My first experience with death was the passing of my great-grandmother when I was six. I still remember visiting her, prior to her death, at my great aunts' house. Withered and paralyzed in her legs, she so little resembled me or even my parents that somehow she seemed hardly human. I remember her always sitting in the back bedroom in a blue velvet chair. When she died, I had a “Wizard of Oz” inspired dream that my aunts Barbara and Maureen had dropped her off in heaven in a hot air balloon. Maureen and Barbara had round trip tickets, of course. And though it was strange that my grandma was no longer perched in her chair the next time I visited my aunts, I felt at peace. It all made sense: Grandma was old and now she was in heaven. I could live with that.
In my life, I have had little experience with real grief or real death. I mean yes, my grandma (not great) has since passed and there are other people, too, but the people I have been close to who died were within the right window of time. I had it all figured out. You see, I imagine the future with the same certainty as the past: there is a time line when a life starts and then after it goes on long enough; it is OK with me for the time line to end. Don’t get me wrong, I miss grandma, but I can’t be too upset that she died. For me, she died within the acceptable window. As I have heard said, “it was her time.” OK I can live with that.
I, like most people when faced with adversity, blame modern American society; not because we have it so bad, but perhaps because we have it so good. We have managed to isolate ourselves from our common, inevitable end in every way we can. Death is ugly; however, thanks to contemporary scientific and technological break-throughs, it has all but disappeared. Even the meat we buy comes neatly packaged in Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic. It hardly resembles a living organism other than that little smear of blood found on an absorbent pad under each chuck roast. Or consider the profits of plastic surgeons slicing away what the hands of time have worked so long to alter. The unspoken modern syllogism: aging means dying and death is ugly, therefore aging is ugly. Let’s pretend a while longer that we are immortal. Like elephants, people have even kindly found a place to die conveniently located away from the rest of us. According to recent statistics, anywhere between 75-90% of all Americans die while in hospitals or nursing homes. The dying are nothing if not considerate. Need more proof that we are in denial about our final, collective outcome? Consider the body before it is interred. Generally, the undertaker has gone to great lengths to remove all traces of death in order to create a sort of a human tromp lo’iel effect: grandma is still here. She is just asleep. Either that, or the corpse is reduced to a few handfuls of ashes that resemble nothing.
And so, the result when faced with real, untimely death, we contemporary Americans are innocents; blind-sighted and unprepared to deal with the thought of anyone close gently slipping into that good night. Perhaps I generalize too much. Perhaps I mean me.
Less than two weeks ago, there was an untimely death that took place in my own back yard. Not my husband or my children, but a dog. A coyote got over the wall and saw, not the beloved family shih tzu, Sadie, but an early morning meal. My other dog, a wizened Jack Russell terrier, sounded the alarm and my husband responded. We were all too late. Sadie was dead.
I feel childish comparing the death of a pet to that of human beings, but her absence has been a bit of a tragedy to me, starting with having to tell my children, one by one, as they awoke that Sadie was killed. My four-year-old, Scott, responded that I was wrong and went looking through all of the rooms in the house, certain that Sadie was right there; ready as always to greet him. It took only just a minute for him to realize that Sadie was gone, permanently. So my oldest three children and I wept in intermittent waves all day. We talked about Sadie and how she warmed us as she curled at the foot of our beds. We said how sad we all were that she would not greet us at the door any more with her riot of unbridled gratitude that we had, once more, returned to her. We even pulled out the pictures that Megan, had colored in her first grade class when hospice had visited the school. I found myself grateful for the coloring book titled “Life Losses” that had seemed inappropriate and macabre in the hands of my six-year-old just a week before. We cried again when we came home and my two-year-old announced, “Sadie’s not here. Only Jax. Sadie is in the box.” I cried again late that night when Scott woke up, drowsily crawled into my bed and wept silently with no affectation, for his lost friend.
Less than two weeks have passed and the kids have moved on. They can mention Sadie without tears and remember her happily. I no longer hear in thin, pleading voices, “Mom, I miss, Sadie.” My eight year old has even mentioned that it is kind of nice not worrying that the dog will chew her toys if she leaves them on the floor.
I still miss Sadie, but I don’t tell my children. I am glad they can live with that. Even so, with Halloween approaching my daughters are, for the first time, afraid of the plastic skulls and funereal decor. For the first time they want to know if I think ghosts are real. I approach the question mythologically, logically, theologically trying to vanquish their fears. For all of my efforts, Megan won’t brush her teeth in the bathroom by herself. In the end, Sadie’s untimely death has left none of us unscathed. My children are now left to contemplate how drastically ones life can change, even while asleep.
As for me, I wonder that I still grieve the passing of my pet, more so perhaps than that of some people. But, Sadie threw off my timeline. She was young; Jax was old. Jax would die and there would still be many good years with Sadie and she would sleep at the foot of Scott’s bed and be there, waiting to jump all over me at the door. And so, the inevitable truth that I have come to recognize as I look at the downhill side of my thirties: that between my husband of ten years and our four children, I have a lot invested in the certainty of my life and that fixed timeline of my future, that now seems less indelible than I once thought. I understand it is not death that I fear. It is grief.
1 month ago