I am a sucker for a good story. I am a sucker for giant dogs.
Maybe I am just a sucker.
This isn’t about me, though. This week I read Lauren Fern Watt’s Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog. Actually, I read the book over the course of four hours. I mistakenly started it before bed and found I couldn’t sleep until I finished it. That’s one way of saying I recommend it.
This is being a memoir about life with a dog, I think you know how it ends. Gizelle dies. You will probably want tissues handy. The book is 239 pages through the epilogue; I started crying on page 185. It is difficult to read with teary vision, although not impossible.
If you have or currently share life with a giant dog, especially a mastiff, this may have triggers for you. If osteosarcoma has been a part of your life as a caregiver, this may have triggers for you. And an unexpected trigger may be drug and alcohol addiction, which surfaces throughout the book in Lauren’s relationship with her mother.
Lauren's account of life with a gigantic dog was so relatable for me. When she wrote about scrubbing slobber off her walls every day, I understood. When she described the complications of getting ready in the morning while being followed by a 160 lb. dog (especially when said dog comes into the bathroom with you), I got it. Her book read more like a conversation with a friend than a story being told for the sake of telling a story. Her writing is warm, approachable, and sincere.
Here's the rough story.
Young adult receives gift of puppy from her mother. Young adult's relationship with mother is strained due to alcoholism. Young adult goes away to college and leaves massive puppy with family, making frequent visits. Young adult decides to move to New York City and miraculously finds a Times Square apartment that will accept a gigantic dog. Young adult works in fashion to pay the bills, meets a young adult on Tinder she finds attractive, and begins a new relationship. Young adult moves to a new apartment in a new neighborhood with a new roommate. Young adult notices gigantic dog's limp and seeks medical attention, and relocates gigantic dog to live with friends outside of the city where she doesn't need to climb stairs. Young adult learns that her gigantic dog's limp is from osteosarcoma . . .
Woven within is the hilarious story about riding in a canoe with two adults, a spider, and a gigantic dog. There are adventures in pooping in Manhattan. Canine costume contests and mistaken identity at the dog park. Stuff that will definitely bring a smile to your face. Oh, and the photographs. Each chapter begins with a photograph of Gizelle so you can fall in love with her a little more.
This book may have triggers in it for people who have experienced alcohol or drug abuse in a close relationship. The osteosarcoma diagnosis may also be a trigger for humans who have been down that road with a beloved animal.
I thought most of this book would be about Gizelle's bucket list adventures. Nope. That began in Part II: The Bucket List, on page 163. Part I: Enchanted covered the highlights of Gizelle and Lauren, including how they became family, how Gizelle got her name, and their early adventures in moving to New York City. I really, really wanted more stories about the end of life, and the title of the book led me to believe that was a reasonable expectation. That said, I also appreciate Lauren's decision to begin at the beginning so we could all come to love Gizelle in ways that might not have been possible with less history.
When I arrived at page 185, any consternation I had about the book dissolved in one paragraph. One of Gizelle's bucket list items was seeing the autumn leaves turn and fall. We can probably guess that this bucket list was more of a list of things that Lauren wanted to do with Gizelle, and that was just fine by Gizelle because I'm sure what she really wanted was as much time and joy with Lauren as she could get. Anyway, Lauren described a moment when she watched the autumn leaves fall in New England with Gizelle by her side, and she thought about "how something could turn so beautiful right before it went brown and left the world forever." She described Gizelle's joy in wriggling in the leaves and declared that she was "as beautiful as I'd ever seen."
The rest of the book was a sob fest for me. Gizelle's story was lovely and I felt connected with her and Lauren. The more powerful thing for me was reflecting on my own experiences in the end of life. Those days of caregiving in the shadow of a terminal diagnosis. The intensity of the emotions and the exhaustion of the additional care. Ah, it's so much. It is so much and it is so worth it. Every time.
That's what I most love about Lauren's book. This was a journey for her. Gizelle was with her during significant transitions in her life, and darn near everyone I've met with animal family members knows what that is like. Lauren wrote about how she always wrote in her journal while it rested on Gizelle's coffee table of a torso. It's those little things that bind our souls together in ways that words can never fully describe.
