It was one and a half years ago that I met my dear friend who I would come to know as Falcor. The name was picked out by my partner who said she reminded him of the dog-dragon from the Neverending Story. She was a chow-lab mix with a fluffy beige coat, a pink and purple tongue and nose, and big brown hound-dog eyes.
The shelter said she was six years old when we got her, but I had a feeling she was probably a little older. (Shelters do that sometimes to boost a dog’s chances for adoption, but I wouldn’t have cared either way.) She was always a timid, gentle dog, especially on her first day at our house. We did our best to make her feel comfortable while still giving her enough space so she would be able to get used to us on her own terms.
When we first got her, she was the fattest dog I had ever seen with my own eyes. She had difficulty walking and her breathing was labored. For the most part, she tried to stay sitting or laying. She wouldn’t even get up to eat.
We had already been feeding our younger dog, Layla (a 2-3 year old german shepherd-husky mix), a vegan diet and had seen good results, so there was no question that we would feed Falcor vegan food as well. After a few weeks of feeding her vegan food we noticed that she was able to move around a little easier and could come get her food rather than having it brought to her where she was sitting. We started giving her some exercise. Nothing too tough at first, but soon enough she was keeping up with Layla running laps around the pool, chasing squirrels and rough-housing with us. Within a few months time she slimmed down to a normal, healthy weight and even our veterinarian was impressed by the unlikely turn-around.
Layla had been an “only-dog” in our house for a year before Falcor joined our family and she would sometimes assert her dominance over Falcor in very nasty, scary fights. One particular fight landed me in the emergency room with blood running down my left arm and leg and chunks of adipose sticking out from the wounds. Someone didn’t close the door to the room where our three rabbits live and the dogs must have seen them and gotten excited. I’ve heard you’re not normally supposed to get in between two dogs in the middle of a fight, but I had to push them out of the room where rabbits were hopping around without any barrier between them and the dogs. I don’t blame either of them for what happened.
Falcor would always lose their fights and after the first one she realized that I was protecting her from getting beat up. She started following me around everywhere. When new people would come to the house she would stay close to me and when people would pet her she would look to me to see if it was safe to trust them. She considered me her guardian and I was honored to have that duty.
She loved getting pets and rubs and would do this funny thing with her head if you stopped rubbing her, even for a few seconds. She would snap her head back and give this disapproving stare back as if to say “I didn’t tell you to stop”. Wherever I went, she wanted to go too. When I would be finished showering I would open the bathroom door and see her laying on the floor looking up at me with her head resting over her paws, waiting for me to come out. When I would come home from work she would do this “happy dance” with her front feet as if the ground was really hot. Any time I would say her name (I called her Falcorsies), she would wag her tail.
My fondest memory of Falcor would have to be right after the first time we had her groomed. My partner brought her home smelling like flowers with a big pink bow on her collar. She was glowing with happiness. She must have felt like a princess. Moments like that is what rescuing a dog is all about. She would have languished and died in a shelter, wondering where her family went, feeling afraid, alone and confused, but in that moment she was the happiest, most loved dog in the world.
One night she couldn’t stop panting. She panted so loudly I wasn’t able to sleep. I took her to an after-hours emergency clinic. She didn’t want to go into the back with the veterinary technician without me. She took a few steps, looked back, noticed I wasn’t following her and promptly planted her butt on the ground and pulled against the leash. She wasn’t going anywhere without her protector. They let me come in with her.
They took x-rays of her abdomen and discovered that she was full of fluid that had collected around her lungs, making it difficult for her to breathe. They would have to do a tap to remove the fluid. After about an hour and just over two liters of fluid removed from her chest, the vet recommended that we send the fluid to a lab to see if her condition was caused by an infection or cancer. About a week later we had the results. It was cancer.
They said she probably had the cancer for a while before, because it had progressed to such an extent that she was accumulating such large amounts of fluid. They also showed me a large mass near her heart which they suspected to be cancerous, though they also speculated that it could be mesothelioma. More tests would need to be done to determine exactly which type of cancer it was, but in either case it was inoperable and thus, terminal. They asked if I wanted to do chemo and I declined. I didn’t want to put her through that. I know people who have put their dogs on chemo and who wished they hadn’t. I resolved to make her final months the happiest months a dog could have.
Over the next few months I would take her in periodically to get her fluid tapped and each time there would be a smaller and smaller gap between the visits. Her vet said that things wouldn’t get better or stay the same — they would only get worse. She tried talking to me about euthanasia but I didn’t want to hear about it. I knew the day would come that I would have to make such a horrible decision but would rather focus on making Falcor as comfortable as I could. As long as she was feeling better after each tap and getting back to her normal, happy self, I didn’t want to think for a single moment about the inevitability of euthanasia.
