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.