These are the words in the notebook I kept by my side during Rhys' vigil. So many thoughts came to me during that time, and when I wasn't actively tending to him I was writing or folding paper.
5 February 2018
Rhys died today.
It wasn't an easy or painless death, and yet it was full of peace.
I didn't want him to have to die the hard way. I didn't want his heart to race and slow throughout the day. I didn't want him to struggle to breathe. I didn't want him to be painfully dehydrated. I didn't want him to lose his ability to walk, then stand, over four hours. I didn't want him to feel confused or disoriented. I didn't want him to try so hard, successfully, to avoid peeing in the house.
When he could no longer stand I told him it would be an honor for me to clean up after him. One last time. I asked him to pee on his bed when he needed to go.
Witnessing his death was similar to watching labor. It's excruciating and necessary. It delivers a beautiful outcome. It is natural.
We are in such a rush. In the past year I have assured Rhys countless times that there is no hurry. In the past four days that has been our mantra.
Do what you need. Do what feels right. Consider your needs first, for a change.
I am here. I will not leave you.
Rhys' last meal was Thursday night. That was his last normal day. He died on Monday.
His last walk was Saturday. He was slow. He vomited. Seven times, I think. That was when I knew.
His last car ride was last week, or was it the week before? He went to his favorite park.
His last bark was Sunday when his doctor delivered anti-nausea medication.
Now come the firsts.
The first day I don't wipe his drool from the floor.
The first time I come home to an empty window.
The first time I pick up my keys without hearing him lumber toward me.
Thank you, Rhys. Being with you was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
We dance every day.
I offer his medication, wrapped in meat. He sometimes accepts the invitation to less pain. He sometimes rolls the meat around in his mouth until the pill falls to the floor (or he keeps it tucked in his cheek and deposits it in his blanket for me to find later. We dance.
We walk. I slow to his pace. He sniffs. He pees. He blinks slowly, maybe taking in things that he sees differently than he used to. We dance.
He slips going up the two stairs out of the sunken living room. I rush to his side, giving him a safe place to rest while I steady his wobbly back end. He licks his lips in apology for requiring extra care. We dance.
Sometimes our steps are coordinated, sure, strong, and graceful. Sometimes it’s all we can do to stumble.
We always move forward. We always move together. We are partners.
We move forward even during a setback. In fact, the setback advances us more steps than anything. We move together toward his transition. We step closer to the day his body retires from its work and his spirit carries on.
When he doesn’t eat, we lurch forward. When he slips and falls, we rocket into a place much closer to the collection of lasts.
The last prescription. The last brushing. The last accident. The last morning massage. The last walk. The last meal. The last snuggle. The last goodbye.
And then comes the new world of firsts.
The first morning without his grunts coming from beneath his blanket. The first time I brush by his leash hanging in the hall without his ears rotating forward to interpret my intention. The first meal with an empty bowl. The first time we receive a package delivery without ample warning barks. The first walk alone. The first night without tucking him in. The first license renewal he doesn’t need. The first birthday after. The first anniversary.
While we move together, and we move forward, our dance is circular rather than linear. We can go far together and return to a familiar place. Everything comes back. On the days we stumble through our steps, this idea helps me.
I dance with him because he is my partner. I dance because he asks me to dance. I will dance with him until he says it is time to change partners, and then I’ll learn to dance with someone new.
11 January 2014
Shortly after breakfast, Conan told me it was his last day and wanted help. He asked for his doctor.
This was four years ago today.
I haven't shared this version of his last day before. I worried that people would think I was crazy. Even as the events of the day unfolded, I couldn't bring myself to tell either my husband or our veterinarian, Dr. Kate Cutting of Doorstep Vet , that I was convinced it was Conan's last day because he said so.
Starting in 2007, after the death of our first Dane, Vaughn, Conan told me his death would be easy. When Angus, our second Dane, died in 2012, Conan reassured me that although he couldn't take away the heartbreak of death, he could reduce the trauma.
Conan liked things to be calm and steady. He wanted his death to be that way, too. He had witnessed the impact two traumatic deaths had in our family.
Sweet Conan. My Daneish Buddha.
I called my husband, who was due to return from work that morning. I said that it was Conan's last day and that I would call Dr. Cutting. While he was on the way, I choked a voice mail for Dr. Cutting (she must receive so many of those). I felt like I was grasping for both words and breath as I sobbed into the phone. I promised Conan I would get him the help he wanted when he asked for it.
