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.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four 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.