personality and his exceptional gifts for understanding and friendship. Unique, heroic, altruistic, challenging, exotic, an enabler of others, unquenchably inquisitive, loyal, idiosyncratic, inspiring, unflinchingly honest, vibrant, engaged, earthy, irreplaceable: these were just some of the words used to describe him. There were speeches by old friends and erstwhile television colleagues. His favorite aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute—“Dies Bildnif”—was sung by Robert Johnston, a young tenor who’d grown up in the Kew community where Udi had once lived. The actor John Thaw, one of Udi’s many well-known psychotherapy clients, recited the Primo Levi poem “To My Friends.” Tabby and Hannah read a very poignant tribute to their father, and Joshua recited a poem he’d written comparing Udi to a leaf blown away in a storm. He reduced everyone to tears.

My choice of final music for the service was Irving Berlin’s 1930s classic “Cheek to Cheek.” It had always been “our” song, though Udi could never remember any of the lyrics except one line—the first. Sung by Fred Astaire, it echoed around the redbrick crematorium as we all filed out. He was in heaven, the lyric went—and everybody burst out laughing.

I couldn’t help thinking that if Udi had been there to act as host, the event would have been transformed into the most marvelous party. He’d have enjoyed the attention and flattering comments immensely. And, a TV producer to the core, he would almost certainly have suggested several changes to the running order.

The following day my sister, Sue, and I took our children to France to visit our desperately ill seventy-nine-year-old father, David, whom I hadn’t seen for months. He’d been very sick but still on his feet when I’d last visited him. Now he was too weak to stand, or even open his eyes.

When I’d been a small child, my father had seemed like the strongest man in the universe. He’d clench the muscles of his right arm and invite my sister and me to swing from it, crack a walnut between his fingers or break an apple in two with his bare hands, just to impress us. Behind his physical strength had lain a soft heart, a gentlemanly character, and a generous nature. A greengrocer’s son from the East End of London, he’d worked his way out of poverty when still relatively young, educated himself, and given us, his family, everything he’d lacked as a child. I was his younger daughter, and he’d spoiled me terribly.

During the last few months, my father and Udi had often joked over the telephone that they’d beat each other to the finishing line, but in the end Udi had won. Over the years my father had confided in Udi a way he never had in anyone else. He’d been heartbroken to learn of Udi’s death, and deeply worried about my future and Joshua’s. I sat beside his bed, held his hand, and tried to reassure him that we’d be all right.

As if he’d been waiting to say good-bye to his daughters and grandchildren, my father died less than twenty-four hours after we arrived in France. Understandably, Joshua was frightened by this second death, which came just eleven days after his father’s. “All the men in our family are dying,” he said in despair. He worried that he would be next.

We flew my father’s body to England and, a day later, found ourselves at the crematorium in Golders Green for the second family funeral within a fortnight. Many of the same friends and relatives were there, too, so it felt rather like an instant replay of Udi’s.

By some cruel irony, the shop windows everywhere that week were filled with Father’s Day banners, gifts, and cards. I did my best to keep Joshua away from them, and not to look at them myself, but they were impossible to avoid. Every time I saw them it was like having salt rubbed into my two open wounds. I was distraught. In the privacy of our bedroom, I opened Udi’s wardrobe and gazed blankly at the neatly arranged shirts and trousers that had suddenly become limp, useless relics. I slipped my hands inside shoes that still bore the imprint of Udi’s feet, and buried my face in jackets he would never wear again. They smelled of his heat, of tobacco, of him.


Following the two family funerals, I muddled though July and August in the same way as I’d muddled through the previous year, supported by a network of family and friends. Like my mother, my two aunts, my grandmother, and my great-aunt, I was now a widow—a ghastly word that still brings to mind lonely old ladies sitting in rocking chairs and knitting sweaters (I don’t know why, because none of them was remotely like that). But, in my mid-forties, I certainly didn’t want to be a member of the unenviable sisterhood of widows.

Joshua and I weren’t alone in having lost people we loved. Tabby and Hannah had lost their father. My mother had lost her husband and her colorful, eccentric son-in-law. My niece Jessica had lost her grandfather, and my sister, Sue, had lost her father as well as the brother-in-law who’d been her friend and intellectual sparring partner. Though Sue was incredibly supportive of us, no one gave her much sympathy—they were too busy giving it to my mother, Joshua, and me.

As with all bereavements, no amount of forethought equipped us for the grief. You just have to work your way through it day by day. And when the person who has died was your soul mate and closest friend, perhaps the worst aspect of the experience is that the one you’d most like to talk to about what you’re going through isn’t around to discuss things. He’s not even at the end of a telephone. He’s completely vanished, just when you need him most. Outwardly I seemed cool, calm, and unnaturally collected. Inside I was overwhelmed and panicking, like a passenger on a rudderless ship from which the captain had fallen overboard. In denial, I filled the long summer days with activities and immediately threw myself back into life with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. I didn’t want anyone pitying me or thinking I couldn’t cope. At Joshua’s school sports day, less than a week after Udi’s death, I slapped on a smile, kicked off my shoes, rolled up my trousers, and competed in the parents’ sack race, determined to show that, not only wasn’t I miserable, I was as good as any of the fathers who were taking part. I was doing brilliantly until just before the finishing line when I turned my ankle and keeled over. To Joshua’s embarrassment, I limped in last.

Since my mother still lived abroad, we went to France that August to spend a fortnight with her. I was preoccupied with Joshua the whole time. In previous years, he’d had his grandfather and his father to play with in the swimming pool. Now he was surrounded by a fussy, all-female posse consisting of his grandmother, his aunt, his younger cousin Jessica, and me. When he confided in me tearfully that Udi had promised to let him try a terrifying-looking and expensive sport in which you don a parachute and are towed in the air behind a speedboat, which Joshua was far too young to do alone, I was determined that he shouldn’t miss out on the experience. Despite my twin fears of heights and waterskiing, I was soon strapped into a harness, attached to a parachute, and dangling high above the sea, with Joshua dangling next to me. I was so scared that I can hardly remember it—but I think I spent the whole time shouting, “Be careful!” in Joshua’s left ear.

“I’ve got something to tell you, Mum,” an exhilarated but sheepishly grinning Joshua said, when we were back on dry land. “Dad never promised to take me up in a parachute. I just wanted to do it.”


On Sale
Nov 6, 2007
Page Count
224 pages
Hachette Books

Judith Summers

About the Author

Judith Summers is the author of four novels and two non-fiction books. She has written widely on the 18th century and the history of London, where she lives with her son.

Learn more about this author