Darby: Grief, Gratefulness, and One Last Swim

All dog lovers know dogs are family. They’re our babies. We raise them. We care for their every need. But Darby was never my “baby”. He was on this earth for a different purpose. I found him at a Hollywood, Florida animal hospital when he was 13 weeks old. He looked like a big brown baby bear and I couldn’t help but take him home. I wasn’t looking for a dog that day. I was driving aimlessly around when I saw the sign outside the hospital stating they had puppies for adoption. I was also in the middle of the end of a horrible marriage. I think it’s safe to say I was definitely looking for something, I just didn’t know it was Darby. He was exactly what I needed because I had started to spiral down. I wasn’t getting out of bed most days. Sometimes I’d lie awake until 4 am or so for no reason then sleep all day. But you can’t do that with a puppy. Darby got me out of bed. He got me out of the house. He got me moving and exercising and socializing. He gave me life. I couldn’t wait to get up at 7 am and head down to the lake with him and watch him swim after the ducks. He was a natural swimmer and hunter. A true Labrador. The day my ex-husband finally moved out I was left in a lease I could not afford and a strange mix of emotions of a broken heart, anger, relief, and pure hate. I crumpled to the floor of my bedroom and loudly cried. Scream cried. All the pain he had caused, that I kept bottled up for the entirety of our marriage, I let out all at once. Darby, still just a puppy, laid down on the floor next to me and began to wail and howl. He cried with me until I had no more tears. You see, Darby was never my baby. He was my best friend. My strength. My solid ground.

Darby was an old soul. He got me through the end of my marriage, the divorce, and the rebuilding of my life. We lived in a converted garage apartment for six months while I got myself back on my feet. He made two more moves with me until we settled into a townhouse on a lake in Boca Raton. It was an ab-fab-lab life. He swam every morning, chased the ducks, played with neighborhood dogs, sunbathed on the patio, and walked the trails with me in the evenings. He went everywhere with me, even into the office some days. He was the dog every one loved because he was so well behaved and gentle. Then, before I knew it, seven years had gone by in the blink of an eye and we added a new member to our AbFab Lab tribe: Tango the Terrible!

Darby was the most patient of big brothers. Never jealous. Always tolerant.

If you’ve read Tango’s Story you know he has his own set of serious issues that require a lot of extra work. He definitely wasn’t the old soul that Darby was. He was more like a new, spastic, Tasmanian devil soul. Our calm life changed dramatically, but I think it was meant to. They were polar opposites but balanced each other out. It was a new era.

I had two Co-pilots. Two funny bunnies.

THE DIAGNOSIS

One morning Darby wouldn’t eat. He was always finicky for a Lab but this seemed different. I gave him some treats that he readily ate but he still refused his regular food. His Vet had us come in immediately for x-rays. What was I thinking at this point? Intestinal blockage, bacterial infection, a virus maybe. But it was none of those. Getting a cancer diagnosis for Darby was just ridiculous. He had never been sick in all his 9 years. He was the picture of health. But that’s what it was. An aggressive type of liver cancer that had already metastasized to his lungs. It had no symptoms up until that morning when Darby no longer wanted food. When I picked him up from his vet they said “twelve months”. I thought he’ll beat that. We’ll fight this.

I walked out knowing he’d be the one that would defy all the odds. The Animal Cancer Care Clinic in Fort Lauderdale tackled his tumors with aggressive chemo and radiation treatments. But even with anti-nausea meds and other meds meant to increase his appetite he wouldn’t eat and he began to quickly waste away. We tried every type of food. I even cooked for him. The only thing he’d eat was a small handful of jerky treats. He lost enough weight that I had to put winter dog clothes on him to keep him warm.

DENIAL

Here’s the thing: I knew he was sick. I knew he was losing weight. I knew he wasn’t eating. But I didn’t know he was dying. My brain did not let me see how emaciated he had become. I thought he would eat again. Every small bite of those jerky treats he ate was a miraculous milestone to me. My grief completely blinded me from the truth.

