The vet gave us a checklist. It was a simple piece of paper with boxes next to words like “Loss of appetite” and “Uninterested in things that used to bring joy”. As you noticed these things, you were supposed to put a checkmark in each box. There was no “score”; rather, this simple piece of paper was designed to help people like us think less emotionally about the impending decision of when to euthanize our dog.

My dog is my best friend. We’ve been together since she was 8 weeks old, and she had been an inextinguishable light in my life. As my eyes anxiously darted down the checklist, I could already see she met half the items. I could see that light starting to dim. As I stood there, tears rolling down my cheeks, my heart sank in anguish.

Sure, she was an old girl now but Virginia Woof is a gladiator. She survived cancer 3 times, each one requiring a massive surgery and recovery. Her most recent cancer diagnosis required a removal of half her jaw, leaving her with a rubber band-like contraption in her mouth to keep it together. She was also missing a canine tooth which she had removed in another previous surgery. Everyone kept asking why we were spending so much money on a dog. I asked them if they would do the same for their child, because that’s what she is to me.

But this time looked like the end. She’d started having grand mal seizures, likely pointing to a brain tumor given her age. If I can even begin to describe what it looks like when a Great Dane has a seizure of that magnitude, I would use a word like “terrifying”. It was like watching as someone’s brain deteriorated while their body fought it hopelessly.

Then after days of seizures she had a stroke, and for several hours afterward she completely forgot who we were. As I approached her in the backyard, she ran toward the fence corner and cowered, unsure where she was or what this stranger before her might do.

Virginia was declining, fast.

But here’s the thing about Gladiators — they can never be counted out. No matter the odds, they fight until the very last moment. Just when you think they’ve succumbed to an opponent, just when you turn your head in sorrow, they rise.

After a couple weeks of rest and medication, while the vets were expecting us to call and schedule a time for her to be put down, she got up. She started walking, and eating, and then begging for me to take her on walks. Each day, she did more than the day prior. And slowly, she returned…not to her former self, but to version that is undeniably elderly yet still burning for life.

It’s hard to imagine that Virginia Woof will be here much longer. It’s difficult for her to do things that used to be simple. She has a hard time getting up from the couch now. She’s started tripping a lot during walks. The other day she fell when she tried to jump up on my bed. And when I put my hand on her while she is sleeping, I can feel a strain in her breathing. Life does not last forever.

But in likely her final act, she shows us all what true determination looks like. It’s an indefatigable spirit which may be down, but refuses to be out. It’s a relentless drive to keep giving your all when everyone around you is giving up. It’s an undeniable force of nature that is bigger than any one of us, yet within each of us if we really listen.

Looking at that checklist, I was right to think it was the end. But it was not…not yet. Virginia Woof refused to leave me like that, her future reduced to my heartbreakingly checking one box too many.

No, she would keep pushing. Keep struggling. Keep fighting. No matter the odds, she would fight until the very last moment.

And when that moment comes, it won’t be a defeat.

It will be a beautiful triumph of grit, fire, and spirit, and a reminder for all of us of how strong we really are.