Just over 16 years ago, I was a younger reporter in the middle-of-nowhere Illinois who thought she might someday change the world with her words. I thought I might be on the front lines of a war covering heroic tales from the front lines, knee deep in water after a hurricane in a town that was hit hard or even – God forbid – covering politics.
But that day I was at an animal shelter run solely by two sisters in their spare time and on nothing but donations and love. The shelter was filled to the brim with dogs and cats – animals that some had to leave behind and others that were purposely left.
In the middle of all of that there was a spindly-legged dog they named Cleo (Cleopatra) and she had seven, little, wiggly wonders. Cleo and her puppies had been left in a nearby ravine. Cleo had been tied to a dog house and left there to care for her family.
The first time we met
By the time I arrived to write a story about the shelter, all of the puppies had been adopted with the exception of one. A small, black, puppy was the lone puppy available and while I thought I wanted a male dog to be a companion for my girl at home, this puppy quickly stole my heart. She kissed me right away and I was all in.
A few weeks later I took her home and introduced her to my 9-month-old dog Callie. She was a lover. She loved to snuggle and kiss more than anything else. I named her Frenchie. Together the three of us were a family for a long time before anyone else came along.
I loved my girls fiercely – in a way that I suppose could only be forged by loneliness from living in a small town with no one. They were there for me each night when I came home. When I was happy, they would love me. When I was sad, they would love me. When I was just somewhere in the middle, they would love me. They were my world.
My two girls
Callie was a player. She loved tug-of-war, fetch and just being chased. She would sleep under the covers and give big, sloppy kisses. She would bark at you when you did something she wasn’t thrilled with and you would know. She was strong and a rough-and-tumble kind of girl who loved just playing with you on the floor.
Frenchie was a lover. She was the first one to curl up next to me and find her place whenever I sat down. She would kiss you forever if you let her. She was nimble and cat-like. She would often walk on the back of the couch or sit there. She would find a way to get to you wherever you were perched and perch herself right by your side. She slept curled up under my arm most nights – especially in the early days.
Over the years we moved from place-to-place. My goal was to get a small house with a small yard for my girls and in 2007, I did just that. I fence in our little spot so they could run and play as they liked.
I remember someone in my family saying that I bought the house for the dogs. Admittedly, this was 100 percent accurate. They had been with me through so many ups and downs in my very early adult life and my goal was to give them the best life possible.
Expanding our family
We also added people to our family.
When Kevin joined us, Callie would bark at him when he sat on the couch, make him move and then take his spot. Frenchie would jump – from a sitting position – all the way up so she could kiss him on the lips. They loved him in a way that was a lot different than the way they loved me – especially Frenchie. I was always No. 1 in her book. Always.
In 2011, our son was stillborn. The girls sat by me for a month as I sat on the couch and tried to find meaning in the world again. While I felt empty and lost in the months following his death, they helped me heal by just being there. They seemed to know something changed and they changed too. I slept on the couch for months afterwards, they slept there too. They were calmer in those months, more reserved – seeming to reflect exactly what I needed to heal.
In 2012, our daughter was born, and while people told me I would feel differently about them after I had kids, that never happened. I loved them just as much as I did since the first day, I called them mine. I simply had less time to give but it’s almost like they understood that and took it in stride.
Both girls were gentle souls. They were never mean or violent. They were gentle with kids and babies despite not being raised with them for the majority of their lives.
They let my daughter climb on them, tug at them and chase them when they tried to steal her stuffed animals. She was their kid.
In 2014, we lost Callie quickly and unexpectedly at 12. At the time, it was one of the worst things I had experienced. Second only to the loss of our son. She died in the car as I was rushing her to the emergency vet. She started having some breathing issues that day – almost like she has a cough she couldn’t get out. She was gone in a matter of hours. We don’t fully know what it was that took her, but she had a heart murmur and had previously had some cancer removed. The day prior to that she was acting like her normal, healthy goofy self. It really came out of nowhere.
After that, Frenchie was never really the same. They didn’t play in the same way litter siblings might, but they were always with each other – the same room, the same couch, the same bed. And while the title of head dog in our house seemed to transfer back and forth between them, she was never really prepared to be lone dog.
A change in Frenchie
For a few months, Frenchie was depressed. You could tell because she lost weight and the pep in her step seemed to be missing. She wasn’t as jumpy. She wasn’t as kissy and she would leave me and go upstairs to sleep by herself sometimes. That was perhaps the most unusual of all.
