Juniper & Crow
The essence of Life and Spirit is found in this eclectic land of stone and heat, thorn and spiral. Stories are contained in the watercolors of bone-dry canyons and dusty horizons... These words are a love letter for the vastness of wild land, the mercurial nature of desert creatures and the holy presence of Life transcending constraint.
Unending: A Simple Essay on Death
On Wednesday, I placed a soft blanket on my lap. I invited my cat to be comforted. His breath was labored. His body was clearly shutting down. The will to live is stronger than any other emotion or drive. He wanted to live. He was bewildered. He knew he was losing the battle. He collapsed on the blanket, took two long inhales and let out a long moan that was the end of his life. The sound of death is perhaps unlike any other. The sound of that sigh – I cannot describe. Poetry has no language here - my words utter only stupid rhetoric. To experience this is more than can be expressed, but I try. I try because it is vastly important to me to know what death is and to not hate life for its cruel finality. Right now, it is difficult to feel peace with this life. I struggle to understand why - despite the ache of the body and the deep, known suffering - the will to live is so strong. When he passed, it was not like some say, this ethereal light leaving. His eyes shone bright. His body, warm. It was my light that diminished. My eyes were those that shut, unwilling to see the end. I could not sense the sweat and blood, or hear the hum of awaiting insects near the dirt that would cover him.
Most of my life I have been afraid of getting close to anyone. I covered my pain in drugs and alcohol, escape and romance. I hated my body - the body that knows everything - the cells that die and generate, the hold of lonesome evenings, the sharp brutality of disease and ache. Death has been marked in my life with distinct dreams of an understanding my body knew but my mind refused. My paternal grandfather died when I was 16. I remember a dream I had immediately following his passing. He sat in his armchair and warned me of events to come. Later, I would dream of my paternal grandmother who asked me to refute the truth. When I said I would not, her body fell into the earth as I tried to hold her. With each attempt to catch her fall, she fell deeper and farther away from me. My maternal grandfather died a few years ago and I went for a drive along the Sierra Estella mountain range. Somehow I knew he was there, up among those gneiss and schist peaks, looking over the desert valley, a terrain that must have seemed so stark and foreign to him. Whether the Estrella's were the projection of my grandfather's strength, or he was actually there - watching over me one last time - matters little. He was there when I was born. I was to witness his departure. It's an unspoken deal we make in love and community - offering protection only to know there are some things our efforts can never overcome.
I had a great aunt who was a known "seer" - she could predict the deaths and times of death of all those who crossed her path. In her pain, she secluded into a distant land, a land rich with water and wildlife, where she would spend her days cloistered away from the mystical knowledge. When relatives died, she refused to attend the funerals, but would rather grieve in isolation, sometimes stopping to look through the cemetery grounds as one might glance upon something too terrible to name. I have similar feelings about death, dying and mourning rites. Most funerals leave me angry not comforted. I cannot help but feel an emptiness of spirit in the pap said over the bodies of the dead - words, verses and commentary on a life the officiator oftentimes knew not.
This is not an essay on death rites, however. I am not an anthropologist. I do know that there are many ways of celebrating life and death - some of which include keeping the body in the house, posed as they might have been in life, while gatherers "party" in their honor. Sometimes bodies are unearthed a few years later and the bones collected, cleaned and displayed. Our sterile sensibilities would be aghast to see the true nature of death - the letting go of body functions, the released gases, the strange hold of the tongue seeking water...
In my cat's final moments, he insisted on being close to water. I placed his large water bowl next to him. I have heard that the dying seek water - perhaps dehydration is the reason, or perhaps it is the comfort of water itself that compels us to seek it out. In times of distress, I have sought the stillness of a lakeshore, the calamity of ocean waves with their rhythmic thumping against the awaiting body of land. My last trip out into the mountains was a contemplative one. I sat on a wide rock and watched the creek flow beside me. Its sighing song - its endlessness - caused my body to relax.
This world, we are born here and there are so many threats from which we run. As children, we are protected for a while from the stark truth of the turning wheel, the changing seasons. Some of us didn't experience safety even then. But death is an intimacy of one. I will never know what those departed felt or saw during their leaving process. I can only hope whatever it is, is so beautiful, so painfully beautiful, the body resists leaving it.
This is an essay that will remain incomplete. There will be more deaths, more fears. There will be the soft pelt of animals curled into an earthen grave. There will be the dressed and perfumed humans awaiting ceremony and satin. Every day the world lives and dies. In the dead, light disperses. Hopes, dreams and the deepest of bonds fly up and into the beyond. But how do we keep the light from leaving those of us left behind?
I must open my eyes every day. I must not run. It is here; I will learn to become as soft as the spirit, aglow with the fire of feeling everything.
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