Dr. Cutting's expertise is in hospice care and euthanasia. She does home visits exclusively, and many of her patient families are like ours with ailing or aging animals that would rather stay home than endure the excitement of the clinic. When she returned my call she asked me a few questions and we agreed on a time.
Conan was not in what anyone would call distress. He was hanging out in his chair, his green chair that no one else was allowed to sit in, with his head and front paws propped up on the right arm. His signature pose.
I had just asked his doctor to come end his life.
I hadn't done that before in a calm circumstance. I was leaving for Wisconsin early the next day for a week-long class. It was the kind of day where I felt I had too much to do and not enough time to do it. Before Conan's request that morning, I was freaking myself out about packing and preparing to leave my family, including a six-month-old infant (and all the pumping logistics required to support breastfeeding long-distance). My stomach twisted and I began to question my decision. Anxiety set up camp.
I didn't need to worry about any of that stuff. My work was to be with Conan. That's much easier for me to recognize today, four years later. I did the best I could do at the time.
Conan continued his important work of keeping his beloved chair from moving. I asked him if I could photograph him. He agreed.
I read aloud. I don't know why. I picked up the first book I could reach, which was a collection of stories by Hans Christian Andersen. The first story in the book was "The Fir Tree." This was the first time I had heard the story, and it was about everything Conan wanted to impart to me. I haven't read anything in the book since, and yet it rests on the bookcase just to the left of my desk.
By the time the little fir tree had been cut down and was on his way to the city, I felt Conan's message and began sobbing again. I squinted through my tears to make out the words on the pages. At the end of the story, Conan said, gently, "Go clean something for a while. You'll feel better."
Animals and humans have a common language. I know that's not a scientific statement and it's not a language as we normally think of language. They say things to each other that are received, understood, and responded to. That's better than many conversations between adults. Conan "talked" me through this day. He was at peace with the transition and had every intention of helping me find my way through it, too.
The Man came home. Dr. Cutting arrived. We talked for an hour, I think, before anything happened. My husband wasn't convinced this was Conan's last day because he looked so, well . . . normal. Dr. Cutting asked if my decision had anything to do with my upcoming week away from home, and she asked in it such a gracious, earnest way. It was hard for me to find the words during this conversation because I felt like I couldn't simply say "Conan said so. He asked for help."
In the end, Dr. Cutting agreed that euthanasia was a sound choice for Conan. In the end, The Man also agreed.
We sat together in the middle of the living room. Conan's beds were laid out to command most of the real estate. Rhys lay beside him. I held Conan's head in my lap and stroked his ears. The Man held The Boy, our baby boy.
We cried. We thanked him. We loved him. We said goodbye and please come back to visit.
You are welcome anytime, Conan.
Dr. Cutting and The Man carefully carried Conan to Dr. Cutting's vehicle. She would later take him to a crematorium and bring his cremated remains back to us. So they could sit in our closet. So I can talk to him (and Angus and Vaughn) every morning when I dress and every evening as I undress.
Conan gifted us a "good death." We had time. It was calm. It was at home. I am forever grateful to him for that.
What Conan couldn't control was the impact his death would have on Rhys. The stress of Conan's death twisted Rhys' stomach, literally. He began to bloat minutes after Conan's last breath and less than 15 minutes after Dr. Cutting left we were on the way to the emergency room to save Rhys' life. That's another story for another day.
I've witnessed this process so many times.
The body ages. Organs become less efficient and effective. Maybe a little cognitive dysfunction begins to show - bits of confusion here and there. Hearing may dim. Sight may dwindle. Joints strain to support the same body that once hiked 14 miles in one day. Climbing onto the sofa to rest is now an adventure in itself as it often requires assistance.
Such is the process of natural decline. It's the downshift through life.
Rhys, our 10-year-old Dane, checked into the emergency room early in December with early signs of bloat. He did indeed bloat and it was his second episode. Fortunately, his stomach was tacked in place during surgery for his first bloat episode. While torsion wasn't a concern, the immense pain and pressure were.
And his heart.
Rhys' heart is a little funny. Like so many other Danes, his heart is enlarged and tends to be not so efficient. Sometimes it works itself into a frenzy and his heart rate surges, dangerously.
Or danegerously. Because I need to keep my humor.
Sometimes it skips. And it murmurs like a disconcerted audience.
When he came home, it very much looked like life was too much of a struggle. He couldn't stand. He didn't want to eat. He turned his head when I offered him water.
It reminded me of my last day with Angus (Dane #2 - Rhys is #4). He was in the hospital, lying on a bed on the floor of the surgery room because there was no kennel large enough for him. He had bloated, too. He was ten years old, too.
