Sitting with Death
In one week, our total animal-count when from six to two.
Upon getting back from Christmas, we found three chickens dead and interrupted the raccoon in killing the fourth. We'd pulled into the driveway around 9pm, and we were sitting in the car, the boy asleep in the back, the engine off, talking. I heard a sound — it didn't register. Heard it again: what is that? Heard it again — realized it was a chicken — realized we have the only chickens around here — realized chickens don't normally do any squawking after dark —
So I was out of car and through the garden gate, stomp-crossing the yard, scream-bellowing to scare it off so I wouldn't have to fight it off. I saw the raccoon. Then Chamomilla burst out of the bushes. Boots was running up behind me then, thought she was the raccoon and threw a kick at her as she streaked by.
I found her a few minutes later at the far corner of the yard, huddled into the arbor vitae. Later I found Boudicca huddled even deeper in. They slept in the garage that night. Henrietta (just outside the coop, half-eaten) and Maple (under the wood pile at the other end of the yard, a carcass) slept underground, where they're now buried. Ingrid — savvy, street-smart Ingrid the Wise, who had already survived one raccoon attack in her lifetime — was not to be found. She must have been the first. She left only feathers.*
* One year later, the neighbor told me he saw a chicken carcass a block up the street around that time, hit by a car. So, maybe Ingrid wasn't eaten after all.
Anyway our flock of five is now a flock of two. It's our fault, not locking them up at night.
The same week, Mr Macready died: our black and white, recently-diagnosed diabetic cat. He stopped eating and drinking shortly after Christmas and lay in the house, looking first sweet and cheerful, then preoccupied and weary. He got one last afternoon of winter sunshine on the deck, a final nap. I brought him inside when the sun went away, and he didn't get up again. The next morning, he was dead.
So we have been talking about death. My boy tells me, "Purple died." Or he asks, "Where's the kitty?" Or says, "Ingrid died." We answer him in straight, simple language and pull no punches. We don't hide our feelings. We also don't assume a set of feelings for him; we let it be to him whatever he feels it to be. He's sometimes reverent, sometimes matter-of-fact and unfazed; he was a little scared when first he saw the dead kitty. He spent some time cheerfully brushing him as we dug the hole.
We buried Mr Macready across from the barn on the in-laws' land, where once he was young and happy. Laid in the hole with his collar and brush and catnip, he looked like a netherworld king ready to sail.
I'm not afraid of death.
I don't say it lightly. My brother died when I was 13, and my entire inner life has been shaped by that event.
When death comes to sit with you in the room, I think the best thing you can do is look back at it, treat it with respect, as a guest, and be honest. Those days as the cat lay dying, it was a gift to comfort him as best we could, and to recognize where comfort could not be given. It was a gift to bring him down to the barn and bury him. Walking through death with another being is a part of the business of living.
There's something a funeral can do, which a "celebration of life service" cannot.
I'm satisfied to have shown my son that death is, that you can look it in the eye with simplicity and feeling, that this is something we do. I'm glad to have sent my animals on with respect.
I'm glad to feel aware of Ingrid's transformation when I walk outside: her movement from a living creature which lived here, to another kind of life ... the life in a raccoon's body, the life received back into the ground. The life intangible in the air outside our window.
Death is sometimes a grinding, rending thing; anyone who thinks they've figured it out is bound to think otherwise someday. Yet a girl can dance with a dragon before being devoured and give her comrades courage. The dance may kill us, but we do know the steps. We mustn't forget the steps.