” . . . and your absence is the strongest scent in the air.” ~ Madison Maheni
Thursday afternoon. Cloudy and chilly, low 50’s.
I have come to detest with a fierce cold hatred the entire month of November. To feel such abhorrence for a month is illogical, I realize, yet knowing does not diminish the antipathy, the execration I bear it.
So yes, here I am, trying once again to make sense of life, a folly at best, for there is no making sense of life unless one is willing to accept that death is part of life, that we all are dying from the moment we are born, that nature is relentless, that nothing escapes. Nothing.
Certainly there are those of you who will not understand how I allow my grief to define me, who simply cannot understand such a thing. No matter. It is. I am.
Yet because I am human, I will open myself to loss again and again, despite my firmest resolutions to the contrary. But today, this moment, I will sit here and let all of the conflicting emotions run rampant on this page because it is the only thing I can do. Human contact is painful. Any contact is painful. The only thing for me at this moment is this screen, the unfolding of letters, the soft click of the keys. This, here, is all that I can allow myself to touch.
“What if the heart does not pale as the body wanes,
but is like the sun that blazes hotter each day
on these immense, perishing fields? What then?” ~ Jack Gilbert, from “Getting Ready”
Yesterday I knew that it was time, that my dog Shakes would not be able to make it through another night as the one before, and so I readied myself as best I could, and I tried to ready the family. I made telephone calls, looking for a place that would allow me to be with him and would allow me to bring him home afterwards because city ordinances forbid the burying of pets in yards, and I knew that I had to get around this. And then, after all of this, after hours of anguished coughing and wheezing, he went to sleep on the bed and slept deeply and seemingly without struggle.
And then the resolve that I had girded myself with faded, and I thought that perhaps he had more time, that I had moved ahead of him, that he was telling me that it was not yet time.
This is the fate that befalls humans who take animals into their hearts. We make a tacit agreement that we will care for them, feed them, shelter them, assist them if they are hurt or sick, and finally, that we will not let them suffer. This is the agreement that we make, or at least, the one we should make, for far too many who become humans to dogs or cats or fish or whatever, far too many take on this relationship and fall short. That is unkind.
Before last night, I had lived through the intimate deaths of three of my dogs, the last being my lab mix Murphy, who, much like Shakes, was my dog, who followed me from room to room and settled only when and where I settled. In recent weeks, I had mistakenly called Tillie by Murphy’s name several times, and despite what you may think, I knew that it was a sign that Shakes was nearing the end of his days.
“Thus I spoke, more and more softly; for I was afraid of my own thoughts and the thoughts behind my thoughts.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra
So after making preparations to help ease Shakes from this life, we decided to wait one more day, and even as that decision was made, everything changed. He began to get restless, and because he was weak, I carried him to the backyard and sat him in the grass. He did not move. I picked him up again and walked to my bedroom and sat down with him in my arms, and he began to fade. I called Corey and the boys and told them that it was time.
And I held him as his breathing slowed and his heartbeat faded beneath my hands, and then finally, his body went limp. And I did something I have not done in over a decade: I keened, great heaving sobs and wails, the kind that slice through the heart of the night, beyond any other sounds, and the only thing in the world was what I held in my arms—the now small body of one of the best friends I had ever known.
It is at moments such as this that the human heart is truly a burden. Yes, the seat of emotions does not reside in this organ, but in the brain, but why then does the pain radiate from this seat in the chest? Why does the implosion, when it comes, why does it begin in the heart, so far from the brain?
“How do you get so empty? Who takes it out of you?” ~ Ray Bradbury, from Fahrenheit 451
As I held my boy dog in my arms, as he took his last breath, I was so grateful that he had died here, that we were with him, and selfishly, I was so glad that I had not had to take him to someone else, to watch as a needle was inserted, to have to contain my grief in a public space.
And then the guilt comes: Should I not have waited so long? We he suffering? Did I extend his suffering because I was not yet ready?
And with the guilt comes my father. You see, my dad pleaded to come home. I asked my mother if we could not take him home to die. I said that I would take care of him. She refused as I knew that she would. My mother fears death, dying in any form. She would have been unable to stay in a house in which someone had died. I knew this, but still, because I am selfish, I asked, and because I am selfish, I have harbored a resentment that she said no. I wanted to be with my father when he died. I asked the nurses to call me when he was moved to another room so that I could come. They did not call, and I went home and went to sleep. And for years, I have felt guilty.
My father wanted nothing more than to come home. He begged me, again and again, and I? I lied to him and said that he would be coming home soon, and despite the morphine, he knew that I was lying. I could see it in his eyes. And so my father died alone in an empty hospital room, and my dog Shakes died in my arms.