There are two other things I want to mention about Lauren's wisdom and vulnerability. First, she wrote about how a moment after Gizelle died she no longer wanted to be with her body. Gizelle wasn't there, and she could feel it. She looked back on the hulking body that carried the one she loved and realized it was only a vessel. The second is tied to that - Lauren's epilogue is about how she carries Gizelle with her. She forever has a place in her heart, and death cannot change that.
Gizelle's Bucket List has a film option, so you might see a version of this on the screen.
You can follow Lauren's current adventures with her expanded family (so cute) on her blog, The Girl & Her Dog Blog.
Our beloved Arden died Sunday, June 24, after a gentle decline. She asked to go outside and wasn't able to get to her favorite place herself. My husband gently scooped her tiny body into his arms and delivered her to the ground beneath her surveillance station. There she drew her last breath.
I had the honor of caring for her body after death, and I prepared a small box with an old towel for the ride to Resting Waters Aquamation, about one hour north of our home. I cut several branches from the shrub that provided the cover for the surveillance station for her adornment.
Resting Waters was absolutely the right place for Arden. I had no doubt. I've come to know the sisters behind his heartfelt service, Joslin and Darci, and knew they would care for Arden as family. Their warm, calm energy is just the sort of thing Arden would appreciate - Arden never knew strangers and everyone she met was someone she was delightfully curious about, especially if that person was interested in marveling at her green eyes or her gregarious personality.
And she loved water. She would wait outside the shower for one of us to finish and trot in as soon as the shower door opened.
I sent an email to Resting Waters on Sunday evening and received a reply within an hour. Resting Waters had room for Arden the next day.
It's a welcoming space. It feels simple and open, and there are small touches throughout that suggest this is more than a business for Joslin and Darci: this is a calling to serve. There are always fresh flowers (and I've been three times - even in winter there were fresh flowers). It smells like a spa, thanks to the delicious candles they use.
This wall is in the reception area and showcases the gorgeous options for urns. This is so much nicer than looking through them in a catalog or online. I would think that for a person who hadn't decided, being able to see and touch them would make a difference. Because we are sharing Arden's remains with our neighbors (who loved her dearly), we opted for the paper scattering urn. It's the cylinder with the turquoise swirls (from the Resting Waters logo) on the right. I know those are supposed to represent water, and the more I look at it the more I also see waves of grief.
I sat in the chair next to this side table and filled out the form. If you think you couldn't possibly fill out a form at a time like this, I'm sure either Joslin or Darci would help you. My vision was blurred by tears and my brain muddled with grief and I managed to get through it. That doesn't mean that the information I provided was legible or accurate, though.
From the chair I could also see one of the displays at the counter. My friend Carolyn, who is based in Tacoma, creates fused glass jewelry and incorporates cremated remains of whom you love. Her work is here and you can see it in person, and this reminds me that I would like to write a blog post just about her and her work.
While I cried my way through the form, Darci prepared Arden for viewing. I'm not sure what I expected. I mean, I had seen photographs of animals in the viewing space and am certainly no stranger to death. Our family had been with Arden's body in the house and I greatly value that time because it helps me see that the body truly is a vessel. It's just a container. So I guess what I'm saying is that I thought the viewing would not be a significant experience in my case because we had already had ceremony at home.
I shifted to work mode because I wanted to document this experience for the Slobbered Lens family (spoiler alert: it's worth the drive if you are in Tacoma or across The Narrows). I photographed the space, the table, The Boy as he flopped around in one of those comfortable chairs, the flowers, and Arden.
Sweet Arden. Seeing her in a reverent space where she was the center of all things was a moving experience. This is what grief needs to begin to flow. It needs that space. It needs that acknowledgement and validation that the feelings are important. The history is important. This life, this connection, this relationship are all important.
I rested my camera on a chair, closed my eyes, and felt the tears barrel down my cheeks. I needed this. This space and opportunity for ceremony, however slight, were necessary for me. Without them I would have missed this final chance to connect with this gorgeous container for a soul I know will be close to me, always. Here I could thank Arden's body for carrying her to be with us when she was four (or was she five?) months old. Here I could thank Arden's body for allowing her to be with us for 17 years. Here I could release her to the universe.
