Saturday, October 22, 2016

On saying goodbye (when does death arrive?)

The morning arrives still, grey, humid.  Offshore the sea blusters with a coming storm, but here the water is a claude glass, the air full of black flies.  We swat them away as we walk out past the woodpile, up the slight incline to the barn, then along what used to be a fence line to the apple orchard.  The apples aren't any sweeter, but they are redder, and some have begun to fall on the ground.

Past the weedy patch and the mound where the rhubarb grows, past the gangling burr oak with its few clinging brown leaves and then we are there beneath a birch and some spruces: our own private pet cemetery. We stop there briefly to speak to all our gone ones: in 17 years, the litany of names has become very long.  Four dogs and now three cats and the ghost of a fourth haunt this grove, this section of stony earth. Enya, the new dog, who is almost two, sniffs the spot worriedly and then moves on, quickly, down the path to the pond. It is not a good place for living dogs to linger.

We buried our cat Dante there last week, after taking her to the vet for an overdose of sedative. In seconds, her poor stricken body, her paralyzed bent paws and stiff legs, the blind eyes and nictitating membranes that would not close relaxed. She bowed her head as if in sleep and all of the tension drained from her body. Her heart stopped and she was dead.

Sad as we were, as we watched her unfurl into death, we were also relieved, for her pain had become unbearable; despite her paralysis, she had tried again and again to run from what ailed her, only to fall, and her misery to worsen.

We'd had 17 years with her, our "big cat" as I called her, although she had always been small. Still, in the last year, as her kidneys failed, she had become tiny; two weeks ago, her legs weakened and began to stiffen. When I said goodbye to her on my way out the door to work that week, I thought it might be the last time I saw her.

She stopped drinking and eating that day, and because she kept falling, Marike took to carrying her around on a blanket or in her basket. She held Dante all night the Tuesday that I was in Halifax, and then when I came home Wednesday I did the same. We thought she died quite a bit that night, but was clearly still in pain.  Mostly blind, mostly paralyzed, organs failing, her extremities--paws and ears--cold, only her tail still lively, impatient, expressive, switching and twitching, we bundled her in a blanket and took her to the vet, where a needle full of sedative slowly stilled her heart.

But is that when death arrives, when the heart stops or the autonomic nervous system ceases? Or does it settle in by degrees,  as we who are living also let go, and the beloved body cools and stiffens?

I held Dante in my arms and petted her all the way home, speaking softly into that near space where it seemed her spirit, her particular character and being still hovered, touchable, keeping us company. We had not yet released our hold on her singular life, but what had been so lively and so alive without us now remained and shifted inward, circulating as memory and sensation and drifts of kitty fur, sewn through the cushions and corners of our lives.

In this way, she is not yet gone, but nestled into the forms of our gestures and habits. At night, in the dark, I still step carefully, as if she might be nearby, unseen, underfoot--as, in a way, she is. When I wake, I listen for her, sure I'll hear the drop of her paws on the floorboards, her soft purr as she climbs up on the bed, glad to have conscious company in the middle of the night. I put out my hand, curl my fingers around empty space.  Likewise the dog curls on the bench by the fire, nuzzling a stuffed toy, sniffing at it as she did Dante, clearly missing her animal companion.

How does Rilke put it, the character of such missing and the way it shapes our lives? In the Eighth Duino Elegy he writes:

                         Here all is distance;
there it was breath. After that first home,
the second seems ambiguous and drafty...

Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops lingers------,
so we live here, forever taking leave.

So we live here, forever taking leave of our loves--until the days that we, too, will die.

Unlike Rilke, I do not think that we live or die differently from other animals, although he might be right that we tend to busy ourselves with preoccupations, with objects, as he puts it, rather than "that pure space into which flowers endlessly open." But now and then, as death creases us, we too may turn or wake and look, not at life, but at something like being, as its wings beat by our heads. These too are gifts, as if from the dead to the living: look here; see; and hasten not your mourning.

Dante cat died on Thursday 13 October 2016.  She had come to live with us when just a kitten sometime in the fall of 1999, a gift of Nicole Moser, who had heard we needed a mouser. We had two large black dogs at the time, Negrita, a black lab, and Binky, our three-legged wolfdog stray. Dante spent her first three days in the house on top of the kitchen cupboards; on the fourth day she descended, having somehow mesmerized the dogs, and despite her tiny size, whipped them into respect and obedience without ever extending a claw. In fact, that's how she got her name, for as Marike said, she was little, and needed a big name that was easy to hear and to call. Who better than after an exiled poet, who mapped heaven and hell and all of the regions between?

She was wise, scrappy, playful and clever--gave birth to five kittens, instructed Binky how to care for them rather than to eat them, and survived a neighbour's hate and traps, as well as an attack by roaming huskies that killed her daughter and wounded Elisabeth. Until a year ago, she kept the house free of mice and other small critters; she trained all of our dogs to be good to cats, and figured out that if she came and rubbed herself on our computers as we worked, she could be sure of nearly endless petting. She could play good jokes, sticking her paw in our water glasses, or dropping pellets of food in our shoes, and then watching to see how we'd react. And sometimes, when we played ball with a dog, she'd run interference, as if she could catch, but really to interrupt the dog's concentration, and make the ball drop. We'll not soon see her like again.

The Rilke I cite here is from Stephen Mitchell's translation and bilingual edition, Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Random House, 1982): 195, 197.


  1. a good life well lived, well loved. what else is there. a quick death when the time comes. may we all have that much. xo