Random Hot Tip About Dying #3

(And now that the Modo Adventure has come to it’s happy conclusion I return to the Random Tips About Dying series.  This post is continued from Random Hot Tip About Dying #2.)

The third tip goes something like this:

3) Learn about dying from people who are familiar and comfortable with it.  The terrified can’t teach you much you don’t already know.

One evening I went to a restaurant with a convivial group of people to hang out after a community meeting.  There were about nine of us, all adults except for one young adolescent girl who accompanied her mom.

During the free-for-all discussion that rolled around the table over dessert the young girl, a devoted animal lover, shared with shining eyes that she wanted to start volunteering with the local Humane Society.  But before she could even finish the sentence her mother torpedoed the idea by telling her, “But honey you don’t understand.  They put animals down there.”

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I listened to the murmur of assent rising from everyone else at the table and watched the girl’s shining eyes grow stormy as one person after another tried to explain (in the kindest way) that she didn’t know what she was getting into and that, really, she wanted to stay as far away from that kind of thing as possible.

She tried to argue but no one would listen. As a group they were convinced that their deep aversion was in fact the wise and correct response.  In the meantime I was sitting there having vivid flashbacks of the same kind of reaction I received from people when I first shared that I wanted to work with hospice.

Initially, the girl was just frustrated but then I saw a kind of helplessness start to settle in as she felt the door closing on her dream of caring for vulnerable animals.  We could all see that she felt a calling deep down in that place where we get those kinds of messages, but nonetheless every set of arms present was trying to hold her back from answering it. Her shoulders finally sagged as she fell into angry silence.

I heard somebody explaining that the animals are just going to die anyway, and then there was a momentary lull as everyone nodded their heads and gazed at the girl in sympathy.

I finally spoke up.

“But, you guys,” I looked around the table as every head swung my way.  “They still need love before they die. Even more so.”

I watched as each face registered first surprise, then a dawning thoughtfulness as they considered this other perspective.  In the meantime, the girl looked like a wilting flower that had just been watered.

She sat back up, smiled, and said, “Yeah. YEAH!  That’s what I mean, that’s what I wanna do! I’m not afraid of them dying.”

She waxed on with renewed enthusiasm for about a minute as everybody else sat and digested the idea.  Then one of the men turned towards me with a puzzled smile and said, “I never thought of it like that but it’s really true. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

Which leads me back to tip #3.  This story is a prime example of what a closed loop looks like.  Everyone sitting at that table believed the same thing: that dying was something repugnant and horrible to be avoided at all costs, even if it meant abandoning a group of vulnerable animals and thwarting a young girl’s dream in the process. And because they all believed it, all they could do is reinforce and confirm each other’s belief.

Please understand, it’s not that they didn’t care about all those dogs and cats at the shelter.  They did, a lot. Boise is a powerful animal advocacy town and the adoption rates are actually higher here than most of the country.  We love our four-footed friends around here, we really do.

But in this case, the group’s fear of dying outweighed their love for animals for the simple reason that they’d never been presented with a different perspective from someone who didn’t believe that dying is repugnant and horrible and to be avoided at all costs.  Granted people like that are a minority in the population right now, but there are more of us than you’d think and the numbers are growing.  Finding someone who’s familiar and comfortable with dying isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be.

I should add that this story is a prime example of something else that bears noting: There’s a pernicious subconscious assumption permeating our cultural view that anything dying is already as good as dead.  This one drives me nuts.  It’s not true.  NOT TRUE.

NOT. TRUE. AT. ALL.

Dying animals and people are still very, very, very much alive and, more than almost any other time of life, they need to be gathered in, supported, nourished, and loved…NOT abandoned.  (That is, of course, unless they want to crawl off into the bushes and die alone in which case I’m all for respecting their wishes.  But that’s different than abandoning them.)

In a future post I’d like to publish a list of links to posts, articles, and other resources that  provide a view of dying that’s more holistic than the current, entrenched one. It’s a view that acknowledges the hardships involved but also reveals the moving and luminous beauty that involved in life at it’s last.  But that will take some time to assemble so not today.

Next post should be about Random Tip #4: A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

P.S. The photo of the adorable Doberman puppy above is from a Wikipedia article about dogs and can be found here.

P.P.S. Here are the previous posts in this series:

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

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Modo’s Last Garden Stroll

Little Quasimodo the hunchback duckling is now gone, although in a good way.

His back slowly straightened out, the hole in his head mostly disappeared beneath healthy fluff, his nub of a wing gradually lengthened to almost equal the other, he’s eating and drinking like a champ, and his mobility is quite good. One eye still looks strange but other than that’s he’s thriving. In two day’s time he transformed from an injured, weak, and misshapen little newborn into an active, thriving ball of fluff who managed to scale to the top of his stuffed bear, hop onto the lip of the crate he was in, and almost topple off into the waiting jaws of Dane the mangy rescue mutt lurking just below.

They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Clearly, we’re not duckling-proofed around here so, after nourishing fantasies all day Saturday of taking an older Modo out to paddle along contentedly behind my kayak whenever I go, I went online instead and Googled bird rescue centers in Boise and found the Ruth Melinchar Bird Center (an offshoot of Animals in Distress Association) which opens every year from April to September and takes in thousands (literally) of orphaned wild ducklings and goslings to raise and then release  back into the wild.

(Boise is a major nesting area for mallards and Canada geese and in the spring it’s not at all unusual to see cars on major city thoroughfares careening to a halt as a mother leads her newly hatched brood out across the street heading for the nearest body of water because nobody wants to run over a string of babies.  Nobody.)

I freely admit I was fighting back tears while driving over to the center to deliver Modo into his next life.  Turns out nursing a fragile baby bird through it’s first couple of days is something of a bonding experience…you wouldn’t believe how fast it happens…and I was beyond sad about giving him up, scared that he might get lost and pecked to death by a band of unsupervised ducklings, and worried that I might have already screwed him up for life by letting him imprint on me in the first place.

(A typical Mother’s Day.)

