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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.