I had created my own little island of denial. Population: me and Darby. So I carried on as if this was just a small bump in the road. It was spring break and I decided to take a road trip with Darby from Florida to Texas to see my family. He was surrounded by so much love from my nieces and nephews. He still seemed so happy. His tail was always wagging. He still smiled his big goofy lab grin.

As little as he ate, he was still active. He still loved to take walks. Albeit he definitely napped more. But he carried on. Maybe more so for me than I realized at the time. But I truly thought he still wanted to be here. I thought he was fighting the good fight.

THE TRUTH

After several rounds of therapy we went back to ACCC for another ultrasound to evaluate the progress of his treatment. The tumor had not shrunk. It had grown. The cancer seemed to have spread even farther. There was nothing else that could be done.

I sat with his oncologist as she gave me two options: put him down right then and there (I could also take a day or 2), or she could refer us to hospice. I didn’t even question the fact that I was just now learning that hospice for pets existed. I immediately said YES! I had lost my dad not a year earlier. Dealing with hospice care during that time made it a peaceful experience that I will always treasure. I couldn’t deal with the idea of putting him down that day but I could handle hospice. That same day the most wonderful and supportive Hospice Vet, Dr. Mary Gardner, from Lap of Love called me to set up an in-home evaluation. Still on my island of denial, I thought with the help of hospice we could keep Darby alive and comfortable until I could just get him to eat and put on some weight.

HOSPICE

When Mary sat down with me she was very honest about Darby’s prognosis and how he was physically feeling. (Like ass. He felt like ass) She was gentle and kind as she delicately tried to steer me out of my denial. She knew I couldn’t see how thin and sick Darby was. She even related her own story of not being able to see it herself when her pup got cancer. She promised me that when I looked back at pictures of him during this time I would be shocked. And she was right. The brain is an amazing and powerful organ. I had no idea my 80 pound lab was less than 40 pounds now. He had lost half his body weight and I literally couldn’t see it. He had been surviving off of a few handfuls of treats and tubes of nutrient paste. I knew he was “leaner”, but I could not see that he had been deteriorating right before my eyes. I still saw my best friend.

Hospice works on two levels. They strive to keep their patients as comfortable as possible while meeting all their needs during the end of their journey on this earth. But they also focus on the family of the patient. Generally the patient knows they are dying. And even more than that they are ready to be free of their pain. But we as family members need help knowing when to let go. That is where hospice came in for us. I had spent every night since Darby’s diagnosis praying and crying over him and begging him not to go. Please don’t go. Please stay. Please! I’ll do anything. Just stay.

I look back now and think he was just waiting for me to accept that he had to go.

ONE LAST SWIM

We hadn’t been with hospice for a full week when it was time to say goodbye. One Saturday evening Darby had a surge of energy. I took him to the lake for a short walk and maybe a rest in the grass. But instead he ran right into the water and began to swim laps across the lake. Initially I panicked. I screamed for him to come back. The most obedient dog I’ve ever known had no interest in my commands. I was prepared to dive in after him. In this moment of panic I could finally see he had no fat left on his body. I thought he would sink like a bag of rocks. But he didn’t. He was in a state of complete tranquility as his long thin legs gracefully moved him through the water. All the pain of cancer was lifted off his body and he was gliding with impressive ease. There was nothing I could do but anxiously wait for him to finish his swim. The next morning he didn’t want to get out of bed. Normally he would sit up a bit as I helped him to the ground. But now he was laying still, probably using every ounce of energy he had left to just breathe. No tail wagging. Not even a lift of his head. Just breathing. All I could do was hold onto him and cry as I tried to ready myself to say goodbye. I knew I had to call Mary but in truthfulness it took a few hours before I could muster up the courage.