Angus aspirated and contracted pneumonia. I sat with him in the hospital, dishing out every bargaining chip I could grasp. In one breath I begged him to try because we loved him and wanted to stay and then said that we'd be behind him whatever he and his body needed to do.
I didn't beg Rhys. I loved him without expectation or attachment.
I knew that clinging to an outcome was an invitation for my rigid, analytical tendencies to creep in and color the relationship. I told Rhys how much I loved him. I told him what he has meant to me, and what he continues to mean to me. I told him stories, like the time he woke me up and refused to be ignored - I was hemorrhaging while pregnant and needed to get to the hospital (our son's middle name is Rhys for this reason). He saved both of us.
I drank tea by his side, writing about and photographing the details. I stroked his ears. I massaged his weary legs to help his circulation as he was unable to move himself. I was there in love, and I told him that we were ready when he was ready.
But, you know, you don't have to leave today. Just so you know. We absolutely want you to stay as long as you feel able. And want to stay. But go when you are ready.
The two days of my bedside vigil came to an end. Rhys regained abilities and interest in small ways. His engine that once operated in fifth gear nearly all the time had gradually downshifted. In recent years he transitioned to three solid gears with an occasional pop into fourth. That brief excitement in fourth gear usually resulted in a sprain or strain, and yet his jowly grin said it was totally worth it.
First gear. He downshifted. First gear was hard. First gear seemed like more than he could give.
Yet he did, without complaint. In a few days he tried second gear. He learned when which gear was appropriate, because his engine had changed.
One month later, he's back to three gears (with a little more caution and care). Unbelievably, he has fourth gear moments. They are like double rainbows - incredibly rare natural phenomena that prove life is full of wonder, grace, and beauty.
Fifth gear isn't in his transmission anymore. I won't see this again.
With his continual downshifting, I see so many more things. I appreciate more about him. He encourages slowness. I listen more. I watch more. I find different ways to play, rub, and scratch that feel right to his changing body.
I see more of the impact he's had, and will continue to have in my life.
Every time I look at my little boy, I see a part of Rhys. Rhys the hero who violently jabbed me with his massive snout until I woke up and got out of bed and collapsed in a pool of my own blood.
Rhys the joyful who nearly jumped the six-foot kennel door at the shelter on the day I came to take him home. I had visited with him two days before and completed his adoption paperwork. He had to be neutered before he could come home, and I told him I'd come back for him.
Rhys the guardian who strongly discourages people he doesn't know well from approaching me or any member of my family. Especially that little boy.
Rhys the imp who would offer his deepest play bows to Sophie, our horse, in an invitation to chase.
Rhys the snuggler who is never quite close enough to be truly comfortable.
Rhys the listener who accepts and loves me as I am.
Rhys the muse who silently encourages my art.
This downshifted life is just right. It's about the comfort of blankets warm from the dryer. It's about equally warm meals made just for him and served five times a day. It's about walking one quarter of a mile in 40 minutes, because it's important to catch up on every bit of olfactory news in the neighborhood. It's about unrestrained delight (primarily when my husband comes home) that results in a loss of sphincter control and a happy turd on the floor.
It's about love through this gradual slide and decline. Even though his heart function continues to diminish, his capacity to love and be loved continues to expand. It always will.
Undoubtedly, the most difficult part of sharing in the lives of wonderful families is the eventual news that death has come. Those phone calls, emails, and messages are difficult for me to receive; I know they are exponentially more difficult to give. I've made those calls myself.
For those of us who choose to love again and again, for those of us who would sign up for heartbreak 1,000 times because of the immeasurable joy that comes with it, the end of the year can feel bumpy. It's awkward.
Will I remember? What will I forget? When? How can I love someone else again?
Sydney, Modoc, Pacer, Marshall, Athena, Sashi, Mason, Lexi, Ruckus, Clementine, Alice, Mercy, Kona, and Brutus, we will remember you.
We will say your names in conversation. We will ask your people if they'd like to share stories, because we really want to hear them. We want to know how much better the world was because of you, and we want to see the lasting impression you made in your families.
The end of the year is one more day on the calendar. Time doesn't diminish love. It can fade memories (and photography helps prompt our brains to retrieve those memories). Death doesn't end a relationship. It changes how we express it.
We will always hold love for you, darlings.
In November I am absolutely thrilled to be able to support two local nonprofit organizations as they work to make the world a better place for animals. Slobbered Lens will participate in two mini session events to raise money for Kindred Souls Foundation (November 12) and Northwest Spay and Neuter Center (November 19).
