A Careful Farewell

Druid Hills family makes sure everyone is present for beloved dog's last hours

“Tolstoy is mistaken: all happy families are not alike. In fact no two families are alike, happy or unhappy. Every family, like every fingerprint, has its own unique pattern. . . .”

–Roxana Robinson

One week ago, life changed for the Falcos.

When the Druid Hills family learned their beloved dog Mikayla was terminally ill, they sat down together to weigh the options.

If they opted for surgery and chemo, they might be able to buy her some time, but only a few months, tops. Putting the 13-year-old pet to sleep would bypass the pain, and allow them to say goodbye together.

No matter how they went at it, they needed to act fast – “play God,” as Rebecca Falco said – which is never easy.

Beyond the medical details, how could they prepare to say goodbye to someone whose love existed beyond words? Who’d been unfailingly glad to see them, whether someone had been gone for minutes or days. Who’d kept pace on long morning jogs. Who’d played and comforted when no one else could?

When Rebecca and John Falco had gotten Mikayla, oldest daughter Emily was 4, son K. J. was 2 and daughter Skye was 1. The shy, black dog Rebecca says was “more interested in people than other animals” was there for the arrival of Journey, who’s now 11 and Becton, who turned 7 in January.

Even at the ripe old dog age of 13, Mikayla’s spirit was so young, it was easy to believe she’d be there forever.

In an email to friends and family – a regular habit Rebecca began in her family’s earliest years – she described what happened when she returned from the vet without their dog:

“The kids were all at home and I sat them down for a discussion of the options.  We agreed we did not want her to be in pain or alone.  I called John and he came home early from work.  The decision was made to let her go. We would all go to the office and say ‘good-bye.’  Skye thought it important that the other dogs also went to say good-bye.”

So late that afternoon, the family returned to Clairmont Animal Hospital in Decatur as a group – younger dogs Joe and Xavior in tow.

Dr. George Parlavantzas was great, she said, and told the family to take as much time as they needed.

“He just sat there with us,” Emily said later, “and let us say goodbye.”

But it was all, Rebecca remembers, happening so fast.

She was even more mindful of time because of her previous dog, who had died while she was out of town. There’d been no chance for farewells.

“I wanted to do it differently this time,” she said, “for me and them.”

So everyone found a spot in the exam room – mostly on the floor around Mikayla – and navigated their pet’s final hours in their own unique ways.

Emily stayed by Mikayla’s side until the end, tears flowing freely that day and into the next.

Oldest son K.J., whose job it had been to feed her and the other dogs, didn’t want to talk about how he was feeling, but didn’t fight the tears when they came.

Skye pushed her sorrow away until the prospect of planning a proper funeral and fitting tombstone provided a welcome distraction.

But Journey found the idea of Mikayla coming home as ashes in a fancy urn more than she could bear. Wouldn’t it be better, she asked, if they could keep the dog’s spirit alive through photos and memories?

As Becton watched his family dissolve in tears, and fully comprehended they would not be taking Mikayla home, the youngest Falco followed suit. But in seconds, his mother says, he was distracted by how interesting his tears looked as they splashed upon the floor.

An accomplished writer of many types of stories, Rebecca chronicled last Monday’s sad events on her blog “Adoption Makes Seven: Parenting a Family Created From Seven Different Gene Pools.”

Reading about it there, and talking with her briefly on Friday morning, I was moved by the way she’d handled something so universal – the loss of a beloved pet – in such a mindful and grace-filled way.

Each Falco was heard, each one’s style of mourning respected. Although it was all happening too fast, their mom made sure there was enough time for each child to get what he or she needed in their moment of grief.

Such is the delicate art of her parenting style, which she called, Everything In Its Own Time: A Mother’s Memoir About Adopting Five Children, and the Ones That Got Away. It’s a moving look at the ways families are made, and why the Falcos believe so strongly in open adoption (which creates extended families of birth and adoptive relatives).

By Friday, life had mostly gotten back to normal for the Falcos. It took Emily a couple of days, she said, to stop looking for Mikayla in the mornings. She’s spending more time with Joe, she said, now that Mikayla’s not around to put Xavior in his place.

Whether the family would decide to put up any kind of marker out back was still an open question.

“My guess is it will come from Skye,” Rebecca said. “If we decide to get another dog – which we’re nowhere close to – this will be part of closing that.”

The title of Rebecca’s book comes from a song written by her friend Emily Saliers. It serves as the book’s epigraph, and includes the lines, “We own nothing. Nothing is ours. Not even love so fierce, it burns like baby stars.”

Read more about Rebecca Falco and her family in her book, or on her blog – “Adoption Makes Seven: Parenting a Family Created From Seven Different Gene Pools” – both linked from her website.


Ralph Ellis July 19, 2011 at 02:45 AM
Great story. I think I'll go pet my dog.
Eileen Drennen July 23, 2011 at 12:52 PM
smart man! ; )


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