18 October 2014

I’ve been meaning to share this for a very long time, and while it seems like I've continually let life get in the way, it probably has more to do with the reluctance of reliving this time in my life. But in holding onto this for so long, I feel it is causing many beloved companion animals to have their last moments on earth in a state of fear and anxiety, unnecessarily, when those final moments could be spent in safety and peace. So, in remembrance to my beloved Bear, who I lost this time 8 years ago, and in service to those presently nearing their last moments with their beloved companions, I’m finally sharing my story.

When I found Bear, I was newly married and not even looking for a dog. In fact, I had set out to the AFB base animal shelter merely in support of my mom, as she sought after a cat. While she was in the cattery, for some reason I was compelled to walk the cages and see the dogs at the shelter. As I was visiting with the inhabitants, they were all enthusiastically greeting me at their kennel gates, with what I would describe as their best efforts at selling themselves for liberation from this place; all but one.

A big, black Belgian beauty was withdrawn, at the back of his kennel, cowering on his cot with his tail tucked and eyes dejectedly staring off into the distance. I called the shelter worker over and asked, “What was the story with this dog?” He explained that he was the last of a family of dogs that had been dumped, along with a 50 lb. bag of dog food that they were guarding in the field when they were found on base. He detailed that this dog, particularly, had actually been the most ferocious dog in the pack and they had actually been ordered to shoot the dogs because they initially could not get near the pack.

However, this gentle man had asked if they could try to knock the dogs out instead, and was granted the opportunity. He said they “slipped a mickey” in some treats and left them for the dogs and that’s when they were able to collect them. All of the rest of the dogs had been placed in good homes. They had tried for over 12 months to place this dog, and over that time he had been fostered at multiple homes for months at a time, had even been allowed to stay at the base vet's office in hopes that someone would take him. He said he had been back at the shelter for over 60 days and the only reason he had not been euthanized yet was because the serum was on back order.

When they closed, I sadly departed thinking this dog just had to know a better life. I was deeply troubled the rest of the evening, so I expressed my concerns to my husband. After some deliberation he agreed to allow me to adopt the dog and we promptly went down the next day to retrieve him. We took him shopping for the necessary accoutrements and welcomed him to his new home. Though I had seriously considered naming him Navarre, for a black wolf from a favorite movie, I decided to name him “Bear” (I know, it was hardly an original name), for two simple reasons; 1) he looked like a black bear and 2) he needed a strong name that would engender a more courageous spirit than the broken baby boy I found cowering at the back of the kennel.

It took Bear nearly a month before he would come out from behind the toilet without a leash to go outside, or to coax him out with us elsewhere in the house. He wouldn't allow me to come near him until I removed my uniform (particularly my battle dress uniform (BDU) hat and steel-toed combat boots) I remember, in those early days, at our first visit to the base vet for his shots and licensing, how protective I was of him when someone in the waiting room made a verbal jab towards him about his cowardice in hiding under the chairs. I nearly ate their lunch. As I worked with Bear, it became apparent he was exceptionally smart, learning to communicate with me and respond to commands easily and rapidly.

His behaviors in those early days made it abundantly clear he had come from an abusive situation. But over time, he really bloomed. He came out of his shell and even his left ear, that had continually drooped for the first few years I had him, arose to a noble stature in concert with his confidence and character strength. We bonded like no other dog and I have ever bonded with before... or ever since. He was a loyal, vigilant, one- person guardian and he was the sweetest, cuddliest and most vibrant soul that never left my side; an 85 pound lap dog that loved to spoon and was my valiant protector, especially so, after my husband and I eventually filed for a dissolution of marriage.

After nearly ten wonderful years with Bear, I was devastated when I learned he had developed cancer that had rapidly spread throughout his body including into his adrenal and anal glands. The vet said due to the locations and severity, it was considered inoperable and any kind of chemo or treatment would not only cause significant suffering, it would not yield much life expansion, if any, in return for it. I felt as though I had been shot. I still wish I would have had more time with him. I wish I would have thought to get another opinion. I wish I would have looked into alternative treatment. My heart is re-breaking as I type these words.