Mary even gave me a couple more hours to be with him after I did finally call her. And then I did the strangest thing. I cleaned. Frantically. The whole house. Top to bottom. I vacuumed. I mopped. I dusted. I put every thing in its place. Except the towels on the floor in the living area that he had dried off on the night before. They stayed. I did this all while Darby rested in bed and followed me with his eyes. I did it for him. I couldn’t have him leave while everything was in disorder. I was a complete mess when he came into my life and I couldn’t let him leave thinking that I was going to be that devastated mess of a person again. I needed him to know I was going to be OK. Everything had to be perfect because he had made my life perfect. When we are faced with things beyond our control we do things to control our immediate environment. So I cleaned.

When Mary came over, she sat next to Darby on the bed and gave him some love. He lifted his head for her and wagged his tail. First she injected him with a valium to relax him. He immediately fell asleep, snoring softly. It made the next part much easier. It was a difficult moment but so peaceful. Darby was laying in bed with me, my arms wrapped around him, when he took his last breath. I still have the blankets and towels he was laying on. The towels that he dried off on the night before stayed downstairs on the floor for 2 weeks. The IV bags remained on top of the fridge. His meds stayed in the kitchen cabinet with the coffee mugs. I couldn’t bear to get rid of anything that was Darby for a long time.

Remember that “twelve months” we were given? That was a best case scenario. It took less than eight weeks from the time Darby was diagnosed until the cancer won. But to me it felt like several months. I would have sworn at least half a year had gone by. Time stood still for us for those two months. It was magical. I was able to hold onto every moment. All of our long walks. Sitting by the lake. Napping together on the couch. It was a blessing that I will always be thankful for.

During our last moments together I apologized to him so many times. I’m sorry I wasn’t better for you. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more for you. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for you. I’m sorry this happened. I’m sorry if I ever lost my patience with you. I’m sorry if there was ever a moment you didn’t feel my love. I’m sorry I couldn’t make this right.

AFTER DARBY

I mourned Darby with comfort food and every 80’s comedy movie I grew up on. Sometimes I felt that I had failed him. Sometimes I accepted that it was his time to leave. But no matter how long I grieved or how sad I was, I still had to get up every day. He didn’t leave me alone. He left me with Tango. *smiles* Well played, sir.

Darby was not my baby. He was my guardian angel. He got me through the roughest time in my life. He gave me a new life. It’s been seven years since Darby passed and I miss him always. I will forever be grateful to him.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne Taig says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, I know how heartbreaking it is to loss your best friend and companion. we lost our precious fur baby Scooby on the 31st March 2017 to prostate cancer which had spread to his stomach. Like Darby he was perfectly healthy until one afternoon he was shaking, being sick and unable to walk. We took him to the vet straight away the initial test all came back clear it was only through further tests that they found a lump in his stomach they operated the next morning and gave us the most heartbreaking news we could every imagine. Our boy had cancer and there was nothing they could do for him he was in so much pain and his cancer had spread. We had to make the decision on whether to wake him up out of the anaesthetic or say our goodbyes, after along conversation with the vet and hearing how much pain he would be in we took her advice to let him go. I have to say it was completely devastating he was our boy we had had him since he was 5 weeks old and was only 3 months off of his 15th birthday

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They truly are our family members. It’s devastating to lose them. We never get to keep them long enough.

      Like

  2. Maggie says:

    I am sorry for your loss . Your story of Darby is some moving. I am glad he helped you through your difficult times and was there for the happy times together

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Diana Adamson says:

    Thank you for this. I lost my father a year ago, and one of my sweet precious dogs in November. It’s been a rough year in many counts.

    While, my sweet Loki died unexpectedly in my arms one night, maybe old age, he was 14, my father lived an agonizing 4 years with Alzheimer’s. It was horrible to watch him waste away in every way. But hospice allowed him dignity, comfort, and peace. And they allowed me honesty, quiet time with my father, and a knowledge that as his time came, I could be courageous enough to stay with him.

    Then this courage allowed me to hold my sweet pup as he breathed his last breath in my arms while I was alone with him, his brother, and the kitty sister.

