Walk #13: The Life in Death

A couple of hours before sunset, my wife and I drive along a four-lane thoroughfare in our town and on the side of the road in a twisted heap is the body of a dead deer. It appears to be a doe, an adult, and, by the looks of it, it may have been there for several days. It’s a grotesque sight, sad, disturbing. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania where seeing a roadside dead deer is not unusual. The population is plentiful in those hills and valleys, in the forests of pine and maple. Still, considering it there—its eyes open and its contorted lifeless body—is distressing. At some point, crews will come to carry away the remains.

I’ve never buried a deer, but I’ve been a part of the burying a number of other animals. Cats and dogs, as many as seven, I believe, are under the dirt in the backyard of my boyhood home. My first dog, a Collie given to me by my grandfather when I was just a few months old, is buried at the top of the hill in the front lawn where a towering evergreen once stood. Most recently, before Sam, I held the quivering paws and bodies of two dogs as they died on the floor in our kitchen, one passing one year after the other. Age took both. I have the ashes of one of them in a square plastic container.

Death is on my mind as Sam and I step out for a quick hike around the neighborhood. It’s a late Saturday afternoon attempt to get the blood flowing. Beautifully clear and cool. A perfect late spring day. So why think of death? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the deer. All the dead animals. And for whatever reason, oddly enough, my late sister has been in my thoughts. She came to me in a dream the other night, laughing after telling me a joke about a truckload of penguins. It’s a joke I know well; it was one of my father’s favorites. Guy is driving a truck full of penguins. The truck breaks down. He gives another guy with a different truck $20 to take the penguins to the zoo. Later, the first truck driver sees the second walking in front of a mall with all the penguins marching behind him. Hey buddy, he asks, I thought I told you to take these penguins to the zoo? I did, he answers, I had some money left over so I thought I’d take them to the movies. In the dream, my sister is in full belly laugh. And I am, too. Happy. The next day, in the light of the real world, I write a song about my sister, simple chords on a guitar. It comes to me in less than an hour. My sister died nearly two years ago. Sometimes death and all it means to us, the full significance we initially do not fully grasp, is hiding away deep in our hearts, revealing itself only when it believes the time is right.

Sam and I head south and then east on our familiar streets, and in my head I am singing the melody of my sister’s song. It’s good that it’s there. And at the corner of the first cross street, on the concrete sidewalk, at a peculiar and strange time for such a sighting, I see another dead animal. It appears to be a field mouse, or maybe a mole. I’m not sure. It’s brown, almost black, and small enough to fit in a child’s palm. Sam pulls me toward it and takes a quick sniff before I am able to yank her away. As curious about death as all of us, I assume. A predatory bird has not mangled the mouse or mole; it shows no signs of a collision with a car or a child’s bike. What killed it? Why is it here? I use a small branch that has fallen from a nearby tree and push its tiny body into the parkway grass, a less harsh place than hard cement.

We walk north on the parallel street, and Sam violently shakes her head. It’s a familiar shudder, forceful enough to rattle the metal tags on her collar. She has been shaking her head regularly lately. My wife and I think it’s something to do with her ears. So, I regularly clean them and use drops from the vet that will help if there’s an infection, although there are no signs of this. But on this day, probably because death is on the mind, I wonder if what is making Sam shake is more serious. The vet doesn’t think so, but does the vet know everything? And am I doing enough? Am I not paying attention?

I tighten Sam’s leash and scratch her back. “Don’t have a brain tumor on me,” I insist.

Sam shakes again.

I ask her to sit. She does. And I lift one of her ears.

“What is going on in there?”

I slip an index finger inside and wiggle it around. Sam is amazingly tolerant of my poking and prodding. Nothing on my finger, the ear is clean. I kneel to look closer. No redness or signs of irritation, just like earlier investigations. Sam remains still, her eyes now shifting to see me. She must know I’m concerned. She must know I’m trying to help.

We head farther north, then east, south, and west again. Surprisingly there are few people outside on such a sweet day. The sun is warm, but the air is cool. The breeze is steady. And Sam steps proudly into it, young and alive. And all the way home, she never again shakes her head, not thinking of her curious condition, her ailment, and certainly not about death. For what does she know of such things?

It’s been said that one thinks of death more often as one ages. It’s somehow hardwired. Natural. So, I guess I’m not so morbid after all. But Sam is just two years old. Fourteen in dog years. And like a teenager, she thinks only of her invisibility. Mortality is a ghost.

Scientists say that in the final thirty seconds of life, we systematically fall away, first losing our sense of self, then our memories and language short out, until we are left with only a shell. But a most recent study suggests our brains actually know when we are dead. There’s evidence that some brain waves are still at work several minutes after we are clinically gone. Still, death remains a mystery and a fascination. And yes, as my mother said, a part of life. I wonder, though, what the dead are thinking today as Sam and I turn up the walkway to our home. Are they watching us as we walk in the sun? As the poet Billy Collins wrote, are they looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven? Is the dead mouse thanking us for moving its body to a more restful place? Is the dead deer still calling out for dignity, for its body to be moved away from the violent rush of cars and big trucks? Is my sister still telling her joke? And are all those dead dogs of my past are insisting I get Sam to the vet to again have her ears checked? I wonder if it is not the point of life to think about death. For those who think of it most often, are they not more liberated from all the unimportant irritations of life, all the insignificant things we allow to overtake us? Once we understand death, don’t we know better how to live?

Sam is happy about our walk, as she always is, and happy to be home, too. She’s happy to be with me. She’s happy to slurp the water from her bowl, happy to be offered a doggie treat, happy to get a scratch under her snout. Maybe she knows a lot more about death than I ever would have believed. For maybe accepting the end comes when you discover all you have is the present.

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