In the months after we got her weight back up and I gave her as much love as I could. Pregnant again, I was also dealing with the loss of Callie and the mental and emotional anguish that being pregnant causes me after Alexander’s death and multiple miscarriages.
She became my shadow. While the girls would follow me around before, it was different with Callie gone. You could see just how much Frenchie was my dog. While she loved my husband and daughter in her own way, it was me that she really longed to be around and sit with.
When I wasn’t home, she would leave the room and go off by herself. When I was home, she would always be near. If I would get up, even to just get a drink, she would watch to make sure I wasn’t going anywhere without her.
As she aged, she started having some health issues. She had never really been my “healthy” girl. In fact, if you had asked me who was going to be the first to go out of the two girls, I would have picked Frenchie.
She had ear infection after ear infection, she had a hematoma in her ear when she was young that took forever to heal (mostly because she could never sit still and would wiggle out of her cone of shame), she cracked a couple teeth and even had to spend two nights in the hospital once after she became severely dehydrated after an extraction surgery.
Through it all, she just kept going – just much more slowly than she used to.
About three years ago, arthritis became an issue for her. We started her on an injection for it every 6-8 weeks that seemed to help. About two years ago she started a daily pain pill to help with her achy joints. She could no longer jump or walk on the top of the couch.
I remember vividly the first day she jumped off the third step of the stairs – something she did every day – and slipped. Her cat-like nimbleness was gone. She kept trying for a bit, but eventually the stairs became challenging altogether.
Somewhere along the way, she stopped giving kiss – much to my dismay. I don’t remember the last time she kissed me.
She also stopped barking. Kevin and I don’t remember the last time she barked, which is odd because she used to do it in an overly annoying way whenever she was outside as a young girl.
Lumps and bumps started to grow too. Her vet asked me about checking the out when she was 14 or 15 and I refused. I knew that we were already on borrowed time and I wanted her golden years to be happy and calm instead of filled with doctor’s visits and chemo. I just wanted to make her comfortable.
Lastly, she stopped needing to be around me all of the time. She preferred a quiet place she could sleep most of the day versus any of the noise from the kids. She would come down in the evenings to be with me and then sleep wherever I slept.
A move to Michigan
When we moved to Michigan this past winter, I was worried the move would kill her. It was so stressful for me that I developed alopecia. I figured it would be equally stressful on my old, sweet girl.
In January of this year I heard a noise upstairs in my son’s room. We had put a bed in there for her because I often ended up in his bed at night and in turn she would end up in there too. She no longer tried to get up on our beds or our couch – places that had never been off limits to her.
I walked up there to check on her and found her having a seizure. It was horrifying. I screamed for my husband and immediately called a vet in the area – something I hadn’t done yet since we had just moved. I had taken her to the vet literally the day the moving van arrived so I could fill up on her meds and get her the arthritis shot. I thought we were set.
The new vet prescribed some medication for her that seemed to stop the seizures. Although she had one more that day when we got home, she never had another even though I completely stopped her seizure medication about a month later because it made her almost catatonic.
More health challenges
Still, her legs were never the same after that. This was hard to swallow remembering what she was like as a puppy and in her mid-life.
Her legs would slip and slide out from under her, especially her back legs. They were really the worst for her. In the middle of all of this, she also had a month-long stint of explosive, water-like diarrhea. I was cleaning the floors here multiple times a day. The vet couldn’t find a cause but luckily that finally subsided sometime in early March.
Speaking of the floors here, they didn’t make it any easier. The floors in our house a wood but they a pre-fabricated and almost have a plastic-like film over them (as a side note, I hate them and don’t recommended them).
The stairs here were also hard. She tripped up them and stumbled down them. At one point, she was sitting behind me near the basement stairs and her back legs slipped out. She fell also the way down the stairs and there was nothing I could do. I was frozen in the split second that it happened and just started screaming for Kevin. I sobbed and sobbed – sure she had broken something.
When we got her upstairs she seemed ok. I took her to the vet again for her shot and they confirmed that at least nothing was broken. After that I blocked the stairs with heavy boxes and made sure there weren’t any gaps.
The last week
Last week, she kept stumbling up the stairs to the second story and would tumble back down. I decided to block those too. I began sleeping on the couch so she would stay on her bed in the family room.
Through it all, she may have been having big and noticeable changes – she stopped wagging her tail, she wouldn’t really look you in the eye and she would shake (maybe from pain or maybe from cold), but my sweet girl was still there in moments.
