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'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.