Darci graciously allowed me time with Arden without hurry. I said my goodbye, rounded up The Boy, and headed to the reception area. Darci met me with a heartfelt embrace and assurance that she and Joslin would take the very best care of Arden. She told me she had the ability to begin Arden’s process that day and would send an email when her remains were ready to be picked up.
So, yes. I valued the time I had there. I appreciate that a ceremony or a viewing opportunity doesn't feel right for everyone. What I know from conversations with Joslin and Darci is that they appreciate that, too, and there isn't any pressure to do one thing or another. They also make the space available for larger ceremonies for families who would like to have a service and invite others to attend.
The following Saturday The Boy and I made the return journey to bring Arden’s vessel home (that’s just six days later). Joslin received us and warmly engaged The Boy.
I had the opportunity to see the collection of love Joslin was prepared to dispense that morning. Joslin referred to the stout forest of kraft gift bags as “presents from heaven” and shared with me the story behind that phrase (it is from a young person who visited). Witnessing the bags of various sizes, each with a handwritten tag, was another reminder of how heartbroken so many people feel in this space. And how many of them there are.
Twice I have picked up cremated remains of our animal family, and both times from an emergency hospital. Walking up to the counter and squeaking out the words that named the reason for my visit . . . I want to cry thinking about it. It’s much harder than I ever expected and is definitely one of those grief experiences that people do not talk about.
At Resting Waters, everyone knows. There isn’t a crowd of people in the waiting area to witness your lip tremble or your tears fall. These incredible women and death care professionals are ready to be with you, and they aren’t distracted by triage needs or discharge paperwork. They specialize in this, and it feels that way.
I left Resting Waters with appreciation and admiration for the compassionate and wholehearted care my family received. Working with grief every day is challenging in ways that are difficult to describe, and I am incredibly grateful for Joslin and Darci and their decision to serve families in this way. They are meant for this work.
The little things also made this a beautiful experience. The fresh flowers are lovely and I enjoyed those. One of the things that really struck me was the text on the inside of the scattering urn.
Even death has a heart.
Yes. Yes, it does.
Thank you, Joslin and Darci, for caring for our little girl. Our girly meow.
You can learn more about Resting Waters Aquamation at restingwaters.com.
There are so many options when it comes to collars.
Options from small businesses that handmake products are harder to find. For those of us in Tacoma, there is happily a new collar maker on the block: Mr. Powers.
I had the pleasure of visiting with Mr. Powers and his partner, Renate, at Art on the Ave, and saw beautifully crafted pieces. Mr. Powers makes collars by hand and Renate repurposes belts into a more whimsical style of collar she calls Second Chance.
Yep, leads are available, too, and I bet if you ask nicely you can get a custom order. By the looks of it, Mr. Powers can create darn near anything from leather.
I love supporting small businesses because I know where my money is going and I generally receive top notch service. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of the community.
If you'd like to check out what Mr. Powers and Renate are creating, you can follow them on Facebook. You can also look for them at the new night market in Tacoma.
It's a philosophical question, and for humans who love animals, it's also practical.
We have the ability to decide what death will be like for our animal family. We can choose the date and time. We can choose the place. That is a weighty decision.
So what makes a good death? Is euthanasia "better" than a natural death? How do I know? What does it look like? Better yet, what does it feel like?
I can't answer a single one of these questions for you. I can tell you about my experience. I can share stories based on what I have observed and conversations I've had with veterinarians and hospice caregivers.
This is what I know to be true.
Every death is different. Every animal is different. Every relationship is different. Every human's set of values is different. Every decline is different. Every financial situation is different. Every human's skills in making decisions are different.
There is no right answer.
The deaths in my own animal family have been drastically different. Two were euthanasia choices after medical emergencies. One was a peaceful euthanasia at home (and may have been deemed "too early" by many). One was a natural death overnight without anyone present. One was a natural, intense death under our bed (she didn't want help dying and didn't want anyone touching or looking at her). One was a natural, intense death after a three-day vigil.