After she ate – when she ate – she would come and rub her nose on me or the couch and look for a pet. If I sat on the floor she would come over by me and I’d sit there and hold her. When I walked out of the room, she would follow – even if I was just going to the bathroom or into the living room. She was still very much my girl and mentally, she seemed ok.
This past week the physical part became hard to ignore. She started walking sideways sometimes, almost like she was dragging her back legs. Last Tuesday, she sat and couldn’t get up. Her back legs almost seemed to stop working at the hips.
She started sitting like this to poop – sitting in it as she went. She couldn’t squat anymore – even outside which had been the best for her legs.
The worst decisions
I took her to the vet last Thursday, thinking it was just time for her shot and that her shot would make it better. Or, that possibly she hurt something in a stumble and an X-ray would prove it so I could help her.
Instead, after running a test where she simply pitched her back legs, she told me that Frenchie was losing feeling in her back legs. She was becoming paralyzed. She told me this was the beginning of the end. She wasn’t going to get better from this and there wasn’t much that could be done to help her.
I lost it. How could this be? This couldn’t be the end. My fence wasn’t in. I needed my fence in for her. I needed her to be able to enjoy the summer here. I knew it wouldn’t be long but thought at the very least we would have the summer left together.
I took her home and told Kevin. We spent the next day talking about it. We also spent the next day picking her up when she would get stuck in that weird sitting position, cleaning her tail, legs and bottom after she sat to go poop, carrying her up and down the outside stairs.
Her decline last week was so fast that it shocked me. A week prior to that I still thought we would have the summer – at least.
The hardest part though was that I still wasn’t sure. I had made an appointment for Saturday morning. I had told my kids. I had taken her for cheeseburgers and ice cream. But how could I kill my best friend?
That questions was a point of severe anguish for me all last week. I hadn’t been alone in 17 years. I had always had a dog. What would I even do without one?
Also, mentally, she was still pretty alert. Maybe not as much as she had once been, but I could see it in the way she would look at things. She’d hear a bird and turn her head (odd because she couldn’t always hear me), she would see me get up and follow, she would sit in the sun and soak it up – maybe enjoying laying in the grass and sunshine more than anything else now. How could I take that away from her? I could I take her away from me?
How could there possibly be something wrong with her that I couldn’t fix?
Our last day
Sometimes it’s hard to know just how drastic a dog’s decline has been because you’re living it. The small, subtle changes from day-to-day happen slowly. Seldomly, you’ll have drastic changes.
I know we had some subtle and some drastic changes, but I’m probably still too close to the loss to give any sort of enlightened advice here.
At the end, I do know she was scared. She was shaking some in the vet’s office but a lot of that seemed to have to do with the fact that I was sobbing uncontrollably. I calmed down a bit for her and she seemed to calm down too.
In her final minutes, I put myself directly in front of her so she knew she wasn’t alone. I wrapped my legs around her as the shot to put her to sleep started to take effect. I stroked her ears and her head, much like I would as if I was holding her at home – like I have done since she was a puppy. As she laid down, she laid her head on my leg and I continued to pet her and tell her how much I loved her in a low, soft voice.
She closed her eyes laying there on me – something they said she wouldn’t do. I’m hoping she was at peace enough to actually let go and sleep knowing she was always safe in my arms.
When the doctor came back in, we moved her to a low table. I stayed right in front of her face at the top of her head as the second shot was given. Kevin had his hand on her side.
As she took her final breaths in this world my final words to her were, “Thank you.”
Thank you, Frenchie
I have so much to thank Frenchie for. In a world that’s often cruel and harsh, she had given me and my family unconditional love for 16 years. She had been a source of light and hope even in my darkest moments. She had given me all of her life and expected nothing in return. She was satisfied simply with the touch of my hand. Frenchie was the best girl and the sweetest dog I could have ever imagined or prayed for. She was exactly what I needed as I started my adult life and navigated my way through early adulthood and into my mid-life. I know I was lucky to have her for so long. I know I was blessed by her presence. I know that I could not love her more or miss her any less. My whole heart hurts as I remember – sometimes with surprise – that she is gone. I imagine it will ache for a long time to come.
I may not have been on the front lines of war or standing knee deep in the leftovers of a natural disaster in my life and I certainly have not changed the world with my words. But I did give two special dogs a person that would love them unconditionally and go to the ends of the Earth to make them better. For them, that was enough. For them, I did change their worlds, and they changed mine.
For more on our life here at the farm, click here.