Written by Jennifer Bynum, July 14th, 2022
“I miss Odin,” was all I could muster into coherent words as I sobbed in my partner’s embrace. He tried his best to soothe me, even as my breakdown stirred his own grief. Except when I say I miss him, I mean I miss my baby. I entrusted part of my heart to that gentle soul. I don’t want it back, but I do wonder when the weeping stops.
I need this catharsis; this outlet; a chance to tell his story and an excuse to remember him. Because as much as I carry on, trying to move past every little reminder that he is no longer here, the truth is I am failing to accept his absence. I knew the grief would come and go in waves. I knew it would take time to heal. But the spectacular synchronicities of his life and death must be told before I will truly be able to see the other side of sorrow.
At the time of his passing (though that word isn’t quite right), I was stressed about a major family trip to Norway. My son’s Norwegian grandmother – Mormor, as we call her – is in her 80’s and this may be the last and only chance to tour the country with her as our guide. Except it wasn’t just Mormor and us going. The father and stepmother of my partner were also going, and we would be staying with Mormor’s sister and her sister’s daughter and husband. Planning this “vacation” fell to me, and several people were asking for updates on an itinerary I couldn’t finalize. We had just seen several of them the week prior on a local family excursion to the Redwoods (Odin’s final trip). And just before that, I was in Portland picking up my son from summer camp. While in Portland, I contracted COVID (post-vaccination). After two and a half years of caution, we finally had to contend with the virus. The five-day incubation period reached a symptomatic stage by the end of the Redwoods trip. I had already convinced my partner to delay Odin’s euthansia until after I retrieved our son. What a horrible thing it would have been to tell my son as I’m welcoming him back into my arms from a week away (his first full week away from mom): “By the way, we put your dog down.” I couldn’t do it.
Despite our fears of prolonging his suffering and of his demise being met in a fit of jerking, coughing, or pain – which he scared us with days earlier – we rescheduled his appointment to the day after the Redwoods trip. That Wednesday appointment lay between our preplanned Redwoods and Idaho trips. We were expecting to go immediately from the Redwoods to home in Southern Oregon, bury him in the hills, re-pack, then attend a different family reunion in Idaho the next day. It was the earliest and best opportunity to do so, as callous as it may seem to outsiders to schedule our dog’s death at the most convenient time. “There is no convenient time to put your dog down,” the veterinarian assistant reassured me as I cried on the phone with her the day I rescheduled him to ensure my son could be there. Although my son had a tumultuous relationship with our “smelly” dog in his final years, a dream I had iterated the importance of granting my son the opportunity to participate in all the pieces of Odin’s farewell.
So here I am, crying in the latter half of COVID recovery and angry that these people want something from me when part of my heart is missing.
Death is never convenient. Wait. Let me amend that. Natural death is rarely ever convenient. There was a lot about Odin’s death that was – in a bittersweet way – convenient. We acquired him as a six-week old puppy from what I would later learn was a puppy mill. The breeders had a purebred golden retriever father and labrador-golden mixed mother. The trouble with some pure breeds is they have immune deficiencies. From day one, Odin was allergic to everything: trees, grasses, dust mites, pollen, you name it. Allergy testing for a dog will show each allergen with a one to three scale of severity, three being severe. Odin was a two and three on almost all species of plant allergens.
Discovering his allergies took years. Before that, he had chronic skin and ear infections. Alopecia developed on every major area of his body. One vet said it was normal pigmentation. Another said it was yeast colonies. We saw so many specialists over the 13 years of his life that I lost track of who we haven’t seen in our valley.
To combat his immune response (the infections, itching, and inflammation), we started with antifungals, anti-inflammatories, and steroids. He would gnaw his skin until it bled. Secondary infections would colonize around his abdomen and crotch where he licked endlessly. The problems would recur again and again. So we moved on to creams, lotions, and ear droppers. Then we tried herbalism with a specialist by adding an algae mix and chinese herb mix to his food. When those exacerbated his redness and itching, we tried a nasal spray designed to desensitize his body to common allergens. Then we tried a tailored nasal spray to his most severe allergies. After that, I moved into my own medical supplies. Rubbing alcohol, witch hazel, hydrogen peroxide, athletic tape, white vinegar, olive oil… I have a lime product meant to be added to his bath water and he is supposed to stand in that potent smell for 15 minutes to kill parasites and yeast on his skin. Next to that bottle is a homemade concoction from a recipe I found online consisting of boric acid and betadine antiseptic. Several of these latter remedies are toxic if ingested. Preventing a lolling-tongued dog from licking himself is like nailing pudding to a tree. So we have three kinds of devices to prevent licking: a muzzle, a donut, and a cone. All are inhumane. All cause other problems. The cone had to be long enough to block his snout from reaching his backside. Odin’s nickname is ‘long neck’, as in brachiosaurus. He has such a long, strong neck that it required the cone to extend beyond his nose. Why does that matter? He would run into everything and a shorter cone would not prevent him from licking. Sores developed around the lining of the cone, despite cushioning. We couldn’t keep it on him indefinitely; it had to come off at intervals. And the damage to his neck meant we were trading one injury for another. If a dog is determined to scratch, it will find a way.