I can't think of a better way to give of my time and make spirits bright. And now I'd like some hot cider.
Kindred Souls Foundation provides sanctuary to abandoned, abused, and neglected dogs and cats of all ages. Kindred Souls uses a holistic approach for the animals within its care, which it provides through a network of foster homes in the area. My family was fortunate to be one of those foster homes many years ago and I can vouch for the heart and impact of the people at Kindred Souls.
Northwest Spay and Neuter Center provides high quality, affordable spay and neuter services for cats and dogs to prevent overpopulation. Every animal deserves a loving home, and NWSNC addresses the root of the issue of homeless animals. I can also vouch for NWSNC first hand, both as a client and a former board member.
When you donate $100 to one of these organizations, I'll gift your family a mini photography studio session and a gorgeous metal ornament. You are thinking about your final charitable donations for the end of the year, anyway - let me help make the decision a little easier for ya.
Thanks to my models, Rhys the Dane and Max the kitten, you can anticipate how stunning your companion will look in the Making Spirits Bright studio. The studio experience is quite different from the natural light photography you have experienced if you've worked with me before, and because of the nature of these events I don't recommend them for animals who need lots of time to feel comfortable in new situations. If you are curious about whether this is a good fit for your family, give me a ring and we'll talk it through.
I'll offer limited edition art pieces that I make available only for mini sessions, and they will be on display at each even along with some tried-and-true pieces I know you love like 11x14 metal prints. In the next two weeks I'll showcase some of those pieces on Facebook (@slobberedlens).
Only 15 sessions are available for each event, and several have been reserved already. Ready to save yourself a place? Here's what you need to know.
For the November 12 event benefitting Kindred Souls Foundation:
And here is the information for the November 19 event benefitting Northwest Spay and Neuter Center.
This post includes an affiliate link. At no cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through this link and purchase Fizzion from Amazon.com.
In our home, hospice is messy. It's accidents in the house. It's vomit on the floor. It's washing bedding once or twice every day . . . sometimes because of blood, sometimes bile, sometimes poop.
Anything goes here.
This is the intermediate view of one of my latest hospice cleanups. This area, about two meters square, was full of poop. The consistency was somewhere between toothpaste and mouthwash with none of minty freshness.
Thankfully, I have maintained my sense of humor.
Hospice is hard. As someone who has provided hospice care for animal family members continually since 2005, I feel well qualified to make that statement. It may be easier in other families and every situation is different.
It's exhausting. It's alienating. People who have not experienced this kind of love cannot understand why I continue to do this every day rather than ask our doctor to come to the house and "put him down."
This is an extraordinary love. I accept and cherish every member of my family, regardless of capability or capacity. On days like this when that love comes with extra duty (or doody, because I can't resist), I do it. I do it in love, even if it turns my stomach or I'm late for an appointment.
This is the heart of hospice.
This dirty work is the rough side of the relationship. It's the side people don't see, and it's the most important side. How I behave during the best days is of no consequence. How I behave during these days, these long, filthy, discouraging, questioning everything days, is the heart of the relationship.
I'm not always falling-over-myself delighted to scrub floors or gently wash fur. Some days these are the last things I want to do. I do them because I love. I do them because I know that these limitations that I support are part of the package. The vulnerability and intimacy inherent in touching the things that come out of someone else's body are intense, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't ever feel overwhelmed by that intensity.
And the odor.
I've learned a some things about this dirty side of hospice.
1. I can do just about anything in the name of love. Hospice care surely feels inconvenient at times when other parts of my life need to slow down or stop to allow this level of care. Hospice care is also the greatest honor I have experienced in my lifetime.
2. Friends and family will not understand this commitment until they do it themselves with someone they deeply love. I'm okay with them not understanding because my first commitments are to the family within my home.
3. The rough days in hospice are the ones when I feel burdened and unappreciated. I sometimes wish for a speedier demise so I can get a break. That's normal, and it doesn't diminish my love. Those thoughts and feelings tell me I need to care for myself better and take a little break. Those under my care and others who support me understand and encourage that.
4. Each time one of our animal family members dies, I wish for one more opportunity to clean up. One more time to walk into a room and smell the indescribably sickly poo smell. One more time to lift stretchy gobs of mucousy, bilious vomit from a blanket with a paper towel. When I am in my best frame of mind, I cherish these messes because they mean that today we are together at home.
5. Fizzion gets out nearly any stain and odor on nearly any surface without much fuss. I don't know that our home could be without it.
The FTC would like me to tell you that the link above is an affiliate link. Should you purchase Fizzion from Amazon using this link, I'll receive a commission at no additional cost to you.
