It’s that weird week between the holidays. I never know what day it is so I mess up scheduling around Christmas, only to follow through and mess up the same exact way one week later for New Years. Squinting at the calendar doesn’t help tether me and everyone seems immersed on a remembrance vacation. There are the best of lists of movies and books and anything else we give awards for. Those achievements are followed with a memorial for the famous people we’ve lost. It’s a long list this year and it’s all that anyone talks about. It’s like an end of the year emotional profit-loss statement.
I do the same thing here on the farm, with less fanfare and more wonder. This year the Best Geriatric Come Back goes to Lilith, the carbon-dated foster donkey. She gained weight, shed out years of steel wool, and went on Previcox for major lameness. Her physical quality of life is a complicated question, but she’s loud, cantankerous, and she can land a decent kick now. Her life had been fighting coyotes before her rescue; sometimes I wonder if she just can’t find a way to rest. Either that or this warm mush diet rocks.
Most Improved Dog goes to Moose, the corgi, also a foster. He came off his puppy Prozac, his collar still frightens him, even though we stopped the electroshock therapy, and he’s detoxing from his strong meds and over-correcting people. The darkness is slowly getting lighter. I no longer have to lock myself in the bathroom to put my socks on. Rehab continues; he was doing well but then relapsed when we had workers in the house for a couple of weeks. He tore the linoleum off the bathroom floor. That was fair. They made me crazy enough to have a relapse myself.
It was a hard year for losses to our home herd. We said goodbye to Hank, the elderly toothless cat who fought vermin and intimidated dogs well past his prime. And Walter, the Corgi rescue with an operatic bark and a lure coursing title, whose short life was surrendered to chronic liver ailments. To the Grandfather Horse after thirty years of excellence, carrying me over rough ground until I had my footing. It’s easy to see how fortunate we are here, isn’t it?
It’s common sense that with so many animals, we’d have more frequent passings, as well. You’d think that it would get easier to say goodbye. I can remember a time, a perfect summer, when every animal on the farm was young and strong, and I had a season of almost invincible confidence. Even then I was aware of the fragility of life and grateful for every sunset.
In truth, I think the process of dying is a constant and not a special occasion in any way. I’d do better to make friends with it. After all, there’s a twenty-two-year-old llama in the south pasture that’s bound to slow down one of these years and a fifteen-year-old dog sleeping under my desk as I write.
Most of us are linear thinkers trained to see time as a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a straight flat precision. I prefer Vonnegut’s concept of being unstuck in time. I want to think all the moments happen simultaneously, so as the Grandfather Horse drew his last breath, we were galloping the old airstrip when he was five. It doesn’t take a fleck of the pain away, but I do it for selfish reasons. This way the last moment has less power.
Yes, mourning is a good thing. Our beloveds deserve that affirmation that they’re loved and missed and worthy of our tears. And after the cards and condolences, after our friends forget, the beloved memory lingers. There’s a hang-time for loss. It can circle around and ambush us when we least expect it and then the smart thing to do is just give in and have a good screaming cry. Nap during the day. Feel sorry for yourself. But beware: it’s just in this moment that we must be the most careful.
Because if we let that moment of loss have too much power, then death gets as loud as an overbearing house-guest and we can become afraid of having an open heart. Afraid of rescue puppies and cranky old donkeys and our own mortality.
“What good are they if they are just going to die on us?”
What a stupid question. What good are your parents, then, or great philosophers or authors or artists? Religions can debate terminology but the spiritual truth is undeniable: Life is a continuum and even when the landscape appears barren there is life everywhere.
Most animals do have shorter lives than humans, but what if that isn’t wrong? Not just that the design of this Circle of Life isn’t wrong, but also that death isn’t the villain. It’s like railing against gravity.
Then, by adjusting your perspective and making a conscious choice, experiencing loss can be a path to insight and even inspiration. Wouldn’t that give purpose to the lost life as well as our own?
So now I reserve the warmest run in my barn for a lost elder who needs a soft place to land. I do it in memory of my Grandfather Horse but I’m the one who benefits by staring down death and loss. When you screw together your courage and look it straight in the eye, it just doesn’t deserve the same respect that a skanky old donkey does.
Maybe the problem is that we’ve lost our sense of proportion. None of us humans are getting out alive either. There is nothing remarkable about death. It’s sad and ordinary and as common as dirt.
Yes, it’s been a rough year. Winter encourages us to contemplate the dark and the landscape chimes in with agreement. But even now the days are getting longer and the sun is coming back to us. Death will always be a part of life, but we can put it on stall-rest and get about living life in a way that honors those who have gone ahead.
As long as we breathe, there’s promise in a New Year and that’s worth celebrating.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm