I think the first sentence of Jim Harrison’s novel, The Road Home, is sublime: “It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.” Harrison’s observation puts a twist on an old adage, reminding me that my pace to likely oblivion is a crawl compared to the sprint of my faithful Maggie. I was reminded of this recently after spending much of the night on the floor next to Maggie’s bed trying to comfort her during a thunder storm. A dog afraid of a storm is enslaved to terrible demons. At one point she attempted to climb the vertical drawers of an open closet to seek refuge amongst the sweaters and tee-shirts. Maggie has tremors when she’s afraid and her whole body becomes racked and frozen except for her pulsing nerves. Her tail drops and draws around her vitals. Her ears lay back astride her sleek skull and her eyes bug out eerily. She turns to stone, a hard stone, granite or marble. It used to be that only thunder upset her. Later, lightening too tormented her. Perhaps she made the connection that lightening is followed by thunder. Now, even a rising breeze prompts an anxiousness from her. I wonder at it all. I doubt dogs have the cognitive powers to associate a storm with anything other than noise and flashes of light. They can’t draw conclusions, presumably, and certainly not arrive at metaphor. A storm is a storm–nothing else, for a dog.
We anthropomorphize animals, our pets in particular. We don’t even know we’re doing it much of the time. Dogs aren’t called our best friends for nothing. But stories about dogs easily grow maudlin and that does not interest me. I choose not to write about dogs at all, but about death–that would be storm as metaphor–or the opposite of death, full-blown life. As Julian Barnes recently wrote: “If you fear death, you don’t fear dying; if you fear dying, you don’t fear death.” Some medieval thinkers, arguing for the existence of the soul, posited that humans are aware of death, animals are not and there, in our self-conscious awareness, is evidence of the soul, and, by inference, the lack thereof in our animals. I don’t believe in the soul, except as a convenient tag to an idea, but if I did, in my cosmos Maggie would have one too. The medieval proof of the soul poses an interesting converse. What if the concept of death, escaped us–perhaps through injury to the dopamine system of the cerebral cortex whereby the ability to conceptualize death was lost–would we consequently have no soul? The more interesting question is how would we live, if like our dogs, we were unaware of the ultimate outcome? Of course, death, does not escape us–or, more properly, we do not escape death. But the consequences of the outcome remain a mystery. Therein lies the riddle. We are the type of creatures to whom time is important. Would we live in a state of self-awareness if we held this life to be infinite? Would we bother to examine and study it, if it was not finite? Am I drawn to the question above: how would we live if we were unaware of the outcome? Some among us might squander life, making no connection between how to live and the passing of time. But more to the point, I think many of us would unwittingly live a life purposefully whole, as, I believe, our dogs must.
* * *
My daughter, Alison, is a freshly-minted nurse. I understand this to be a wise career choice for these troubled times. She visited recently and talked about her “clinicals.” The clinical practice of a student nurse is the “field work” as it were, the opportunity to put into the hands of the young healers the requisite tools to do their work. She is doing a good job, but is, as she said, “Just waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Waiting for someone to die. I’ve never seen a person die,” she said. “And I’m upset at the thought.”
There is not much a parent can say to this. Does one respond: Dying is part of the cycle? Death is natural? It’s the yin and yang of nature–and all the rest. Drivel. It doesn’t help. No one knows how they will react to observing death the first time. Not long ago, I crossed this transom: I watched life transform to non-life. The pallid riddle was laid out for full inspection. I admit, as terrible as it sounds, watching the death of my cousin was a curious–yes, even interesting–thing. That was my reaction at the time, at the bedside. I thought it odd then, my reaction, and still do. I find myself thinking about it often, though the spectrum of reflection has shifted. Curiosity has ceased and contemplation has set in. My cousin’s death was a study; now it is a meditation, lending credence to Turgenev’s observation that “the most interesting part of life is death.” I am reminded that Diane Arbus snuck into her dead father’s room and photographed him; as did–infamously–Anne Leibovitz photograph her dead partner, Susan Sontag. So much has been written on the subject, indeed, everything has been written in the shadow of death. I cannot add an iota of originality to the subject, but I have a few observations.
I will start with the death of my mother two years ago. It was, I image, a stoic death, as only she could have orchestrated. I was out of town when my mobile rang. It was my parent’s number and it was eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. My heart skipped. My father was on the phone. “Oh, thank God I got you,” he said. “I’ve got terrible news.” I listened quietly. I recognized the voice as his, yet it was acutely different. “Your mother died last night.” My reaction to this news was immediate dull numbness. Conversely, I was suddenly and intensely aware of my father on the end of the line.
“Dad, are you okay?”
“Yes. Oh, this is terrible.”
“I’m in New York. I’ll be there in about three hours. Carole and Jeff will come over.”
“She’s in her chair. She went in her sleep. In her chair.”
“It was a peaceful way to go, Dad. That’s good.” He was quiet. I was quiet. I could hear him breathing. Then he broke the silence.
“Last night was something,” he said.
“What about last night, Dad?”
“Last night your mother and me sat and just talked. We never even got around to turning on the TV. She was in her chair and I was in my chair and we just talked all evening, maybe three or four hours. We haven’t done that in years. Then it was bedtime and I got up and kissed her and went to my room. She never woke up.”
“Dad, that is a wonderful story,” I said. “We’ll all close the book on our life someday and what we all want and could only wish for, is exactly what you and mom did, to spend a few hours with the one we most love and kiss them good night.” I don’t know how much he heard of what I said. It was a remarkable exit on my mother’s part. Precisely what I would have expected.
Months later he told me that mom came to him in a dream. He said to her, “How you doing?” With that she slapped her hands together and laughed out loud, declaring, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe it.” He said he was embarrassed by the dream, thought it silly. I told him it was a wonderful dream and was nothing to be ashamed of. He has since shared it with some of his contemporaries. They no doubt appreciate knowing that good times lie ahead.
I have never been preoccupied with death and have, occasionally, been over occupied with life, which is perhaps the same, only sort of inside out. I think about it, death, more than I did as a younger man. It is a way of becoming less like our dogs, ignorant of it, and more like a human being living in full consciousness of it.
My cousin said to me a few weeks before she died, “When I come back I’m going to do it differently.” We chuckled over this. Sadly though, it was her confession of remorse, an admission of disappointment over the life she had lived–at least I think that was what she was saying. (The latin from which the word remorse is derived means literally “to bite back.”) I am drawn to the idea of living life in preparation for its end. In some traditions this complex notion is reduced to something so mundane as a rote ideal, a doctrine, in the most extreme instances, denial. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, though mass consumption of rote ideals never seem to turn out very well. I am self-taught at everything so am stubborn as a result. I can’t accept a doctrine so much as rush down a blind alley, take a U-Turn or be lectured to. The big questions generate itches only I can contort to reach.
It is afternoon now and we have enjoyed a pleasant day of sunshine and unusual fall warmth. But there is cloud cover encroaching from the west and Maggie is starting to act weird. Her tail is down and she’s got a hang-dog look, appropriately. If another storm hits I will calm her with a tranquilizer. As I write this, my phone rings and I see it is someone who seldom calls and I take the call, interrupting my time here at my writing table. The caller, a friend, tells me of the sudden death, this morning, of a mutual friend, a man I didn’t know well but liked for his quiet unassuming presence. The man had a headache on Wednesday, then a sinus infection according to his doctor on Thursday and called in sick Friday. He felt worse still late in the day and went to the hospital where he died the next morning of spinal meningitis.