My wife-in-law, who co-writes non-fiction books on subjects like happiness and love, once observed that writing about a topic for any length of time usually translates into having to live it, too. She first mentioned this to me while working on her book about love, when issues surrounding both love (wonderful! fantastic! fabulous!) and not-so-love (bummer…sadness…lowly low) had ballooned in her life, forcing her to grapple with the subject matter in a way that an intellectual treatise alone didn’t require.
I’ve noticed a similar dynamic while working on a book about dying I started after nearly six years with a local hospice. Only instead of the love/not-so-love polarity mentioned above, I’ve been wrestling with a fear-of-dying (worrying…fretting…clinging) versus a really-truly-living (grateful! wonder! wowie kazowie!) one. I’m trying to figure out just how exactly this whole thing is supposed to look. How does one live a no holds barred, balls to the wall, drink it all in and keep on dancing kind of life in the inevitable face of dying?
And am I?
Yesterday afternoon I took our hundred pound, five-year old, rescue mutt up in the hills for our daily romp. As usual, as soon as I gave him the all clear, Dane ranged far and wide off the trail, scouting out the endless smorgasbord of mangy and malodorous things he always finds to eat up there. (He was abandoned young and lived on the streets for a while, nearly starving to death before animal control finally caught him. The experience left scars. I imagine if he could write a book, it would be all about food.)
He’s an avid scavenger, which is often disgusting, but something I can live with. The challenge is that he also has the strongest predatory instinct of any dog I’ve ever had and he’s got a knack for hunting.
The first sign we saw of this instinct was innocuous and involved a dozen onion bagels I left on the kitchen counter the week we first brought him home. The whole incident was my bad. First off, he’s a really big dog and kitchen counters clearly offered no meaningful deterrent. And second, he’d surreptitiously eaten two loaves of bread (and the bags) while I was showering on previous days so I should have known better than to leave the bagels out like that.
At first I thought he’d eaten them all. But a half hour later I noticed him trotting towards the dog door with something in his mouth and, yes, it was a bagel. Turns out he’d only eaten six and cached the rest. During the ensuing treasure hunt we unearthed the others under pillows, inside shoes, behind drapes, and one that he’d carefully placed inside a box which he then closed.
Did I mention he’s smart? He’s smart.
The bagel incident was annoying but pretty cute. The one involving the warm and flopsy, back half of a wild rabbit we confiscated a couple of months later wasn’t. (He caught a wild rabbit!? you exclaim. Only half?! I reply.) There have been a few other victims. Mainly rodents and an occasional bird. The number has fallen over the years as he’s gotten older but it’s still nothing I ever get used to.
And then yesterday he caught and killed a young ground squirrel. A baby. It was awful. When I first spotted it outside its hole, I hung onto his collar until we’d scared it back inside. I thought it was safe to let him go after that but the damn thing suddenly popped back up out of the hole and skittered away across open ground. Dane was after it in a flash. (It kind of takes my breath away how fast he moves when hunting.) He scooped it up, chomped it three times like it was a squeak toy, and then just dropped it and walked off.
Now it’s not that I would have let him eat it had he tried, but he didn’t, and that kind of horrified me and ticked me off both. I mean, what did he even kill it for if he didn’t want to eat it? It’s so hard sometimes, trying not to put all my moral judgments onto a dog. I realize it’s not that complicated for him. Hey…it runs, I chase it lady. But I still struggle.
Then I realized the little ground squirrel wasn’t dead yet and I crouched down next to it uneasily while it twitched and spasmed there on the ground. My father’s voice in my head told me I should put it out of its misery but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just couldn’t. I once drowned a litter of mice and (even though it’s probably not true) swore afterwards I’d never do anything like that again. Killing is a tough job, and it doesn’t get any easier just because it’s the compassionate thing to do.
Then I noticed the ground squirrel was heading into shock. It’s eyes glazed over and the spasms slowed, so instead of having to search for a rock with which to crush it I thankfully knelt down in the dirt and started to sing. Soft. Crooning. I told it sorry and thank you. That it was beautiful to me and the hard part would soon be over. I murmured words of encouragement, strength, and caring, and as its little body relaxed and grew more peaceful, I relaxed and grew more peaceful, too. And it ended like that, a minute later. The sunshine was warm and the breeze lifted fine dust all around us, gently. Dane was snuffling around in the sagebrush a little ways off and everything felt quiet. So very, very quiet.
It was a good ending. Peaceful. Sad. Bittersweet. Loving and tender and still. It was a useless death but then, really, most of dying is. I’m not sure, in the grand scheme, there’s anything wrong with that. What was most important to me was that the baby didn’t suffer long and it didn’t die abandoned and alone. (Of course again, in the grand scheme, I’m not sure any of us ever dies abandoned and alone but still, I think it makes a big difference, us being there for one another.)
So back to my original question, when it comes to life, am I or am I not balls to the wall, drinking-it-in-and-still-dancing? Well, yesterday it wasn’t exactly dancing but it sure felt balls to the wall. It’s never been that hard for me to live with gusto when the living is good. I’ve always felt like the true testing comes when life turns to the darker side like it did yesterday. And when it suddenly mushroomed up bloody and appalling I didn’t run, I didn’t rationalize, and I didn’t beat my dog. I just gathered up a broken, little body and did my level best to keep on loving through the whole mess. And for those few moments it felt like I’d unclenched my fists, dropped my arms, and let the whole twisted, shining shebang wash in and fill me.
No holds barred.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn
That was really great…it felt like I was up there in the hills with you and Dane. The warm sun in on my back, even as I write this from my office.
Thanks sweetheart! What a surprise to wake up and find comments…kind of like Christmas. I don’t know where you found the time to read these monster posts but it’s proof you love me. 🙂
“The answers we found only served to raise a whole new set of questions. But even though we feel we’re as confused as ever, we believe we’re now confused on a higher level and about more important things.”
–From a whole rolled oats thread
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This was really beautiful. Situations like that are so hard and you did the absolute right thing. To some this might be an odd comparison, but the last time I saw my grandfather, he was starving himself in a nursing home, days from death, completely in the grips of Alzheimer’s, unable to speak or move. I hadn’t seen him in a year or two, but I drove there and visited him alone. This side of my family has never been terribly demonstrative and I hadn’t really ever told him how much I cared for him. I spent three hours hunched over the side of his bed, holding his hand, telling him everything…and then I just sang. I felt it was what I could give him. Three days later, my mom and grandmother put on his favorite music and he died. I had never known him to be a music lover, but singing to him just felt right. Oh, and he did speak just before he died. He saw his brother in the doorway twice and said happily that he was waiting for him.
Thank you for your website. I’ve shed some tears and laughed, too. Tattered Shred of Decency got me. And the store of the parrot…whew. Well done.
What a beautiful story about your grandfather and no, I don’t think it’s an odd comparison. I had a similar experience when my grandmother, who was in a coma by the time I arrived, died. It was my first experience by the bedside and I was surprised to discover 1) that I could still talk to her and 2) how much I needed to say. I’d always thought dying was pretty much “as good as dead” and was so relieved to learn that our relationship, while different, was actually still there and richer than ever. That lesson she gave me has carried through and made me far more careful and loving with everything dying…even injured little rodents out in the hills. Thanks for sharing about your experience. I just love these kinds of stories.