1.17.17 The Death of Me
Aging brings with it many unexpected aspects. Some not so good, of course; the many indignities of the body spring to mind. But now that I am able to look back over more than thirty years of adulthood, I am fascinated by this new perspective on my own life. Only with the passage of time, and growing self-awareness, do patterns emerge. Last week, the untimely and violent death of our resident grouse, Larry David, brought a flood of memories and associations that suddenly crystallized into something freighted with greater meaning. I'm not sure how you will receive this rather unusual story but I would love to hear your reactions. Please feel free to respond candidly.
You may remember that a wild grouse appeared in our yard in November, when we were cleaning up the garden. (I featured him here.) He became a regular presence, eating cracked corn on the ground beneath our feeder, along with the jays, juncos, woodpeckers and mourning doves. I came to understand the derivation of the verb "to grouse" because he kept up a steady stream of mumbling/grumbling at all times, so quiet you could only hear him when he came close. Thus the name Larry David. When the temperature dropped, he would puff up his feathers until he was round as a basketball. Sometimes, he would sit near the heating vent on the side of our house, basking in the stream of warm air.
Last week, as I was driving home from yoga, I saw something lying in the road in front of our house. My heart sank a bit and I slowed to see which animal had met its demise this time. I opened the car door as I approached to get a closer look and there he was, my beloved Larry. I pulled into our driveway and went back to collect him, hoping he might be alive. But he was dead, his body still warm and pliable despite the frigid weather. I brought him up to a spot in our yard where he often pecked for seed and laid him out on a large rock to take his portrait.
I wouldn't go so far as to say he was like a pet, but Larry was around a lot longer than most wild creatures and he brought us so much joy. His death came at a time when I am feeling highly sensitized, so perhaps this helps explain the depth of my grief. It also reminded me of two other times in my life...
The first was when I was 26 years old. I had left behind my life in New York City to help care for my father, who had stomach cancer. It was strange to be living again in my childhood home in California for the first time since I had left for college, sleeping in a twin bed and taking grocery money from my mother. Her health was failing, too, and she was trying to hold it together while my father lay dying down the hall. I immediately got busy trying to feed him miso soup and smoothies but it soon became clear he had other ideas. After undergoing hideous chemo three years before, my father had decided he was done with treatment and ready to die at the age of 64. I tried to accept this but it was confusing and heartbreaking and enraging.
Next door, some people had moved in with a bunch of cats they had neglected to neuter. The vast number of mostly-feral kittens would crawl under the fence to do their business in my mother's garden, a source of great frustration for both my parents over the previous couple of years. They had repeatedly set traps and ferried many of them to the pound, but all that was over now. It was a feline free-for-all.
Once day, I looked out the upstairs window and saw something in the gutter at the end of our driveway. I ran out and discovered a tiny kitten on the verge of death, a trickle of blood oozing from its mouth. I was afraid to touch it. I got a towel from the house and gingerly swaddled it. Then I collapsed on the curb with the kitten in my arms and sobbed helplessly. It died as we sat there. I took the little bundle and, in a blind rage, left it on the neighbor's front doorstep. My father died a couple of months after the kitten. Eventually, I learned to forgive him for not fighting for his life and to forgive myself for not being able to save him (or the kitten).
Fourteen years later, I returned to my childhood home for the last time. It was November 2003. My mother had died in August, after more than a decade spent paralyzed and trapped in an agony of neural pain. A few months earlier, in April, my husband had died of an insidious cancer that had spread to his brain. I was exhausted, truly tapped out, but needed to help my sister clean out my parent's house so we could sell it. We spent a few days going through their possessions and the contents of the garage, which included our family photographs, my grade school drawings, crafts projects and all the accumulated detritus of my younger days. In a place somewhere between despair and resignation, I threw everything out, reasoning that nothing mattered anyway.
The morning that we were to leave—headed to San Francisco for a Thanksgiving celebration—I found a shoebox on our doorstep. Inside was a small mouse-like creature with big black eyes, a twitching pink nose and long whiskers. On one side of its head was a misshapen pink protuberance that looked like a big tumor. It seemed somehow inevitable to me that this moribund soul would be my responsibility. I put the shoebox in the car with my suitcase and drove up the coast with my sister.
Over the next few days, I struggled with what to do. At a bonfire gathering with friends, I met a man who was a veterinarian. After taking a look at my charge, he told me it was a Chinese hamster with a cancerous tumor that would prove fatal. I considered taking the hamster back to New York with me and paying for the tumor to be removed. I thought about asking the vet to put it down. But on Thanksgiving, I finally formulated my plan. We were going on a long hike in the redwoods that afternoon, and I decided I would bring the hamster and let it go in the wild. As I watched it totter off through the tall grass, I shed tears from my seemingly inexhaustible supply. Finally, a sense of peace descended over me. I realized that I had also freed myself. Some time later, I was able to make the decision not to be a caretaker any longer.
These events helped me gain greater compassion—for others, yes, but also, and perhaps most importantly, for myself.
In the wake of Larry David's death, I have looked for the lesson. In this dark night of the soul that I am inhabiting, suspended in limbo as I struggle to understand who I am now and how to move forward, I long for any sign. If the pattern is consistent, then the death of the creature should echo and shed light on another death. I have begun to think that it is I who have died, a symbolic death in which I have left behind what was in order to be reborn into what will be.