Mortality is the only way to go


Gracie was the softest. Softest skin, softest coat. Softest eyes. That's the way of puppies. They hook you on their softness, and then their playfulness, and that's how Gracie reeled in our whole family.

She scooted out the front door on Monday, ran across the yard barking at a woman on the other side of the street. Seconds later she was in front of a pickup truck, then under it with a sickening thud, then under the back wheel. She rolled over and began to run back toward me, drunkenly, and I thought that she might be okay, despite her panicked yelping. I picked her up and she quieted as I carried her back to the house. I felt my leg go warm and looked down to see that her bladder had emptied down my leg.

She didn't make it of course, and the whole family was devastated. It's impossible to gauge the importance of a puppy on children until something like this happens. And what can you say to a broken-hearted kid? There's no reason she died, no noble cause, no teaching-learning moment. It's just the dark painful side of being born.

Because of Gracie, I've been making connections. Connections like the recent news of Natasha Richardson's head injury on the beginner's ski hill in Montreal. It was just another random accident, and there was no purpose to her death either. She's left a hole in the lives of her two children and famous husband, but she'll soon be forgotten as the media moves to other stories.

When death comes close to you, though, you don't forget. When someone or something close to you dies, a black hole opens in your heart and never seems to close over. And as you get older there are more black holes as more friends leave. I'm not sure it gets any easier, and I think many people harden their hearts along the way.

It's different when you're young. I can still remember my first taste at age 16 when someone I knew from high school dances, Carol McCutcheon, was killed instantly when her boyfriend's car crossed a level crossing and got hit by a locomotive. Entire high schools grieved for her. I know we all wanted to grieve, and there were tears everywhere, but in reality it all felt so unreal. I'd felt far more shock and heartache, when at age 6, my first dog was hit and killed by a delivery truck. I blamed that driver for years, and mourned that scruffy dog for a decade or more.

Since then there've been a lot of gaps. In my early 20s I was having tea with my girlfriend's grandmother when she quietly died of a heart attack. Ten years later my photographer got off work early one Friday afternoon with friends, had a few drinks and on the way home their driver wrapped the car around a tree. He was in the passenger seat up front. He lasted for three weeks in a coma, then drifted away. A decade later my brother died of cancer leaving behind a young family. After that a very close friend of mine died in her early 50s of a brain tumor. In the last few years two more friends died, both from pancreatic cancer. In between all my grandparents passed away. Their passing came with less aching, they were older after all, but the gaps are still there.

Somehow I thought that I'd left all this behind when we moved east. But that hasn't been the case. Both Sharon's parents died within the space of a year. And three acquaintances of mine have passed on: Chuck Schom, a scientist, ecologist and whale watcher, Wilfred Carter, a biologist and internationally recognized salmon conservationist, and Hank Mulder, web designer, long time computer science guy and writer. Although very different men who died at different stages of life, all were very unique, very special. Of the three I had more dealings with Wilf Carter, and I am sure I am not the only one who would characterize him as an exceptionally fine and gentle man.

Standing there with Gracie dying in my arms, I didn't want to feel anything. My defenses were up; I'd been through all this before. I thought about the truck driver, that woman standing across the street and how Sharon and the kids were going to feel. By the time we took her home from the vet's and quietly buried her in the woods between the tiny shoots of crocuses piercing the wet ground, I'd let down my guard, and it all came pouring in, or pouring out. Not just for Gracie, but all the life I'd lost.

It's kind of fitting, I suppose, to have these thoughts on Easter week. I grieve like a Christian; I was raised with the crucifixion and the resurrection and the whole thought of redemption. If I were raised a Buddhist, I'd be getting rid of my attachments to ego and to this life of suffering. Instead of affirming my attachment to redemption, I'd be seeking the negation of attachment. I'd be a different person, differently attached to life.

There are important distinctions between cultures, I think. We post-Christian Christians are still trying to “save the world”. Or Eastern brothers and sisters don't see it the same way at all. The world is not there to be saved—it is there to be transcended. To them the world is a place from which they (we all) escape. And that's a significant spiritual shift. I imagine that post-religious Eastern people still have that paradigm of escape and transcendence hardwired into their collective nature.

So I wonder, is grief different for them? Are they less attached to their families and lovers? I don't know. Not being a sociologist, I couldn't say. My own take on it is simply this: under the cultural veneer, I think all human beings, in fact all living things, share a strong bond to this short life and the things in it that are close to them. How could it be otherwise? We all long to be attached in the deepest way. The real disappointment is not death, but the failure to live these small mortal lives of ours to the wildest, craziest, absolute fullest extent.

This one's for you Gracie dear. Night night.


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