Over the many years of losing other beloved fur-family members, I have always dreaded that moment at the vet’s office when we said our final goodbyes. The guilt of hearing their cries of terror in the car on the way to the vet’s office and witnessing their distress, fear and anxiety of being there was always so damn painful and haunting, as if holding them and watching the life leave their eyes and body wasn’t traumatic enough. Somewhere along the way, I discovered something that I so very much wish I only would have discovered or thought of long before. And that is what leads me to share with this story you.

I read an advertisement in a local publication for a mobile vet. “A MOBILE vet?” I thought. And then I was epiphany struck. “Someone my beloved Bear would not know. Someone he would have no negative association with. Someone he would think was just another guest, if they visited the house!!” So, I called them and asked them to detail the pricing and procedure. It was $100.00, they simply requested medical records as verification of his terminal condition, and they asked me what I wanted to do with his remains, when the time came. I opted for cremation so he could stay with me, in some form, until I leave this world. (Cremation cost: $80.00 which included transport of his body to crematorium and the return of his ashes to me at home the next day, the engraved box his ashes are stored in, and tax) (Note- also for consideration, technology today can turn someone’s ashes into gem stones). The mobile vet said he would also coordinate the transfer of Bear’s body with the cremation services for me.

I knew the time was near when Bear had emaciated down to less than 50 pounds, had stopped eating for over 4 days and would no longer drink. I had been feeding him canned pumpkin and human food long before he stopped eating just to get him to eat at all, and to be able to pass his bowels due to the tumor growth that was rapidly closing off, and eventually, blocked his bowel passage. He was constantly panting and not wanting to get up to go out anymore and I could tell he was distressed because I know he didn’t want to pee on the floor in the house, but he had also lost control of his bladder.

After he stopped eating for several days, I took him to his regular vet and she verified it was time. He was indeed suffering and keeping him here longer was not really for him anymore, but for me. Another consideration I wrangled with, that I absolutely could not bear to let happen, was the possibility of, if I let nature take its course, and I went to work, that he could die here, alone. NO WAY was that going to happen! Making this call was the hardest phone call I’ve ever made, but I contacted the mobile vet and set up the date and time.

Our last day together, was a clear, brisk, sunny fall afternoon. Mom and I took Bear for a final trip to the pet store, and picked up some toys and a clay memorial dog foot print kit, then we drove to our favorite park. He and Mako (my other fur baby boy) briefly sniffed around and played together before Bear tired and came to cuddle on my lap. Mom took pictures of us and after not nearly enough time, we proceeded home. I had prepared to have a neighbor friend come by and take Mako for a very long walk so I could spend some quality time with just Bear and me and to take his paw print.

When we settled down, I put an Enya CD on and Bear and I curled up together on his bed. I laid there with him, as I had so many times before, stroking his beautiful, black mane and repeated how much I loved him, how he was mommy’s good boy, my beautiful baby boy, my beloved protector and how lucky I was to have him with me. He hardly noticed or raised his head when the vet came in and began to set up in the dining room to do what he had come to do. Finding the strength to maintain as if everything was fine and not weep inconsolably (as I am now, reliving this moment) was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m sharing this with you because it is important to me for you to know, that Bear barely knew, or at least, if he did know, he faded peacefully while resting wrapped in my arms, hearing my voice, in his home, on his bed, without fear, or anxiety.

The vet who provided this invaluable service was very compassionate, professional and thoughtful. It was worth every penny (and more) over the amount it would have cost to take him to the vet’s office and the guilt of what that finality would have caused me knowing the fear and anxiety it would cause in my beloved companion. I still have the mobile vet’s handwritten letter and Rainbow Bridge poem. Mako, when his time came 5 years later, experienced the same transition, as will every other fur family member ever after, if their fate is of a similar nature, and if it is within my power. Bear’s ashes, as well as Mako’s hold a place of honor in my bedroom, and, as I prefer to my imagine, they sit as sentinels, still guarding over me as I sleep, until I too, fade from this life. A dear friend once said that "We know going in that the odds are good they will go before we do." and while that knowledge certainly doesn't reduce the pain of losing them, I wish for you, and your beloved fur family members, the same loving and peaceful passing when their time comes.