    I love your posts. Thank you for your raw honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve orme says:

    What a beautiful tribute. I often think it would be better to die before our dogs but that is so selfish. What would they do for unconditional love?
    As indeed they give us. Meet you with your dogs and all of mine one day at Rainbow Bridge. I’ll be the silly Englishman in tweed with a sheep crook stick.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your story had me in tears, but the love you share was unconditional, we lost a Cavalier King Charles 4 years ago she was only 2 it broke our hearts even though we still had her sister who grieved as much as we did she is now 8yrs old and has a 4yr old sister and a little Chihuahua puppy, but I still miss my Lovely Brianna because she was ill and I looked after her when she had her fits sometime just nursing her after she came round we had a special bond where ever I was she wanted to be even sitting in bathroom while I had a bath. xxxxxxxxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Victoria McRitchie says:

    Your story about Darbys life and love is so so moving ….as you say he was more than a pet and he came into your life just when you needed him and he needed you…..
    He enriched your life and you will always remember him with love…
    I too lost my beloved chocolate Labrador Beth just over 5 years ago to liver cancer ….I had her from 8wks old until she died aged 13.5 and was totally devastated when I had to make the decision to let her go,and she went peacefully while I cuddled her….
    Within 4wks of losing her I adopted my 2nd Choc Lab Bonnie who sadly needed to be rehomed for the 3rd time in 7yrs…..she was the gentlest well behaved girl,and gave me 5 wonderful years until she very suddenly developed a blood clot in her heart,and although we tried to win the battle it just couldn’t be ….she went to sleep peacefully on my knee in The first week of January this year aged almost 12….

    I now have my 3rd Choc Girl who is 5months old and I rehomed her one month ago when her owner decided to sell her after only 2 months….her name is Rosie and hopefully we will have many years together…..

    I wish you well for your future with Tango and her friends…. X

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Karla Haas says:

    So very sorry for your loss. Reminds me of my big brown dog named Rudy Green.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ruth Pascoe says:

    I lost my beautiful chocolate lab in January this year . Harry was 11 and a half and succumbed to cancer .He also went off his food before Christmas unknown. for a lab ! He slept more but then started lean his head against you and appeared to be in pain
    I took him to the vet , they checked him out gave him pain killers and advised me to return if no better
    One morning I came back and found blood on the floor which had come from his anus .
    I immediately took him to the vet crying as I was doing so because I knew something was very wrong.
    They took bloods and advised he have an MRI to checkout his head .
    By this time I knew something serious was wrong and could not stop crying .
    We drove to a bigger practice over an hour away and left him there so they could get on with the tests.
    Leaving him there was the hardest thing I have ever done and saying goodbye was devastating .
    I knew he wasn’t coming back to us and could hardly believe that 10years with this beautiful boy could end so suddenly in this way.
    That very evening came the call from the vet to say she had found multiple secondary tumours in his head and the primary probably was in the anus where he had bled.
    I thanked her and asked for him to be kept there so my
    family could say goodbye in the morning .
    She rang back within the hour to ask my permission to let him go as they could not wake him from the sedation.
    That was also one of the hardest decisions to make as my girls wanted to say goodbye and had not seen him during the day as they had been at college and work and I would also have to tell them he had died.
    They kept Harry overnight and the girls and my husband went to say goodbye and took his toys and blankets with them .
    I feel I have lost my soul mate and nerve now miss him terribly .
    You think you are saving a rescue dog and giving them a better life but when I think how much Harry has taught us as a family and myself , I truely believe he has saved us .

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Lynne says:

    I read your story mostly with tears in my eyes. I have been through this same scenario, twice, and it doesn’t get any easier, the longer ago it was. Carrie, my border collie x lab and Bertie, my little, feisty Yorkie were with me for 16 years and 18 years respectively. Carrie went through a divorce and the loss of my father with me and Bertie helped me cope with my depression. They were both very special. I now have Bonnie and Betty and just hope they have lives as long as their predecessors.
    All the best to you

    Liked by 1 person

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