I knew it was the beginning of the end when she began hyperventilating, her stomach heaving as she struggled to breathe in the early hours of the morning. We took her to a different vet because our regular vet isn’t open on Sundays. They told us we got her there just in time and that they would have to tap immediately, no time for an x-ray. While the vet was talking with us and she was in the back, she collapsed and had to be given oxygen. The fluid around her lungs had slowly been preventing her lungs from expanding and she was struggling to get air. It must have felt like she was slowly drowning.
They stabilized her and brought her back out to us. They showed us the x-ray from before and after and let us know that they took about 2.5 liters out of her chest. They told us that her heart had been put under so much stress that it was growing very weak and that she should get plenty of rest when she got home.
When we returned home we could tell that she wasn’t the same dog we had known before. The light had left her eyes and she sought comfort in solitude, which is something she had never done before. Her breathing quickly became more labored in the hours that followed her tap when it would normally take weeks to reach that point again. She wouldn’t eat. It was like she had given up. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. I knew this was the end. That was yesterday.
Last night she climbed on top of our bed — something she never dared to do before, since Layla was always the one to get there first. Layla tried to come up but we didn’t let her. It was Falcor’s night. I lay in bed replaying memories of happier times in my head, tears streaming down my face and onto my pillow, eyes staring out into the dark. I reached over and hugged her and told her I loved her and that her pain would be gone tomorrow.
This morning at 9:30 we arrived at the vet’s office. Her panting had gotten worse overnight and she rested her head on my knee as she struggled to breathe. I was crying but I had to hold it in. I didn’t want her to think anything was wrong. I smiled at her and praised her and told her how special she was to me through my tears and reluctant smile. I couldn’t help but feel as though I was betraying her trust by bringing her there to die. I was her protector and guardian. She trusted me above everyone else. But I knew deep down that it was the only kind decision I could make. Her health was deteriorating rapidly and I knew that this would be her last day whether I brought her to the vet or not. I didn’t want her last moments to be gasping for breath, feeling helpless and afraid.
Her vet checked her out and listened to her breathing through a stethoscope.
“Her last tap was yesterday?”
I nodded. She pushed gently on her sides and shook her head.
“I think it’s time.”
The vet techs took us in the back and inserted the catheter in her arm. The tape they used to hold it in place was purple with a pink heart on it. She looked up at me with her hound-dog eyes and I had to smile at her and tell her it was okay and that her pain would be gone soon. The vet came in with three syringes. The first two were thin and filled with clear fluid. The last one was thick and filled with pink fluid. I wondered which one was the final syringe.
The vet explained what I could expect during the after the process and I nodded my head. Part of me wanted to have them just get it over with and the other part of me wanted to fight them all back so I could have just a few more moments with my dear friend. As the vet inserted the first syringe into the catheter, Falcor looked up at me. I gave her a kiss and a hug. The two clear syringes were to sedate and calm her. By the time the second one was injected Falcor had slowly laid down in my lap as I sat on the floor. I stroked her face and head. The vet told me that the next injection was going to put her to sleep — the pink syringe. I put my face on Falcor’s face and kissed her, trying to hold back the tears that fell onto her face.
“I love you. I love you.”
Her breathing slowed down. She went limp. The vet checked for a pulse. It was just before 10:00.
I cried and sobbed holding my friend in my arms who I had come to love so much in the brief year and a half I had known her. Her pain was gone. But I can’t help feeling such a deep sorrow that I’ll never see her again. I’ll never again come home and watch her do her little happy dance. I’ll never again step out of the shower and find her waiting for me. I’ll never again be able to tell her I love her and how important she is to me.
As I drove home I asked myself if I would ever be able to go through something like that again. Was it worth the pain?
I gave that little soul the best year and a half I could — time that she never would have gotten had I never adopted her from the shelter on the same day she would have been put to sleep. Time that would have been robbed from her by her previous family who was too selfish, cruel and irresponsible to realize that she was their responsibility regardless of her failing health.
So many dogs end up in shelters because their family puts their own needs before the animals needs. They’re moving, they’re getting married, they’re breaking up, they’re having kids, they’re allergic, their spouse is allergic, they don’t have the time, they don’t have the energy, they don’t have the money, they don’t want to deal with it, they got bored. These are the reasons so many die every year in shelters. These, and wanting a “new” pure-bred puppy. Use it up and throw it away, like tattered old furniture left on the side of the road.
Falcor was not tattered old furniture to me. She was my friend and companion and I was her guardian. I would do it over a thousand times. I’ll never forget her and I’ll always love her. Rescuing her was one of the greatest decisions I ever made. I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to become her friend.
Not In Vain
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
— Emily Dickinson