This week I tested a new backdrop at home. I had to have help to do that.
Rhys enjoys photography. Outside. While he's enjoying the elements.
For studio work he has a threshold, and he thoughtfully communicates when he's engaged, when he's tolerating it for my sake, and when he's had enough.
Here, he's tolerating it for my sake.
Rhys dislikes studio lighting. In this image, there is little of the easy charisma and warmth that we know and love in him, and that's probably because he didn't feel like himself. He was unsettled. His "eyebrows" are up and his ears are back.
You don't want a photograph that shows anxiety or any sort of unsettled feeling.
If your dog is like Rhys, you want to see something like the photograph below.
Here he is outside, picking up scents in the woods, tracking squirrels, and being himself. He's alert. His face is relaxed and his ears are forward.
When you choose a photographer, it's important to consider the style of photography, the style of the photographer, and how those interact with the style and personality of you and your companion. When they don't match, you'll see a lot of photographs that show distress.
Your photographer can be kind and nonthreatening and still elicit a stress reaction if personalities and styles don't match. Rhys and I love each other to pieces, and he modeled for me because I asked him to. Immediately after this yawn, I turned off the lights because he politely indicated he would like to do something else.
He is adorable, though, isn't he?
The photographs you receive of your animal family should look and feel like your animal family. These are the questions I like to ask when I'm shopping for a photographer. One of the most important ones on this list is about scheduling a time and place to meet everyone who will attend the session.
Reviewing the photographer's portfolio will help you decide if you are a good match. What does your gut tell you? Will her photographs fit right in with your decor at home or in your office? If you have your heart set on studio work, is that what she does best? Can you see your family in her photographs?
I've also found that photographers who work with animals have further specialties that follow their hearts. One person may be a wizard with cats. One may be an advocate for bully breeds and relates to them beautifully. One may have a heart for seniors and the patience to give them the time they need without rushing. One may be a former barrel racer and love to capture horses in motion. One may have invested 20+ years of her life in showing dogs and "gets" that culture.
And you might find one like me, who focuses on the imperfections we carry in our hearts and the fullness of relationships as they age and face adversity (and who "gets" giant dogs).
The ultimate decision, however, belongs to my non-human family. If Rhys is comfortable upon meeting (and the photographer is technically sound and within our budget), I'm good. Oddly enough, the cats in our family love everyone, so they aren't reliable barometers. When everyone feels good about the decision and you've confirmed the photographer's skill and style meet your needs, you can look forward to amazing portraits.
I have a tendency to limit the images of client families I share online. I don't share sneak peaks on Facebook or blog posts that include 20+ images of my most recent photography session.
I don't share those because it doesn't feel right to me. Your life is your business.
Although I retain copyright and ownership rights that allow me to use the photographs I create in any manner, it's more important to me to honor the relationships I have with the families I serve than to promote my business. What other people may see as images of "just" dogs, cats, horses, and bunnies I see as glimpses into intimate spaces full of love and a jumble of other intense emotions.
I am often with people who are coming to terms with mortality. We all expect to outlive our animal companions; it feels different when advanced age shows on a daily basis or a diagnosis comes that is . . . limiting. Witnessing such changes show in different physical abilities or increased pain is a special kind of heartbreaking. It's also intensely heart-opening.
It's not for me to decide to share that. It's not my life.
I wouldn't post or share images of a close friend or family member without that person's permission. I use the same discretion for you and your family.
If you want me to share your story, I will. Otherwise your life remains your business.
I'll continue to share pieces of mine, like Rhys up above. I'm honored that you invite me into your life to see your love.
It doesn't matter how many years pass - the time after goodbye remains an uncharted ocean. Waves of grief come out of nowhere. Some days are quiet, reflective, and beautiful. Other days feel stormy.
Grief doesn't get easier. It changes.
Looking back on photographs can help connect you to the times you shared together. When I started doing this work, I thought it would be the joyful photographs that provided the most comfort for people. I've been surprised to see how much of an impact the other images have - the care that happens during the end of life, the dog's-eye-view of the staircase she can no longer climb, the seemingly constant sleeping while bundled for warmth.
These images, which are full of love rather than joy, make a tremendous difference.
In the end, it really doesn't matter how well the body works. It doesn't matter what kinds of things you can do together.
What matters is that you have each other. What matters is love.
I think you can see that in any photograph because you heart is so full. It's the quiet moments without distraction that will overflow on you. Seeing those from your own life and time together is . . . well, it's love. Just love.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (three Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.