But the rescue center was delightful, the women working there were cheerful and grateful I’d brought him in, and they let me go back and peek into the tub that held eleven other shy ducklings nestled contentedly in a corner before they slipped Modo in with them.  At first I was glad that he barely paused before heading straight for the others, but then he started pecking at them which drove them all away, at which point I swung from the fear of him being pecked to death to an uneasy feeling that he might grow up to be one of those detestable drakes that chase down females and tear clumps of their feathers out while trying to mate.

I also found myself irrationally wanting to apologize for his bad manners and explain that he might have been brain-injured, but the women assured me his aggressiveness was a good sign.

In any case, he’s on his way now, saved from a cold and certain death on our driveway for some other kind of certain death later on, hopefully after he’s had a chance to fly and swim and mate and nest and fish and migrate at least a couple of times beforehand, although I’ll never know.  But anyway that’s what I’d like for him.

Or her.  I asked and was told there’s no way to tell gender when they’re still that young so I can add that to the list of things I’ll never know.

Anyway, I took one last video of Modo out in the garden with which to remember these two halcyon days of surrogate motherhood by.  Here’s all one minute and thirty-four seconds of it for anyone interested in seeing how much he improved:

(I just discovered that this video is no longer available. Evidently, when I deleted by Google+ account it deleted my YouTube account as well. First do no harm? Right. Sigh…sorry for the tease.)

Also, for anyone interested here’s the contact information for the bird rescue center:

Phone: 208-338-0897

Address: 4650 N. 36th Street, Boise, Idaho 83703

I gave them a very, very grateful donation before I left and if anyone else feels so inspired I figured I could at least make it easy for them.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

 

 

 

 

Modo: A little hunchback duckling.

I walked out this morning to empty the trash and discovered a brand new duckling lying on his side in the driveway and struggling weakly against the cold concrete.  He’d been abandoned due to some deformity.  One wing is shortened and rather useless and has a little hunch on the shoulder above it.  Couldn’t just leave him lying there so I brought him in.

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He’s been steadily improving as the hours go by.  I’ve taken him out to the garden a few times to observe his mobility.  He was still falling over on his weak side but was beginning to occasionally recover without help.

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And, per advice from John Gray, the bird king over at the ever fabulous Going Gently, I’ve given him warmth, water, food, and a stuffed bear, which he’s really taken to.

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I’m not quite sure what to do next.  Rescue center maybe?  I’m in a quandary as I’m not an advocate of domesticating wildlife yet this little guy could never survive on his own.  Shit.

In the meantime I’ve named him Quasimodo but am calling him Modo for short.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Rhythmic sea lions–what’s a scientist to do?

Here’s a piece that caught my attention this morning.  A Santa Cruz researcher trained a young sea lion to keep a musical beat which, evidently, is considered a breakthrough discovery.  Here’s the video:

What really surprised (and confused) me was the young man’s assertion that to date, scientists have maintained that mammals are incapable of keeping a beat, that it’s an ability specific to humans and some birds capable of vocal mimicry.

Huh?  Don’t they watch Youtube?

Here’s a dog tapping his foot to some rock music:

And here’s a golden retriever grooving to a jazz beat:

Honestly, scientists can be so brilliant and yet so clueless sometimes.  Especially where animals are concerned.  Of course their position is an incredibly difficult one considering what they have to do to these little companions on a daily basis to produce all the miracles we demand of them.  I imagine if it was me doing the experimenting that I’d have to deny any of them were intelligent, sentient beings capable of love and suffering, too.

Sigh.

As always, I continue hoping for a shift in paradigm on this one.  And it may be coming.

NEXT POST: The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness–a group of leading neuroscientists announces that many animals are indeed conscious beings capable of experiencing stimuli the way that humans do.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The Darling Slob

I just served up dinner for Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt and had to laugh.  He was, as usual, beside himself with anticipation, and even more so because he saw me place the core of the apple I’d just been eating into his bowl before scooping his dog food in on top of it.

Apple cores have become a serious problem in our household, so much so that we can no longer eat an apple at all if Dane is near enough to hear the crunch.  We have to put him in a bedroom, or outside, or in the garage, because he has overactive salivary glands and, when stimulated, they produce enough drool to solve a small municipal water crisis.

And for some reason nothing…I repeat, nothing…stimulates his glands like an apple core.  Go figure.  It’s not so bad with popcorn or miscellaneous kitchen scraps.  He doesn’t do it for chicken skin, carrot ends, squash rinds, browned lettuce (lettuce!) or any of the other produce whittlings that I toss him while cooking.  But an apple core…a fucking apple core…triggers something in his perpetually starving little imagination that sends us into hazmat suits.

So we attempt retraining.  We no longer give him apple cores from our hands, right after the last bite.  No ho.  We take them out to the garage and place them into his out-of-reach dog bowl to be incorporated with his next meal.  We’re determined to teach him the value of delayed gratification no matter how much he dislikes the concept and, even though his dragging body/droop eared/tragic-eyed reproach is disconcerting, I think we’re making progress.

He dines in the garage and only in the garage.  Today’s dinner consisted of said apple core and dry kibbles with a spoonful of digestive enzyme powder dumped in a clump and then a generous drizzle of stinking salmon oil over all.  He gazed at me in adoration as I slopped it all together, prancing around and shaking his head a few times to make sure all the long drool tendrils wrapped firmly around his face and then, once I set the bowl down, offered up a small puddle of slime oblations to the garage floor while waiting for the actual command to eat.

He always does this.  Always.  I don’t know why it struck me as so funny today but it did.  Sometimes I have to shake my head and wonder why we love these ridiculous, slobbering, undignified creatures…who lick themselves and eat each other’s shit no less…so much, but there you have it.  Their disgusting habits even endear them to us…which is so weird I can’t even think about it.

But really, what in the world would I ever do without this guy?

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copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Wild Deer Ask For Passage On Boat

(Photos courtesy of Sharon Kelly and JuneauEmpire.com)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I may be the last one to have seen this news story but was so touched by it that I had to put it up again anyway.

Four young Sitka deer got into trouble swimming through rough and frigid waters off the Alaska coast.  Exhausted and hypothermic they evidently spotted a charter boat sailing nearby and swam over to circle it, looking for some way to climb up out of the water.

