The Film: Departures

I finally watched the Japanese film Departures last night and was astonished and blown away, both.  The 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film also captured thirty-four other international film awards and, in my humble opinion, deservedly so.  It took the difficult subject of “encoffining”, the ceremonial (and totally fascinating) bathing and dressing of the recently deceased which is performed in front of the family, and treated it with a lightness of touch and reverence that made it both moving and accessible.  Add in a stunning soundtrack and cinematography and no wonder it was such a hit.

I’ve caught a rabid cold from the hubster so, much as I’d love to go on and on about it, I don’t have the energy.  It’s hard to juggle a parade of soggy tissues and tea cups while trying to type so I thought I’d just leave you with the trailer for the movie.  That way you can get a flavor of it for yourself.

The one thing I will say is that this movie captured the beautiful, uplifting experience I had over and over again with the dying and their families.  It somehow managed to portray a little of everything that’s involved; the grief and joy, anger and humor, the awkwardness that so often arises in circumstances of profound intimacy, the need for forgiveness, the graphic elements involved, the enduring love, and the ultimate affirmation of life that comes when death is received with dignity and grace.  It also captures how the gifts of those who die can pass outward in a spiral, swirling back into the lives of those left behind to aid in healing their wounds, both new and old.

I give this movie two thumbs up needless to say.  Here’s the trailer:

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The $3,399.28 Cat

I’m home again.  Finally.  Two weeks is a long time to be away, even when I’m away somewhere that I love.

We traveled all day yesterday to get back here.  Up at 4:00 a.m., long drive down to St. Louis, long wait at the airport, long flight with two stops in Denver and Salt Lake City, then home sweet home at 8:00 at night.  I was frazzled, exhausted, and shutting down hard.  My cell phone went dead around 2:00 in the afternoon, so I didn’t pick up the two frantic voice mails left on it until after recharging around 9:30 p.m.

That was when I learned that Dane the mangy, rescue mutt, oh mighty predator of predators, attacked the neighbor’s sixteen year old cat Tinkerbell in the afternoon and mauled her pretty badly.

The first voice mail was from our daughter (voice trembling uncontrollably) telling me that the attack took place but everything seemed to be okay.  Daughter was house-, dog-, and garden-sitting for us while we were gone.  Daughter was overwhelmed by those additional duties on top of the five course load she’s carrying this semester at college and the thirty hour week she works as a waitress.  Daughter couldn’t manage Dane’s afternoon walk so she called Sweet and Helpful Neighbor Lady across the street who cheerfully offered to help.  But Daughter didn’t realize that Neighbor Lady had cats and made the mistake of taking Dane Cat-Hater over to her house off-leash.  The rest, as they say, is now history.

The second voice mail was left about four hours after the first.  It was from Neighbor Lady (voice also trembling uncontrollably) letting me know they were at the vet where they’d discovered that Tinkerbell was not okay at all.  In fact, Tinkerbell had multiple broken ribs and a punctured lung, and surgery on her was going to cost about $3,000.  She was sobbing into the voice messaging center that they couldn’t afford it and, if we didn’t pay for it, they were going to have to put her down.  I about shit.  Then I told the hubster.  He about shit, too.

Which is when I first noticed the interesting little voices piping up in my head, having a spirited referendum in there.  The first voice (naturally) was Guilt.

I told you!  I told you a thousand times.  We should have made it a rule that he’s always on leash when he’s out of the house!

The next voice was Blame.

It’s the hubster!  The hubster hates leashes!  He refuses leashes! And how in the hell could Daughter not know that Neighbor Lady didn’t have cats? We’ve been neighbors for thirteen years for godsakes!

Then Wheedle and Cheat chimed in.

Y’knooooow…mentioned Wheedle.  It must be close to an hour and a half since Neighbor Lady called.

Yeaaaaah, that’s right…seconded Cheat.  I wonder…what-oh-what could have happened since then?

Do you think they may have already put her down? continued Wheedle.  It would be so sad…

so sad…echoed Cheat.

But it wouldn’t cost us nearly as much…suggested Wheedle.

It would save us a fortune! chimed Cheat.

It would put the cat out of its suffering, too…said Wheedle.

It would be a kindness, Cheat nodded his head emphatically.