Each one of these deaths impacted me (and my family) in different ways. Each one was just as it should have been, and I am grateful that we've developed the trust in each other to appreciate that there is no single "good death."
I recently learned of a canine hospice nonprofit that has a rule that no animal suffers. The caregivers know the medical possibilities for each animal and observe them closely. When one begins to exhibit signs of irreversible decline, the compassionate humans there have a going away party and assist that animal with death.
I've also talked with families about their choices for a natural death. Sometimes they love someone who is terrified of people outside the family or turns into a nervous wreck at the vet clinic. Euthanasia feels anything but peaceful because the process of getting there would be so traumatic. Sometimes they strongly believe in the natural order of things or feel they would be uncomfortable making the decision for an assisted death. Sometimes they absolutely know the companion does not want any kind of help with death because she'll do it all by herself just fine, thank you very much (that was my Moira, by the way).
There are the people in between, and that's most of us, who measure the good days against the really hard days and make the best decision they can make with regard to quality of life.
There isn't a sign that drops out of the sky that tells you what to do, and the people who say "you'll just know" may have a different experience when it's time for them to make a decision. Maybe you will know. Maybe you won't.
You do the best you can with the information and resources you have. You make the decision that reflects your values and honors your relationship. Your companion is with you 100% and is grateful for the life and love you have shared.
This was Arden in October 2017. The wounds on her face are from a blackberry bramble that for years she couldn't resist crawling into. We suspect someone interesting lived there. She hasn't been in the bramble this year. As much as I lamented that she hurt herself so much, I'm glad she went with her gut and did what she loved doing. I'm especially glad I have a photograph of the outcome.
It struck me yesterday as I texted my husband.
Arden may be down to weeks or days rather than months.
He replied that she is such a sweet spirit. Indeed, she is, and we've both noticed how she has cherished contact and connection even more in the last few months.
In March, Arden began to lose weight. Her appetite seemed the same, and she was glad to eat. In late April and early May we began to be aware of her bones because she continued to lose weight. Now when I pick her up and hold her, I am terrified I will break her because I feel her spine, hips, and shoulder blades through her thick fur. She works harder to move her body, and I often carry her to and from her favorite places when she's ready for a change of scenery.
Arden is 17 years old and has been an enthusiastically loving presence in our family since we adopted her from The Humane Society in 2001. As we reflect on our time with her, we see how much love she has freely given to us, and how concentrated that love feels in these last days. The cat we know and love has become a more intense version of the cat we have known and love.
I'm thinking back to our other family members to find a pattern. I recall conversations I've had with families about their companions and how they've changed over the years.
This is my conclusion.
The end of life is a magnifier.
People say that having a lot of money or having no money doesn't influence or change personality - it simply works with what is there. A philanthropist will be a philanthropist with any amount of resources. A miser will be a miser with any amount of resources. Money is a magnifier.
I see how the end of life is like that.
In the intensity of the series of lasts, something stirs in the soul. We turn to what we know best, the essence of who we really are, as we work through the end of life.
Those of us who have freely given and received love will continue to do so. Those of us who prefer to withdraw or withhold will do that. My guess is that this is one of the qualities of companion animals we find so endearing - they can't help but be who they are, and because they aren't as affected by social pressures they remain truer to themselves. While I might be thinking about my regrets and feeling betrayed by my body because I didn't do everything I wanted it to do, Arden opens her already enormous heart even wider and shares more of herself. Because I am aware her body is preparing to stop working, I in turn cherish her love more.
I see how much her example has become of a part of me, and I can carry that piece of her spirit with mine for the rest of my days. She has shown me how to love with tenderness and patience, even when that love or simple appreciation is slow to return. She has also shown me how to establish and defend boundaries for myself, because sometimes she didn't want to be touched that way.
Animals have always been teachers and mentors in my life, and as I sit here thinking about this magnification idea, I am more and more grateful they choose to share parts of their lives with me. I'm betting you feel the same way.
And so we look forward to these days with Arden, however they unfold. We know they will be full of love and wholeheartedness, just as she has been and will forever be.