The local family on board were amazed and sprang into action to pull the four up on the deck where they immediately collapsed.  By the time they reached land one deer was recovered enough to jump into the water and swim to shore by itself, two had to be coaxed but eventually made it to the woods, and one was still too weak to move.

So they loaded it into a wheelbarrow and rolled it up the dock to shore where they remained with it for a few hours until the deer could finally stand, wobbling but unassisted.

It’s an extraordinary story that once again breaks down some of the barriers we tend to build in our heads about what animal/human interactions and relationships can be like.  What particularly fascinated me was that the owner of the boat is a hunter but didn’t feel right about taking these deer.  I suspect he was responding to that deep instinct most of us have that we’re not allowed to harm something that has come to us for help.

The entire family was reportedly delighted and moved by the experience, considering it a gift.  In other words, they were grateful, thus earning their experience a respected place as a story worthy of Thanksgiving.

May this day be filled with the same for all of us…generosity, compassion, gratitude, and just a wee bit of magic.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Spontaneous Hospice Appears For A Pod of Pilot Whales

(Photo of Ed Lippisch by Eric Hasert/TCPalm.com September 2, 2012)

When working with hospice I often had people tell me, “Oh, I could never do that,” and I was never quite sure how to answer them.  Because while on the one hand I could see they were sincere, on the other I knew they were wrong.

Of course they could help care for someone who’s dying.  Bathing and toileting are not rocket science.

A more compelling reason is the fact that compassion, empathy, and the desire to alleviate each other’s suffering is an essential part of human nature.  Sure, you don’t think you can, you don’t want to, you’re scared of it, and you may even feel nauseous at the thought.  But then in the blink of an eye…boom…it’s your loved one who’s lying there so achingly vulnerable and suddenly, not only can you do it, you find doing it totally transforms you.

Never underestimate the power of your own heart.

Here’s a great example of a lot of people discovering over the course of a single day that dying is simply no barrier to loving and caring.  A pod of twenty-two pilot whales beached themselves yesterday along the south Florida coastline and, except for five babies young enough to transport and rehabilitate, the rest wound up dying there.

No one knows why they beached really, it was one of those mysterious whale things, but evidently hundreds of people showed up to help.  From the article on Foxnews.com:

“TCPalm.com reports that hundreds of residents came to the beach to assist with the rescue, helping the animals turn upright so they could breathe better. Volunteers covered the whales with moist towels and poured water over them. Red Cross volunteers helped ensure that volunteers stayed hydrated in the hot sun.

“I think that people want to help animals,” said Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisth, a Harbor Branch volunteer who worked with others to tend to juveniles in a shaded inflatable pool. “Especially whales and dolphins, because they are our counterparts in the seas. They’re mammals, they’re intelligent, they’re social. They’re a lot like us.”

Still, there was a sad undercurrent to the efforts, with rescuers aware that most of the whales were dying.”

I’m willing to bet that, if they’d been asked beforehand, most of the people on the beach that day would have also claimed that working with hospice was something they could never do.  And yet there they were anyway, tending to a pod of strangers whom they knew full well were dying and yet couldn’t bear to leave to do it alone.

Of course we can all do that kind of work.  In fact sometimes, it can be a lot harder not to.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Writing Into The Dark, Muddy Holes

Ach.  I’m wrestling with a painful, scary part of my book right now and it’s hard slogging.  It involves writing the story of some early violence in my life and feels a lot like Brer Rabbit wrestling with the Tar Baby.  Sticky stuff.

So far every time I reach for the memories I feel like one of those old-time Mississippi fisherman going after catfish in the river bank.  Back in the day they used to swim down through the murky water to the holes in the mud where the catfish hide, then they’d stick a fist in.  If there was a catfish in there, and if it wanted to eat (but catfish allus wanna eat) it’d swallow that fist whole and not let go again till the fisherman pulled it out of its hole and all the way back up to the surface, just a-dangling off the end of his arm like a long, slimy hand.

Dinner served.

But sometimes…sometimes…a man would hook one of the old giants and then there’d be hell to pay.  Too big to pull out of its hole with a mouth too strong to break free of, the tables would be turned.  Oh, that unfortunate fisherman would struggle for a while to be sure, but in the end his thrashing would slow and stop and his body’d just float there in the current, bumping up against the bank from time to time all white and wide-eyed, like it was so surprised it was now the property of Ole’ Man River his self.

These memories of violence are like one of those old catfish giants and I have to be real careful swimming that deep.  I know which holes are theirs, down at the very bottom and darker than all the rest, but I also know that if I do this right, if I’m brave and smart and catch ’em to where they have to give me a gift to make me let ’em go, then they’ll make me not be afraid anymore.  That’s all I want.

So how do I perform this mythical feat?  How do I catch ’em?  That’s where the vast power of language comes into play.  The events themselves, those sudden and brief eruptions of rage and violation that happened so very many years ago now, are long dead.  But they set their stories loose in my life, dark tales feeding and growing down in their holes.

I need to reshape and retell these stories.  Need to put them into harness and make them work for me instead of against me.

Namazu and Kashima from Japanese mythology

It was the dying who tried to teach me how to do that and if I can just get through this first part of the book and finally reach their stories…their luminous, beautiful stories…I know it’ll get easier.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Starling Murmuration: Sometimes, Someone Gets Lucky and Then Shares

This brief footage is absolutely extraordinary.  I’ve seen small flocks of starlings doing this before but nothing like this.

The murmuration begins at around 26 seconds but I was also fascinated by the fact that these two women are canoeing in the weather and through the terrain that they are.  I’ve almost always experienced the most wonder and awe…seen the most unusual, even miraculous, things…when I’m out in inclement weather, or twilight or dark, or intense cold, or in other conditions that keep most people away.

I’m not sure why that is actually.  Kind of curious.

Anyway, if you have two minutes, watch and marvel.  It’s truly something to behold.

Guinea Pig Rescue and the (Historic) War On Women

Meet Hashbrown and E. Benedict.