I have a manilla folder ¾ of an inch thick with paperwork solely on his skin care. Medication tracking logs and dietary plans, veterinarian invoices, product pamphlets, general care brainstorms, and notes on what worked and what didn’t.
Eventually, years of refinement yielded this maintenance routine:
1 large pill of glucosamine for his arthritic joints (retrievers often have hip issues as they age)
1 pill of fish oil
Weekly baths at the local self-wash (including gland expression) using a synthetic or simple ingredient shampoo (no oatmeal, no herbs – which goes against my naturalist tendencies)
Regular ear cleanings of gunk build-up with a prescription cleaner
No salt canned vegetables (peas, green beans, carrots) or beans in each meal
Grain free diet (Whole Earth)
No table scraps
No dried herbs or salt
No sugar canned fruit (pears, peaches, or mangoes) in each meal
Add water to dry AND wet meals (to make it like a soup, ensuring hydration)
Occasional raw meat, organ, or egg in meal
This diet and regimen kept his skin condition and allergies in check for the last few years of his life, but it took a decade to figure out.
Given all that turmoil and effort, imagine my surprise when the veterinarian tells me he has splenic cancer. A mass had formed in his belly that was diverting nutrients away from his muscles. “This will kill him,” she says. It’s in the final stage. This will be his undoing? I repeated. I was so sure that his lifelong battle with his allergies, being on so many rounds of antifungals and steroids over the years, the persistent infections and inflammation would take him. “Cancer of the spleen is common in his breed.” She tells me; she has been his vet off and on throughout the years. “It’s actually a rather peaceful way to go because the mass will burst and bleed into his body, likely in the night, and you’ll wake up and find he had passed in his sleep.” How fitting and beautiful, I thought. He deserved a calm death. But perhaps we took TOO good care of him.
She gave him days or weeks to live. Yet he kept going for months. We had him on Tramadol (pain reliever) and Carprofen (anti-inflammatory) during that time and had to keep refilling the prescriptions for another 2 weeks. “Still going. Walking, eating, peeing, seeking attention.” I would report. So they’d refill his medications.
Every morning I would pause when I walked by him and stare at his ribcage, and every morning it would rise and fall with his breath. Still alive. Still with us. When is it going to happen?
So why did we decide to euthanize instead of wait? The unpredictability was suffocating us. We also became doubtful that it really would be as peaceful as our vet led us to believe. He had a choking incident. Being as weak as he was (because the tumor was starving him), he couldn’t quite swallow a treat. Instead, his body initiated a vomiting reflex that ensued for a full minute. I began to panic as I sat on the floor and beat at his chest to help dislodge the treat. Clearly, the tumor wasn’t the only thing affecting him. He was deaf. He had trouble swallowing. He wobbled when he walked. He couldn’t stand up without great effort or assistance; his legs would splay out. He would trip on his own feet or walk on the tops of his feet from stiffness or lack of motor control. Urinating was such a chore, he wouldn’t even bother to go outside sometimes, or he’d pee on the pavement because he didn’t have the energy to make it the extra foot to the grass. He slept all day. His appetite started strong, but deteriorated fast. Some mornings he’d leave all or half of his meal in the bowl untouched until supper. I had stopped taking him for our daily walk because it was too much for him and he lost motivation to accompany me. He was barely getting by, and after that choking incident, I could feel the deep exhaustion in his eyes. “It’s about that time, isn’t it bud?” I asked him solemnly. I fought back tears and patted him. My partner tried to coax him over for “scritches”, but Odin was too weak to make the trek of two steps. “Come to me, dad.” He seemed to insist with his wandering gaze. We finally obliged a week later. My son was grateful we waited.
We went in on July 6th at 9am. It took less than a half hour to complete the procedure.
Some blood spilled when they put the catheter in his arm because he understandably struggled against the pain of the needle. I hated seeing that blood because it made transparent the truth of the matter: we were there to end his life; why did I think we could get through such an act without a little blood? I knew it was time and that we were ending his suffering just as much. “Let it take you.” I chanted as the sedative took hold. And take hold it did. He went down fast. I guided him to the blanket laid across the floor. Some reflexive vomiting motions like we had seen before during his choking incident happened again here and I was both immediately grateful that we were here in this controlled environment with emergency care on hand if he showed any discomfort and immediately fearful that he was fighting the sedative. The vet reassured us that reflexive motions might happen and that he was not in any pain. When he was breathing without issue and in a deep sleep, the vet came back to administer an overdose of the sedative and then the barbital. They had us sign a consent form that called the act what it is and what I had not been calling it in my mind up until that moment: euthanization. This word is important to hear. Euthanize. Euthanizing. Euthanized. The sedative “put him down.” The euthanasia stopped his heart. We stopped his heart. It kills me to say that. I can list off all the reasons why, but that fact remains.