This weekend was the first hot one of the year. Like most homes in the Pacific Northwest, ours does not have central air conditioning. We do, however, have a portable unit.
All thanks to Danes. Old Danes, to be exact.
In 2006 my husband lovingly purchased an in-window air conditioning unit for our first Dane, Vaughn. Like many elders, Vaughn struggled to maintain a comfortable body temperature as he aged, and being enormous with black hair didn’t help. The unit went into our bedroom, which is where Vaughn liked to stay while we were away at work.
That was his last summer. On days he felt up to it, he would greet me at the door when I came home. On rough days he would remaining in the bedroom with Angus and Conan came out to see me. I could hear his tail thumping against the bed in joyful anticipation. He was as comfortable as he could be,
He enjoyed lying outside on his bed, in the shade, for short periods. I'd freeze yogurt and berries in popsicle molds and offer him one in a bowl for him to slurp. When walking for any distance beyond the driveway felt too strenuous, we walked the driveway. Then we went inside to enjoy the AC.
It's funny how things like this come back to me after so many years dormant. Vaughn died in 2007. It's been a long time since I felt the rawness of my grief for him. I've built a bigger life because of what he taught me and encouraged me to do, and in those ways he's with me every day.
The air conditioner, though. That's his. That's always going to be his. There is a pause each season as we roll it out and get it ready. That reverence feels right and appropriate.
I never thought climate control would prompt me to honor him. Isn't it funny how these things come together?
I can give back the love you invest in me.
I can double your return. Triple, even.
I can give back the joy you share with me.
Each belly laugh and snort of yours
rolls through my tail and dancing paws.
I will not give back the sorrows you share,
or the frustration or anger. Instead, I’ll help you
shoulder them. I will walk alongside you
as we carry them,
I am your mirror. I reflect
the best of you.
There is so much of yourself
you find hard to see.
Trust me to give back your sight.
Rhys, our fourth Great Dane, was my biggest muse and cheerleader for art. When I was with him, I was so comfortable and settled within myself that I could create things I didn't think were possible. He tethered me just enough that I could float around and explore before safely returning to reality.
Shortly after he died in February 2018, I began having flashes of artistic inspiration. These were completely out there ideas (like stained glass windows) and I felt I didn't have the skill or talent to do them.
If Rhys were here, he'd tell me to just get to work. Skill doesn't come from lament, you know.
I love his practicality..
I've always wanted to do something a little cartoony. Something just less than realistic. Something that was bursting with the heart and soul of the subject while retaining the simple, clean lines I adore so much in photography.
That something is here, and it's graphic art. It is bold and brilliant and fun. I love it.
We start with a photograph.
Rhys kindly helped me test every studio setup, even though he didn't really want to. That's this look. "I'm doing this because you are important to me and I am excited to return to the sofa."
And then something like this happens.
Normally I find cartoons to be a way to put more distance between myself and real life. An illustration feels like it dehumanizes the subject, which I know isn't the right term in this case. Derhysizes? Decaninizes?
I didn't want that to happen with these, and what I've discovered is that it is possible to create these portraits and maintain the vulnerability and heart of the original. In some ways, I see more because the lines are so simple - I have more of an opportunity to focus on my connection when there isn't as much detail to take in.
That said, there are definitely silly portraits in the works and I love those, too. This one of Rhys is my favorite. It speaks to his puppy nature that characterized most of his adult life while treating him with dignity.
One of my favorite things about these art pieces is that they can happen after loss. They can also evolve from photographs that are less than ideal in quality, so whether you have some on your phone or a box of prints from 20 years ago, we can probably make this happen for you.
We'll talk about whether your piece will look best on canvas, metal, or acrylic. You'll be able to see your love in this new way every day.
Dear broken hearted human,
Your best friend in the world died today. I see your wound.