These are the newest additions to the family of Foxed In and, believe it or not, both their little lives have already been touched by tragedy.  Little Hashbrown, pictured on the left, was recently purchased from a well-known chain of pet stores along with poor little Nacho who is not pictured because he died suddenly and horribly a scant three days later.  I’ll let you go over to Foxed In yourself for a hint of the sad, bad news about pet mill horror that exists in the retail world.

But in the meantime, being left with a bewildered and lonely little piglet (guinea pigs are evidently “super social animals and pretty much need to be in pairs”) Foxed In then located E. Benedict, pictured on the right, with the help of an absolutely fabulous (wait for it, wait for it…) guinea pig rescue/adoption group that the vet who did the (wait for it, wait for it…) autopsy on Nacho recommended.  Seriously.  Foxed In requested an autopsy.

I find that sort of humbling actually.  Evidently, this is a woman who doesn’t discount life simply for the sake of size.  Perhaps something for us all to consider.

On a humorous little side note, Foxed In calls E. Benedict a “walking toupee.”

I think I can see it.

On another topic, I began my hospice work as a volunteer but quickly realized that it was the nurse’s aids who got to spend the most time with patients.  (i.e. my own ulterior motive.)  I therefore dutifully trotted down to the university and enrolled in a class to get my certification and become a C.N.A.

The evening classes were held at the old Idaho State Penitentiary, which is now shut down and maintained as an historical monument. I took a tour of the place once, which was pretty fascinating in a horrible kind of way, but I noticed that it entirely ignored the history of the women prisoners who were also once incarcerated there.

The Idaho women’s prison is a small building constructed outside the walls of the men’s prison and, while it’s not a part of the formal tour, there is an exhibit in the main hall explaining some of the criminal history of Idaho’s gentler sex.

Strolling around the room I was initially surprised to learn just how many women were locked up for killing their husbands. (For those interested, poison was the method of choice by a clear majority.) But it all started to make more sense as I read about some of the laws governing women back in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.

To varying extents depending on the decade, women were not allowed to own property and had no legal right to either their children or any wages they might earn.  Everything they “owned” legally belonged to their husbands.  This complicated the divorce option for a woman whose husband chose to contest it.  If she wanted to leave the marriage he could keep everything she owned as well as prevent her from seeing her own children, not to mention confiscate her wages until the divorce was finalized, making savings impossible.  So unless a woman had a family or friends to turn to, the likeliest outcome was that she would wind up on the street, probably forced into prostitution.

Evidently, this law was not as binding for women from the upper class who retained some property rights under specific circumstances.  But for women from the middle and lower classes, the law in effect made them the property of their husbands with rights equivalent to…say…a chest of drawers..

Add to this the law commonly known as the “rule of thumb”…which defined the acceptable size of a stick that a man could legally use to beat his wife and children with as being no bigger than his thumb…and perhaps these guilty women might be forgiven for believing that murder was their only alternative.

Clearly, the underlying purpose of these laws was to bind a woman to her husband in a way that would establish his dominance and prevent her from leaving him.  (It might be wise for other men with this agenda to note that the plan backfired significantly in some cases.)

I wonder what happened to all the other Idaho women trapped in the kind of abusive marriages that laws like these actually helped to create? How many others wound up poisoning their husbands and getting away with it?  How many decided instead to escape with nothing, only to wind up in prostitution or starving or dead?  And how many simply gave up and stayed in the marriage, dying a slower, black and blue kind of stick-death?

I look at what the Idaho legislature is doing these days where its laws governing women are concerned, and I can’t help but notice a similarity between today’s governing mindset and the one at work during this earlier, abysmal period of our state history.  Yesterday’s elected officials were finally forced to abandon their sticks only to have today’s politicians embracing  some of the stick’s newer, high-tech equivalents like ultrasound machines and health care exclusions.  Laws concerning almost every aspect of a woman’s reproductive capacity are multiplying at an alarming rate (it’s amazing how obsessed our predominantly male legislature is with the subject.)…

(24 hours later…)

Blah, blah, blah.  Believe it or not I wasted three precious hours of my life yesterday on a following rant about Idaho politics.  It was such useless kvetching that finally even I couldn’t stand it anymore.

How do you spell d-e-l-e-t-e?

Let me just finish by saying this.  Women?  Respect yourself, remember how much less we once had and, if all else fails, poison the fucker.  (Kidding!!@#!!!)  Call your elected representatives and picket Congress for a century.  That’s what our foremothers did and they got us property rights and freedom from sticks.  Let’s learn by example and not drop the torch.

A brief tribute for two women to whom we owe much: Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and Susan B. Anthony 

(Photo credit of American Memory)

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

So.  Rather than ranting about politics, I’d rather spend my last paragraph observing that the above-mentioned guinea pig rescue/adoption people believe in the dignity and beauty of life so much that they’re willing to fight for it even in the most ridiculous of little pet-creatures.  And that gives me more hope than just about anything.

I think one of these kind of people is worth a thousand…no…a million politicians.

copyright 2012 Dia Osborn

The Little Gosling That Couldn’t and How The Kayak Got Her Name

This one falls under the heading of “strange and magical things experienced while kayaking.”  My twin interests of paddling and dying paired up for a brief dance last weekend.

On Saturday we strapped the kayaks to the car and drove out to a canyon area that…long, long ago and far, far away…had a creek running along the bottom of it.  But one day the Army Corps of Engineers came along and built Lucky Peak dam and, lo and behold, the canyon became a long finger of the resulting reservoir instead.  (A change that unquestionably sucked for everything that lived down there at the time, but turned out to be a boon for municipal water storage and boating of all kinds.)

We got up at 5:30 to beat the power boats and water skiers and were rewarded with the stillness and solitude that only goes to the early risers. (Which I normally am not.)  We started at the tip of the long finger and paddled along for an hour and a half, gazing up at basalt cliffs and the clouds of wheeling, flitting birds that make their homes there.  Later we discovered a small but breathtaking cove with lichen covered cliffs rising straight from the water and a couple of tinkling, tiered waterfalls cooling the already hot day.

And then, as we finally neared the end of the narrow canyon and prepared to enter the main body of the reservoir itself, we sighted a pair of Canadian geese shepherding twenty-three, brand new goslings in a tight bunch between them (count them! twenty-three!!) and we immediately swung the kayaks out into deeper water, giving them as wide a berth as possible out of concern for those unpredictable, wide-eyed, bits of fluff.

By that time the power boat traffic had picked up in the main reservoir and a few of them were turning into the canyon, roaring and dragging their bouncing, scooting loads back up what we’d just paddled silently down.  The clash of water-recreational cultures had begun and it was now time to share.

The hubster and I had gotten separated somewhere along the line, with him paddling along one side of the widening channel heading for the main marina, while I followed the line of cliffs on the other side, gazing up and studying the geology.  Deep down I knew I was going to have to cross eventually, to join him, and navigate the boat traffic in the process.

But I didn’t want to….I just didn’t…and some deep, stubborn thing inside me dug in and grabbed on with it’s toes.  I didn’t want to go to the marina.  I didn’t want to deal with the boats.  I didn’t want anything to do with the human world at all because I knew it would break the spell I’d fallen under earlier in the canyon…of water and wings, rhythm and rock.

So I ignored his lead and kept to my own side until, just up ahead, I was distracted by something strange floating on the water.  It wasn’t the occasional driftwood or flotsam or jetsam bumping past my boat.  It was soft brown and upright and I soon realized that 1) it was a lone gosling drifting perilously close to the wakes from the main boat lane and, 2) that it belonged to the gaggle of other goslings we’d passed earlier, back up the canyon, but had somehow gotten separated.

I never really decided to do it.  On the contrary.  It happened with no reflection whatsoever and entirely without my consent.  My arms simply paddled the kayak around behind the gosling, turned the bow back up the canyon, and started to patiently, relentlessly herd him along the base of the cliffs after his family.  Just like that.

Looking back now it’s amazing to me, how my perception could change that much in a single breath.  How a world as populated and noisy as the reservoir was, could suddenly telescope down to a single, tiny, bobbing life like that.  My vision went tunneled and everything else ceased to exist…the power boats, the hubster, time.  It’s funny.  Over the years and on into menopause, I’d forgotten what a fierce thing the maternal instinct can be and what odd things can invoke it.  But in an instant there she was again, up on her hind legs with claws spread, just like old times.

It’s nice to know the hormones still work.

The spell deepened.  As I paddled slowly…s-l-o-w-l-y…along, nudging, urging, heading off, backing up, turning, resting, then urging the little gosling on again, I started to feel a strange kinship with all the Canadian goose mothers I’ve watched over the years as they guided their own babies along.  It was like there was a second, phantom world gradually superimposing over the first, one where the yak was turning into a plump, feathered body and the paddle, a long, stretching neck.  It was an odd sensation, that tactile feeling of goose-ness settling over me, but I welcomed it anyway for the additional skill and information it lent me.

The gosling wasn’t doing well…at all…and I soon realized why he had been abandoned.  He was weak and getting weaker.  The effort required for him to swim ahead of my kayak was clearly a lot and he also suffered occasional spasms of some kind of palsy.  I wondered if he was born with neurological damage or if he’d been caught in the wake of a boat right out of the egg, maybe dashed against some rocks or injured in some other way.

At some point it dawned on me that the little guy wasn’t going to survive, and my mission changed from saving his life to reuniting him with the family so he wouldn’t have to die alone.  By this time the hubster had noticed my preoccupation and come over to check out what I was doing.  As soon as he saw the gosling he joined my efforts without a word and together we urged the tiring baby forward as gently as we could.  But the gosling was so weak…and the going so achingly slow…that eventually the hubster decided to paddle up the shoreline to try and find the family.  To perhaps herd them back down towards us if he could.

I began crooning encouragement to the gosling, who was pausing to rest with increasing frequency, and he seemed to respond to the soft, loving sounds.  He stopped and looked up at me a few times, relaxing a little, and started trying to follow the edge of the bow as I held the careful distance between us that I’d maintained the whole way.

And then something happened that took me entirely off guard.  A spasm of palsy struck the gosling that was so strong his bowels emptied into the water.  And as I sat there waiting for it to pass, watching the small patch of white refuse sink and disperse beneath the surface, the baby suddenly turned towards me…disoriented, overwhelmed, and unable to continue…and swam straight for the hand that I instinctively lowered into the water.

He never hesitated but climbed right in, balancing there among my careful fingers as I lifted him up and nestled him protectively in my lap.  And as he sat there quietly, exhausted, I started paddling in earnest, heading for an inlet about a quarter mile up the canyon where the hubster was signaling that he’d found the rest of the goose family.

I honestly don’t know how to describe the strange mixture of emotions and instincts that had taken possession of me by that time.  I don’t really understand it myself.  There were flashes of stories going through my mind, stories I’d heard of other mothers from other species who had done the same thing I was doing.  There was a female gorilla in a zoo somewhere.  The one that picked up an injured human child who had accidentally fallen into her enclosure and cradled it against her, protecting it from an aggressive male gorilla that could have done further harm.  There was a Labrador Retriever bitch that a friend of mine once owned, who patiently, lovingly nursed a litter of orphaned kittens to term, taking them on as her own when the mother cat had been killed.

There are other stories, too, of this particular phenomenon—of surprising cross-species interactions filled with tenderness and generosity–and these stories tend to both puzzle and delight all of us who hear them.  I wonder if it’s because maybe, each time, they hint that we’re not quite as different from each other as we thought.  Or that we’re not quite as alone as we feared.

What I do know is that sitting there in the kayak that morning with a beautiful, dying gosling across my thighs, I suddenly understood with crystal clarity how those other animal mothers could behave the way they did.  I got it, how an innocent life falling from the sky, however damaged or brief, can instantly become the only thing that matters.  How the kind of terrible vulnerability they present can trigger the most primal of instincts…and what a good and sacred thing that is.

By the time I reached the hubster in the inlet where the family was resting, the gosling was sinking into permanent disorientation.  He was actively dying and, as I cupped him in both hands and placed him back into the water, he kept trying to swim the wrong way.  He didn’t seem to see or hear the other geese as they clacked and shifted uneasily at the end of the inlet, and we weren’t quite sure what to do.  We didn’t want to get any closer out of concern for the other goslings, but at the same time we wanted to guide our own little guy near enough to the others to have a chance to see and join them.

Finally, the two adult geese seemed to notice the gosling swimming near us and one of them raised its wings a little, making alert and angry goose noises and moving aggressively in our direction.  At this our little guy seemed to clear the fog for second and see them and he turned to swim down the inlet in their direction.

For a brief and dazzling moment, I thought everything would be okay.

But it wasn’t.  Everything started going wrong.  Instead of crossing the water towards the family on the right bank, the dying gosling hugged the opposite shore.  His head wobbled with palsy, his swimming grew increasingly erratic and aimless, and with a sigh I recognized all the signs.  He was losing awareness of the physical environment around him as he commenced the final stage of dying.  He was going light…entering that luminous border world around life that has to be crossed on the way out.

I’d also made a classic mistake with the adult geese.  Forgetting everything I know, I’d projected all my human emotions onto them and childishly expected them to welcome the gosling–which they’d already abandoned once–back into the fold.  Far from the joyful reunion I’d imagined, the parents herded the other babies as far away from the injured gosling as possible, actually moving them down the inlet towards us.  I realized they were willing to risk a dangerous level of closeness with humans rather than get anywhere near the dying gosling and, too late, I remembered about that other, harsher instinct that also lurks inside us all.  The one that whispers mistrust of all things sick, misshapen, or dying.

It’s the one that always errs on the side of caution in order to avoid contagion and preserve life.

Strangely, I accepted the unexpected turn of events with no more rational thought than I’d given to anything else that had happened.  That deep, clawed thing inside me simply fell to all fours and ambled off.  Nothing felt wrong or sad to me, still sitting under the spell of primal things as I was.  It just felt done.

I watched for one lingering moment as the blinded gosling bumped his way up the inlet and then, when the hubster suggested we get going, I turned my kayak without a word and followed him.  We needed to get out of the way of the way of the other geese and besides, I couldn’t chase the gosling down to try and cradle him at the last.  It would only have frightened and traumatized him as he died and that wasn’t allowed.

There’s an instinct for that one, too.

I’ve been haunted by that morning ever since, by the image of that strange, breathless moment when a mortally wounded gosling turned and, against every instinct, swam straight into my hand.  The memory of it fills me with both wonder and questions.  I don’t understand why he did it.  I don’t know whether it was a gesture of desperation and disorientation, or a moment of recognition and trust.  And there’s no way I can ever know, because I think there are some things we’re only supposed to ponder, not solve.

But even though I can never know for him, I can know for me…from my side…and I know this much:

That in his brief and tiny time here, the miracle is that I found him at all.  He was so infinitely small floating alone there in that vast body of water, and a later start, a different trajectory or speed, something as simple as a longer gaze up at the cliffs, would have made me miss him completely.  I’ll never know whether the crossing of our paths turned out to be a better thing for him or not, whether my efforts ultimately eased or increased his suffering.  I can only hope that I did more good than harm.

But whatever it was for him, it was most certainly a gift for me, one of the rarest in fact, to be placed in my secret treasure box full of sparkling things.  It was an encounter full of the dizzying reminder that life is beautiful, yes.  Without doubt.  But it’s only in opening up to let all the world’s shadows and all the world’s light pour inside to fill me, that life transforms from the merely beautiful into an enchanted, shimmering place of wonder, seen with ever widening eyes.

Epilogue: I’ve been secretly chafing ever since our first kayaking adventure when the hubster bravely towed that fishing boat back to shore and earned his kayak its name–Tug Boat.  I wanted a good name for my kayak, too, but after his naming adventure, everything I came up with sounded made-up and lame.  Unearned.

But there was a moment in the middle of shepherding the gosling, when he was still in the water and my yak and I were jockeying around him, trying to guide and protect him both, when the name came to me out of the blue, like it had been whispered in my ear.  

“Mother Goose.”

And that was how the kayak got her name.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Gosling image above is from Wikipedia

Your Early Exposure to Death: Was It Scary Or Curious?

“Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world”.  From Children and Pet Loss.

(This post follows Five Major Influences that help Shape Our Acceptance Or Fear of Dying and Death.)

Before I start, I want to say that every person is unique, so of course the relationship they forge with death over time will be unique, too.

It’s like a lifelong dance we do; each successive loss is a new partner that whirls us about the floor for however long it lasts, then drops us in our chair by the wall again.  Every encounter is different and our perspective on dying evolves with each one.  As John Gray over at Going Gently wisely reminds me from time to time, there is no right or wrong way to look at dying.  Each person’s experience just is what it is, and that makes it absolutely true for them and deserving of respect.

Having said all that, it’s also important to remember that both trauma and beauty are inherent in the dying process.  And with increased, gentle awareness, it’s possible to help ease the first and strengthen the latter.  (That’s actually one of the main goals of hospice and palliative care.)  In practice though, this shift happens a lot faster with a person who’s already open to the good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while there really is no right or wrong way to look at dying, there are some perspectives that might be more helpful than others.  (Of course, anyone currently reeling with a loss is sacred and off-limits.  Period.  I’m not talking about you trying to change anything right now.  You have enough on your plate.)  But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to consider at least trying to tweak our view of dying before our next up on the dance floor.  It could make a difference.

So what shapes any given perspective?

Well, early impressions sure pack a punch and go a long way towards forming our view of dying thereafter.  There are a number of variables that feed into whether our first brush with death leans toward the strengthening or scary side, but the top three would probably include, 1) how big the loss is, 2) how the people around us respond, and 3) the manner of the death.

A friend of the hubster’s came for a visit a couple years ago, and when we ventured onto the topic of my work with hospice and my perspective about the beautiful side of dying, he disagreed that there was anything beautiful about it.  He related the story of his first experience with death and, truly, it was not a good one.  He lost his father to illness when he was in his teens, a time when he was particularly vulnerable and unprepared, and he was still, some forty odd years later, carrying a burden from that loss.  In his experience, dying really had been something bleak and terrible; there wasn’t anything good involved to help counter the pain.  Dying was a force that stripped him of the father he still desperately needed and then left him struggling alone in the vast hole it ripped in his life.