In his last moments, as the colored liquid was slowly being inserted in, I cried hard and stroked his snout. “No more pain. No more itching. No more suffering.” I promised him. Then I realized another truth existed simultaneously with the first: this was my gift to him. This was in my power to do all along. If he were any other animal, I would not have hesitated or waited. I would have decided that ending its suffering was a mercy and a gift of modern medicine. In this way, he was loved and mostly comfortable. He was asleep and calm. Should I have done this sooner?
The assistant draped a towel over his body like they were tucking him in to rest. A stethoscope listened to his signs of life fade. I felt the very moment when he left. I pulled my hand from his face because instinct suddenly told me he was no longer in there and couldn’t feel my hand anymore. A second later they announced his passing.
It cost $87 to euthanize Odin. As a hunter, I know a bullet is more traditional and cheaper, but it wouldn’t have provided the same experience.
We stayed in the room and cried for several minutes, saying a prayer and envisioning a goddess welcoming this bountiful pup into the afterlife. When we were ready, they carried him out to our vehicle on a stretcher with medical pads under his backside to catch anything his body expelled (which it did).
We decided to bury him on a hilltop in the forest about one hour away; my favorite hilltop, 4,000 feet up, where I had camped alone with him two years prior. Mind you, we didn’t know we had COVID yet (I thought it was pneumonia); that became clear halfway through shoveling. The dizziness, weakness, and aching became a full-blown fever later that day. As I write this, I am still recovering. Bouts of nausea, fatigue, and cough persist a week after his burial. I was in and out of fever for three days and found myself grateful that I didn’t have to tend to my old sick dog while fighting a virus we had successfully avoided until now. COVID prevented us from attending the Idaho trip. I felt bad that all that scheduling seemed to have been for naught, but was in no condition to travel.
Instead, I am grieving. I buried my baby through COVID, because I never do anything half-assed. And now every little unsuspecting thing reminds me he is not home. When I finish a peanut butter jar, I miss him. When I see his leash, I miss him. When I wake up and avoid stepping on an invisible dog on my way to the toilet, I miss him. When I find a dental bone in my bag he didn’t get to enjoy, I miss him. When I unclog the last of his fur from the vacuum, I miss him. Slowly, I am purging the reminders of him to save myself the daily pain and to get used to life without him. Soon I will find a new home for his memory in my living space, one I can accept, one that brings me joy with only a little sadness, not this hollow, insatiable maw of loneliness.
UPDATE – October 18th, 2022 (3 months later)
I donated many of Odin’s belongings and unused food to a friend who adopted a golden retriever puppy. They got an influx of toys, supplies, and dog beds (all cleaned).
I have yet to revisit Odin’s grave site. I’m afraid of what I’ll find and prefer to think of the site as I left it. But there has been healing since his death. In place of taunting reminders that he is gone are now deliberate little memorials of how we want to remember him: a dog bed by the window, a framed picture on a dresser, a clay paw print in a basket, and a stuffed animal dog on the floor by our bed. Reorganizing our living spaces to accommodate other uses was a desperate move toward acceptance. It took me weeks to finally pick-up the last lumps of feces in the yard, as silly as that sounds. Seeing it there made me feel like things were normal, that he was still here having an effect on my landscape. It felt wrong to remove all traces of him, so that one stayed until yard maintenance required me to pick it up.
Whenever sadness creeps in about his absence, I change the narrative in my head to what his passing has allowed. There is more cargo room in my vehicle. The electric piano has a place in my living room. Our road trips are not filled with chaos. And yet, it is too quiet. I sometimes hear him bark outside or him stir in his sleep. There’s a phantom dog in my house and I invited him in. I held the door open and said, “Come on, Odin. Get inside.” I find little ways to cope. Each day gets a little easier to understand life without him. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone. But it is our truth. Random triggers still occur. Last week I went camping and longed to have my buddy back me up. I preemptively ask before watching a movie if the dog dies in it, because I can’t handle the trigger if it does.
All in all, my days are finding a new path forward. Not every mention of a dog pal will elicit tears anymore. There’s a time for everything in this process. Although I doubt there will ever be a turning point when I will no longer tear up at the thought or mention of him, I do trust that the triggers and my response to them will fade in their intensity. How can I trust this? Because it is already happening. I was able to edit this piece without falling apart. I have a purpose: to share this article with my sister who just lost her childhood dog and cat in the same month and is overwhelmed. I hope she reads this and relates. You are not alone in your grief, but your grief is yours alone. Express it. Honor them.
A donation was made in Odin's memory and the memorial was created on October 18, 2022.