The one who was with you just after college when you moved into your first place and got your first job as a full fledged adult. The one who loved you when you made just enough money to pay bills and couldn’t afford cable. The one who was glad to see you every time you came home. The one who waited for you on those long days when you worked extra hours and then went out with friends. The one who laid beside you when you were sick. The one who snuggled next to you on the sofa. The one who listened as you talked through the pain of relationships that didn’t work.. The one who swiped food off the counter when you weren’t looking, and sometimes when you were. The one who joyfully played with you when you had the energy. The one who understood you and accepted you as you are, without question or judgment.
The one who stiffened around the hips. The one who needed more and more medical care to be comfortable. The one who celebrated your promotions with ice cream and a movie on the sofa. The one who deeply appreciated your gentleness and care with an aging body. The one who thanked you for the ramp that led to the bed so you could sleep together whenjumping was no longer an option. The one who didn’t complain and continued to give freely.
The one who was your heart with a tail and paws. The one who loved you as no one loved you.
Any human would be crazy to not sign up for a relationship like this. You have loved and been loved in a way that defies explanation.
My broken hearted human. Oh, my dear. You carry this love with you. Always.
That frail body you held held during the last breath had a heart and soul that remains with you. Death changes that status of your relationship; it does not change your connection. It does not change your love.
It brings a new level of rawness and pain. Many people will not see that. They do not believe it is possible to experience such a soulful connection and resonance with an animal. We know differently.
There are people who can see you and see your pain. They have felt their own versions of your heartbreak. They have fought to get out of bed in the morning. They have cried for days and weeks and months. You are not alone in this.
My broken hearted friend, your life has changed. You have been forever marked by this love. It goes with you everywhere. Someday, sometime, you’ll feel moved to open. You’ll receive a different companion in your life who will teach you different things about yourself. You’ll go through the same cycle. You have been chosen for this. They choose you.
The one chose well. The next one will choose well.
You are remarkable. You hurt. You love. All of those things can exist together.
With great love,
It didn't take long for me to realize that being a multi-Dane family required adjustment. In 2002 we adopted Angus (Dane #2) to join Vaughn (Dane #1). They were different sizes and personalities, and sharing stuff didn't seem right, especially because Angus never liked to share anything other than impatience.
I decided to color coordinate everything. Vaughn's stuff was red. Angus was blue. Conan (Dane #3) was green. Rhys (Dane #4) was orange. This made life so much easier. I could tell from across the room what belonged to whom.
On our first walk without Danes, I planned to bring Rhys' collar and leash. I wanted to feel connected to him, and hearing his tag jingle through the forest seemed like a good place to begin. Why just Rhys, though? I invited everyone to come. I pulled out every collar, connected them together in a knot, and threaded my arm through the center.
We walked through one of our favorite places. Every Wednesday night for years I would bring The Boys there after work to explore the trails and creature smells. We had one of Conan's birthday parties there (yes, we celebrated birthdays with friends).
It felt right.
Walking through the woods was time to share stories with the friends who came with us. It was time to reflect on our adventure there. It was time to simply be a part of the natural world, where birth and death are the cyclical experience.
It was a stunning morning.
The coldness of winter gave way to just enough warmth from the sun to notice. The forest was on fire with light. With every exhalation, I saw the cloud of my breath floating away from my body and joining nature.
Nature reminds me that life goes on, and that means death and decay do, too. For as much as I intensely dislike the pain that comes with mourning, I value what I learn from the experience. I am grateful for the relationship.
I wouldn't trade a single day with Rhys, or any of The Boys, to minimize the anguish during hospice or after death. It sometimes takes more time than I would like to find the beauty in the life experience. I'm glad I keep looking. I'm glad I invite that to happen.
All I did was take a few old dog collars to a natural area and walk. Feeling, smelling, seeing, and hearing those collars in the forest, a place where I knew they belonged, felt right. It helped to reassure me that my life continues to move, even when I feel stuck. Nature doesn't wait unnecessarily.
When I put on my trusty dog-walking fleece that morning, the zipper pull came off in my hand. It hadn't been loose. Although I had worn it for years, it showed no signs of wearing out.
I hung it up in my closet because the thought of being without it feels like too much right now. It's not something I'll wear because I can't zip it up, and what's the point of a coat that doesn't zip?
Maybe I need a few more walks in the woods before I'm ready.
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.