Maybe…Wheedle tilted his head to one side and gazed up at the ceiling…we should just say we didn’t get the message and call in the morning?

How compassionate! Cheat agreed.

Compassionate? said Guilt much struck.

Can we really do that? said Blame perking up.

It was only after this exchange that Tattered Shred of Decency finally spoke up.

Oh, come on you guys, her voice was gentle but firm.  Couldn’t you hear the anguish in Neighbor Lady’s voice?  Tinkerbell is like her child.  We can’t dump this off on her.

But we don’t even like cats, muttered Cheat.

Remember how Tinkerbell used to come in our backyard and shit in the pea gravel pathways? reminded Blame.

And y’knoooow…Wheedle slithered back into the conversation.  Tinkerbell is a very, very old cat…

There was a significant pause here.  It was a hurdle even for Tattered Shred but she powered up and managed to clear it.

Doesn’t matter, she finally crossed her arms over her chest.  Neighbor Lady loves her and can’t bear the thought of losing her.  Not like this.  Don’t you remember all the times Neighbor Lady helped us when we were in a tight spot?

Nobody answered.

Has she ever, ever done anything to hurt us?  Or anybody else for that matter?


And is the pain she’s in right now any fault of her own?

Four heads hung down in shame and wagged slowly back and forth.

So the hubster and I called her back.  Neighbor Lady and Neighbor Hubster were still at the vet and Tinkerbell was still alive.  Only somehow, during that hour and a half delay, the surgery’s cost had grown from $3,000 to $4,000.  And by the time I actually talked to the front desk person to give her our credit card number, the upper estimate had mysteriously mushroomed to $5,000.  I wasn’t sure what was going on but at that point I thought it wisest to let the clinic know we were capping the amount we’d pay at $4,000.  Privately, the hubster, Tattered Shred, and I remained flexible about covering more, but we didn’t want the emergency clinic thinking we were patsies.

The final amount topped out at $3399.28 and we considered ourselves lucky.  (Could that be what the clinic was trying to accomplish by raising the upper end?)

I’m not sure why it’s so much harder to be a good human being when large sums of money are involved, but it is.  Thousands of dollars just hurts.  Ow.  However, the fact that Neighbor Lady is such a genuinely good and loving person made it a whole lot easier for me to step up to the plate and do the right thing.

Is goodness contagious then?

(Shittiness certainly is.  I admit if the cat had belonged to the lady who lives behind us, the one who wanted to chop down our apple tree to keep a few apples from falling in her yard, the referendum in my head would have been longer and the outcome uncertain.)

It’s the old Golden Rule I guess.  Be unto others as you would have them be unto you.

Only you know what?  Neighbor Lady doesn’t have any strings attached where her be-unto is concerned.  She’s not kind and decent because that’s how she wants to be treated in return.  It’s just who she is.  She’s a naturally stellar human being.  Frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever be that good a person but at least her influence helped raise me a little higher this time around.  Maybe if I put a little effort into it there could be some kind of trickle down effect from all this.  Next time I’m dealing with Apple Tree Hater, maybe I’ll strive to be a little more understanding and forgiving, too.

Maybe this incident could even morph into something that winds up improving our little part of the world.  I owe it to Tinkerbell to at least try.

This morning, the hubster and I drove past a dead cat flung to the side of the road that had been hit and killed by a car.  I felt the twinge of regret I always feel with roadkill and then heard the hubster mutter, That better not be our three thousand dollar cat. We looked at each other and started laughing as we realized that for the first time, for whatever time she has left, we’re now heavily invested in the welfare of a feline.

Could it get any stranger than that?

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Sky Burial

Griffon Vulture at Oakland Zoo

Photo © Ingrid Taylar

Today is the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and, judging from all the anger boiling up in the last month, it seems as a nation that we’re still pretty raw.

Forgiveness is a challenge for me.  A woman told me once that forgiveness is only granted, not chosen or earned, and I’ve thought about that one ever since.  I always thought I was a very forgiving person but really I’d just been trained to move on.  Put it behind me and not think about it anymore.  Leave the wounded parts in the past like bloody garbage, wrapped up in a cloth and stuffed in a hole.

Over the years I left a lot of wounded parts behind me.