“But I know I live half alive in the world,
Half my life belongs to the wild darkness.” ~ Galway Kinnell, from “Middle of the Way”
So here I sit, pouring my heart onto this page. The place in my chest in which my heart resides burns and aches. My throat constricts each time I try to swallow. The very thought of food makes me ill. I awoke with my head splitting as if it had been cleaved with a battle axe. I feel everything too much. And I feel nothing.
I am unable to offer comfort to my family, even though I know that they need it as much as I do. Human touch is more than I can bear, and so I feel myself closing off, blinking madly as if it will stem the tears. And you know what? I hate everything that I am saying. I hate all of these words. I hate my frailty. I hate my sorrow. I hate my guilt. I hate feeling. But most of all, I hate the empty place at my feet where my boy used to snore comfortably as I sat her and pretended to be some kind of writer.
Dogs offer the purest kind of love. Humans love in this way initially before they begin to become tainted by the world, but dogs? They love this way as it is the only way that they know how. Yes, I know that I am generalizing. Of course I am generalizing. Not every dog is loved or has love, just as far, far too many humans are not gifted love of any kind. But this is not an examination of the cruelties of the world. This is much closer to home, and so I generalize.
Memory: My ex and I lived in an apartment that fronted the Chesapeake Bay. A huge nor’easter blew in and flooded the street. We were evacuated. They would not let us bring our dog Ascot with us, so my ex put on his hip-waders and carried her out. We were told in the shelter that we could not have our pet, and I felt fortunate that we did not have to make the choice between shelter and our pet because we had family in the area, because it would not have been a choice.
“When I speak
My lips feel cold—
The autumn wind.” ~ Matsuo Bashō
I honestly don’t know if this post has said any of the things that I wanted to say or if it has done any of the things that I had hoped to do. These are the things that I know as I sit here on this grey, cold afternoon:
The last breath is quiet.
You cannot close a dog’s eyes once he dies in the same way that films always show the eyes of the dead being closed.
It takes time between the last breath and the last heart beat. An interminable amount of time.
My sons’ hearts are bigger than I ever thought possible.
I don’t know how Corey will survive the loss of Tillie.
Our other dogs know that something is wrong.
My dog Shakes is buried beneath my bedroom window; it’s as close as he can be to the place he spent so much time with me, especially in those early days when I first became so ill, and I spent hour upon hour in my bed.
This house, as small as it is, feels desperately empty.
It is well and proper that Shakes was laid to rest beneath a full moon.
Grief is the echo that resonates within the four chambers of the heart, mixing with the salt of our tears and the blood of our loss.
What we lose defines us.
I hate November.
(I had a very hard time figuring out what the images should be for this post. Finally I decided to use some of my own. These are pictures I shot of a full moon with a corona several months ago. Unfortunately, I did not date them.)
Music by Orenda Fink, “Why is the Night Sad?”
My whole being is a dark chant
which will carry you
to the dawn of eternal growths and blossoming
in this chant I sighed you sighed
in this chant
I grafted you to the tree to the water to the fire.
Life is perhaps
a long street through which a woman holding
a basket passes every day
Life is perhaps
a rope with which a man hangs himself from a branch
life is perhaps a child returning home from school.
Life is perhaps lighting up a cigarette
in the narcotic repose between two love-makings
or the absent gaze of a passerby
who takes off his hat to another passerby
with a meaningless smile and a good morning .
Life is perhaps that enclosed moment
when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes
and it is in the feeling
which I will put into the Moon’s impression
and the Night’s perception.
In a room as big as loneliness
which is as big as love
looks at the simple pretexts of its happiness
at the beautiful decay of flowers in the vase
at the sapling you planted in our garden
and the song of canaries
which sing to the size of a window.
this is my lot
this is my lot
my lot is
a sky which is taken away at the drop of a curtain
my lot is going down a flight of disused stairs
a regain something amid putrefaction and nostalgia
my lot is a sad promenade in the garden of memories
and dying in the grief of a voice which tells me
I will plant my hands in the garden
I will grow I know I know I know
and swallows will lay eggs
in the hollow of my ink-stained hands.
I shall wear
a pair of twin cherries as ear-rings
and I shall put dahlia petals on my finger-nails
there is an alley
where the boys who were in love with me
still loiter with the same unkempt hair
thin necks and bony legs
and think of the innocent smiles of a little girl
who was blown away by the wind one night.
There is an alley
which my heart has stolen
from the streets of my childhood.
The journey of a form along the line of time
inseminating the line of time with the form
a form conscious of an image
coming back from a feast in a mirror
And it is in this way
that someone dies
and someone lives on.
No fisherman shall ever find a pearl in a small brook
which empties into a pool.
I know a sad little fairy
who lives in an ocean
and ever so softly
plays her heart into a magic flute
a sad little fairy
who dies with one kiss each night
and is reborn with one kiss each dawn.
~ Forugh Farrokhzad