So when I spoke about the beautiful side of dying I encountered in my work, he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.  Because beauty had played no part in his primary encounter with death, it was difficult for him to even consider it as a possibility.

My aunt had a similar devastating encounter with death when her husband died in his forties of colon cancer back in the eighties.  The battle for a cure beforehand had involved five years of grueling, toxic, and unproductive treatment and then, on top of it all, towards the end of the fight his pain was poorly managed (as happened more often than not, back then.)  His death was not pretty and the scars it left for my aunt were profound.   So when my grandmother, her mother, died a peaceful, easy death a little while later, my aunt declined to be in the room when she passed because her prior experience made her believe that dying, by nature, is gruesome and harsh.

I always wondered (privately of course, I never said anything to her) if being present at my grandmother’s benign death might have helped heal some of the earlier trauma but, of course, there was no way to know.

But then my mother, her sister and best friend, died a few years ago and my aunt wound up accidentally being in the room when she passed in spite of her intention not to.  The moment was profoundly beautiful for all of us assembled, a final gift of grace from a woman whose life had been all about love, and it provided me with a means of finally learning the answer to my question.  When I asked my aunt about it later she answered that, yes, witnessing my mother’s good death really did help ease the burden of horror she’d been carrying for so many years.  She felt a little more peaceful with it now.

It was a revelation for me…the realization that our initial perspective on death isn’t written in stone.  That, if the luck of the draw brought us a difficult first death, we’re not helplessly doomed to tremble at the thought forever after.  It is possible to ease some of the fear of dying and create a measure of peace.

Of course first brushes with death don’t always involve a primary relationship, in fact they usually don’t, and these milder, less threatening experiences can provide an opportunity to get one’s toes wet a little at a time.  One of the most common ways that children get a first look at death is through the loss of a family pet or other animal, and these encounters provide a golden opportunity for teaching them how to navigate the dying world with courage and strength.  Children take their cues on how to respond to death (and everything else for that matter) from the adults around them so it’s important what we model for them.

I found the following story on a forum where people were discussing the potential value or harm, for children, of holding funerals for a pet.  I thought I’d include it here because it’s such a great example of how a parent’s response can so profoundly shape a child’s perspective of not only death, but the value of life:

“My parents’ dog died at home when I was two and a half — they hadn’t wanted to put him down at the vet’s. I recall him quite vividly lying there on the kitchen floor on some sheets of newspaper, and I also remember the questions I asked my mom and dad as I grappled with what had happened. I asked if I could pet him, and they said that would be okay. They were quite attached to the dog, which they’d gotten before they were married and had been a fellow-traveler with them in their journey together, and so they both cried a little. I remember trying to comfort my mom, telling her it’d be okay. Later, I watched my dad dig a large hole out in the woods, carry Jonathan out in a fuzzy red blanket, bury him and mark the spot with a large piece of white quartz.

I was very clear on what was happening, for the most part, even at two and a half. I think your daughter would be fine with it at six.

Those events left a very strong impression on me, evidently: they’re my very first memories. Though sort of melancholy, they’re by no means bad memories. My dad still lives in the same house. Occasionally, when I go back home to visit, I notice that piece of quartz a little way out in the woods, half-buried in leaf litter. I think: that rock is a testament to a life not taken for granted.”posted by killdevil at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2007 [28 favorites]

For anyone looking to learn more about how to guide children through the loss of a pet (or anyone struggling with the loss of a pet themselves) The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a really terrific website.  A lot of people deny that the loss of an animal relationship can be just as devastating as the loss of a human one.  Whoever runs this website is not one of them.

So our early exposure to death goes a long way towards shaping and sizing our lifetime fear of it, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t change.  I’d love to hear some accounts of other people’s first exposure to dying or death.  Did it influence you more towards acceptance or fear?  (Or no influence at all?)

In the next post I’d like to talk about the influence of the attitude of those who teach us about death.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

The Fisher King Goes Fishing

A friend of mine was once a vital, physically dynamic. backpacking, canoeing, outdoors enthusiast and passionate, social worker powerhouse.  Then she contracted West Nile virus during one of its earliest appearances in the West, collapsed overnight, and almost died from the severe neurological complications.  It was sobering, how a tiny virus can take down a strapping, healthy, wildly intelligent woman in her prime like that.  Somehow I had thought that only the young, old, and already compromised were vulnerable.

Fortunately, she survived and has been industriously working to rebuild a new life out of the ashes of devastating illness.  One of the biggest challenges has been trying to get to know who she is now as a result of all the neurological damage that took place.   Her mind is still as keen, curious, and active as ever, but tends to quickly overload and go smoky with any kind of strain.  And while she still loves the outdoors and continues to camp and hike a little, she walks a razors edge in terms of how much physical exertion she can pursue before her brain short circuits from the flood of brain chemicals released by fatigue and stress.

For a woman who largely defined herself by her independence, extraordinary mental acuity, and physical dynamism, the loss of self she’s experienced through illness has been profound and the continuing effort to redefine herself, grueling.  But she does it anyway…and inspires me  in the process.

We used to talk a lot about how hard it is to let go of who you once were, then try to rebuild a new life according to this other, lesser version you’ve turned into.  (At least that’s what it feels like in the beginning.)  I experienced something similar during my rapid descent into a long and severe depressive episode twenty years ago, an illness that effectively blew my old life to smithereens.  Like most people in our situation I, too, spent the first few years trying to first recover, then return to the old life I’d known.  It was only after it grew apparent that could never happen that I finally got on with the job of crafting a new life and a new identity to go along with it.

Any kind of major illness or injury can create this cycle of course, but there was a unique challenge we both faced in that we still looked the same from the outside.  All of our injuries are invisible at first glance, which makes our inability to perform certain, standard tasks very confusing for others.  And when we frequently failed to meet the seemingly normal, reasonable expectations of people it wound up creating friction in our relationships with them, a fact that then made it even harder to figure out and accept who we had become.

But time is a great healer and has been slowly revealing that we didn’t actually become lesser people after all, just different ones.  Our identities have changed substantially–who we are and what we can do in relation to the world around us–but it turns out our essential selves haven’t really changed at all.  We still love the same things we’ve always loved, with the same depth.  We still strive to give, serve, behave, and belong in a way that nourishes the greater world.  We’re still just as committed to the happiness and welfare of our children and husbands, doing whatever we can to support them.  And we continue to try and pass along the little tidbits of light, inspiration, and meaning we uncover while sorting through the various piles of debris that now litter our lives.

Today, she sent me the following three minute video and it reminded me again of what an extraordinary gift and accomplishment it is to survive in this world at all.  Its many and formidable hardships aside, life is still pretty magnificent and I do so love getting to participate in it, for however long it lasts.

This is footage of an osprey fishing from the BBC archives.  First sequence: he catches half a dozen fish in one strike.  Second sequence: he dives underwater and plunges talons into a flat fish resting on the bottom.  Third sequence: he captures a huge fish that looks as if it weighs more than he does.  (How they get this kind of footage is beyond me but they do.  Pretty brilliant.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Blip 3 From The Book and Sugar Plum Fairies

Happy Thursday!  I’m actually getting Friday’s post in a day early this week.  Still working on the writing class and trying not to get distracted by the blog.  In that spirit, the following blip is from a section of the book where I describe a walk we took along an Oregon beach during some residual storm surge.  The echoes of dying are just about everywhere, if only we allow ourselves to listen.

We stayed close to the cliffs rising at the back of the beach, scanning their sides for escape routes just in case.  The litter of driftwood at their base was a wildly tossed collection of enormous pilings and giant tree trunks ripped free from prior moorings by lashing waters of extraordinary force.  The evening before they’d all rested in settled places, tumbled long ago to fit tightly along the feet of the cliffs, bone dry and sun bleached, high above the tidal reach.  But after the night’s wild surf they were tossed about and water soaked.  Embedded with wet sand.  Some of the old pieces had been picked up and scattered down the beach or washed away entirely, while other ones were only freshly arrived.

Picking our way we came across the damp carcass of a sea lion, headless and beginning to decompose.  At first I mistook her for driftwood but as we drew nearer I saw tufts of fur still clinging to her skin and I was irresistibly drawn to her.  Kneeling, I placed my hand on her side, the damp flesh still soft, giving way beneath the pressure as if she was exhaling.  I felt a mixture of wonder and horror and grief, marveling that I, Dia…woman of Idaho, of inland rivers and sweet water lakes…was touching a sea lion. I might as well have found myself next to a unicorn or griffin.  She was miraculous to me, sleek and tapering, and I ran my hands above the contours of her body, sweeping them along her back and sides, over the folds of her torn fins as if my hands were somehow remembering the deep waters gliding over them.  Endlessly, fluidly tender. 

I wished that her head was still there.  I looked at the wound and was chilled by the neat edges of severed spinal bone where someone had clearly sawed through it.  I felt agitated murmurs fluttering up from the sand around me and I shared in the distress, made uneasy by those who move easily in the darkness, desecrating the dead.  

I spoke to her gently, whispering final words of farewell and gratitude.  But then a sneaker wave rushed up, driving Cal and I onto the higher rocks behind her.  We watched as the water surrounded and lifted her, washing her back down the beach out into the waves where she swam again one last time, headless and vulnerable.  She got stuck, tossing about in the turbulent zone where ingoing and outgoing waters meet and I wished she could somehow get past the waves and return to deeper waters.  We stood helplessly as she tossed and rolled, back and forth, trapped and jostled in the limbo zone created by conflicting tides. 

But finally, when I could barely stand to watch anymore, a strange, lone ripple of current heading away from shore washed past her and for a moment it seemed like whatever was left inside her washed away, too.  I thought I glimpsed a shimmering sea lion, whole again and beautiful, swimming just beneath the surface, riding that ripple back out to sea. 

And then it was gone.

I’d like to end this post on a completely different kind of beautiful note. Here’s a video of a couple of Polish musicians playing Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy on the most surprising instrument.  It’s both entertaining and exquisite.  Enjoy!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

That “thing” in the header

Someone has finally asked about it.  I was beginning to wonder.  It’s been up for the last…what?…nineteen months now, and just when I was concluding from the uninterrupted silence that nobody else found it as arresting as I do, Nel over at Life’s Infinite Possibilities (with stunning headers of her own btw) said…

What’s that “thing” (for lack of a better word) on your header?

Here she is in full.

I believe she was an arthropod of some kind but I can’t be more specific than that.  I found her exposed just as pictured, over on the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula three or four years ago. A seagull–or perhaps one of the many eagles that inhabit the place, I don’t know–had taken a couple bites out of her before being interrupted, maybe by the hubster and I as we meandered up the shore.

By the time I reached her side, she was still alive but mortally wounded. I found her extraordinarily beautiful…the colors so vibrant on an overcast, dreary March day that they took my breath away.  She was a tiny, dying spot of brilliance in a wild landscape of muted grays.

She also vaguely reminded me of female genitalia.  Like orchids do, only with an arthropod’s twist.  It both tickled my sense of humor and made me ache for her vulnerability all the more.

After I took the photograph I cupped her oh-so-gently in my hands, walked down to the water, and placed her right-side up again in the sea. She curled a little when she felt the stones beneath her…the cradling of the water…and I like to think she was happier there. Safer. Like the difference between dying peacefully at home, surrounded by the familiar and loved, versus upside down and alone in a car crash on the side of an anonymous interstate.

Here she is right-side up and back in the sea.

A little farther down the beach we also found a dead seal that was only beginning to decompose.

I originally planned to use this photo in the header but it never felt right.  Looking back now I think it’s because my primary focus here is on dying rather than death.  Both are profoundly beautiful to me, but with as much as I love the stars and stillness of deep night, it’s the elusive magic of twilight…that impossible alchemy that occurs as something is changing its very state of being into something else…that haunts me.  I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to transitional environments like coastlines and twilight hikes and storms and hospice. Because they provide portals into the strange, limbo world of transmutation where I can then observe and try to document its mechanics, firsthand.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011