For a variety of reasons I eventually had to go looking for them again, scattered far and wide as they were, and I managed to locate most of the pieces and collect them all in a kind of emotional basket-of-casualties that I kept next to my journal.  While it feels good to have me all back together again in one place where things start to make a lot more sense, still I’m not quite sure what to do with it now.  It’s not like these are working parts anymore.  The remains of the various traumas, big and small, are pretty mangled.

Yesterday, a friend and I went up to More’s Mountain to hike the trail up at the top, and a giant black bird with a yellow beak showed up.  It looked like a crow only three times as large and it came over the trees and flew directly at us, coming in low and circling once, studying us as we stood still, heads tilted back, watching it fly against the sky.  Then, satisfied, it flew back over the trees again and we were left a little awed, a little shaken by the contact.

I wondered if it was some species of vulture.

I went up there alone last month, with a dead crow I found in the middle of the road.  I carried it up there to give it a decent burial, to return it to mountain peak and thin air because…well, I don’t know why exactly.  Because I love crows.  Because it felt more respectful than leaving it to be squished and flattened by successive car tires.  But I think I was after something else, too.  I wanted to whisper a prayer into its wings and then maybe, just maybe, have it carry that prayer up somewhere where it might be heard.

Although it wasn’t a prayer so much as a cry for help, sent out into space, into the heavens, into the void, asking something, somewhere out there to hear and help us as we struggle with all the challenges that are coming to a head in the world right now.  Because it just seems like we need a lot of help.

But when I got up to the mountain with the crow, wrapped in cotton cloth and plastic and cradled in my backpack, I encountered a vulture instead.  It was a turkey vulture and it surprised me, flying out from behind a stone spire to my left as I stood gazing out across the valley far below.  It flew in close right in front of me, twisting its head to look at me, study me, and I realized it must have smelled the dead crow.

It was eerie, I’ve never seen a vulture that close before, and I’ve certainly never been considered quite like that.   It stirred something primal and pre-moral inside me.  I felt a kinship with the bird…and I liked the feeling.

There are still places in Tibet where they practice Sky Burial, one of the ancient, cultural burial rituals of the region.  I’ve read descriptions of the practice and it’s about as raw and graphic as it gets.  Loved ones carry the bodies of their deceased, sometimes on their backs, hundreds of miles to the sites where sky burials are still performed.  Those who perform the service receive the body and place it on great flat stones where they wait until the sun first rises in the morning, illuminating the site.  Then they butcher the body, grind the flesh and bone into paste, and signal to the waiting vultures ringing the site to come.  And they do come, by the hundreds, devouring everything before they leave again, carrying the last remains of that person’s physical life away with them into the sky.

The first time I heard of it I was both repelled and fascinated.  It sounded so strange at first, so gruesome, and yet something in my stomach relaxed at the thought.  I love my body.  I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to live in it for as long as I get to.  It’s like having the greatest horse of all time, my steed, my ally, my companion on this wild journey through the world, and when I die I want it set free again, too.  I want all the hits that it’s taken for me over the years, all the wounds it’s licked, the burdens it’s carried, the pain it’s survived wiped clean again.  Released.  Forgiven.

Not embalmed, enshrined, and buried.

Vultures aren’t afraid of dead bodies.  They don’t look at them with revulsion or disgust and I like that about them, because either do I.  Instead they accept and receive them, taking their inherent nutrients and recycling them, turning them back into something life giving, nourishing, strengthening, and sustaining.

I guess that’s what I want for all these old wounds I’m carrying around with me, these old, damaged, mangled pieces of myself that I’ve reassembled and now don’t know what to do with.

I want to somehow eat them, transform them into something that’s ultimately nourishing and strengthening.  I wonder if maybe that’s what forgiveness is supposed to be about, not some kind of lobotomized memory wipe, but a final consumption and transmutation.  I want to take these horrible old memories, the wounds and scars, and cut them apart, grind them into paste, then swallow them down into some ancient, primal place of acid and fire inside myself that can finally, finally harness what happened, release it, and make me whole and strong again.  Lend strength to my wings and help me fly back into the sky where I can soar around again through the rest of my life, loving and accepting and free.

I hope someday I’ll be granted that kind of forgiveness.  I hope someday we all will.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn