“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” — Marcus Aurelius
Yesterday, we went on our evening walk and discovered a two-day old gosling that had been abandoned by it’s family. After following it around for over an hour, observing a man sic his dog on it, a blue heron circling overhead and an adult goose attacking the heat-seeking chick, my boyfriend looked at me and said, “If we don’t do something, it won’t last the night.”
We took the tiny bird home for the night, planning to drop him off at the wildlife sanctuary first thing in the morning. The gosling huddled up in the corner of the box closest to the space heater, ignoring the food and water, endlessly calling out for it’s mother.
When I woke up, the gosling was sprawled chest-down on the bright yellow towel in the big cardboard box. I know that we all we could to save the small creature, but I still felt sad. Sometimes our best efforts aren’t enough.
Spring is a period of new life, but an abundance of life only propagates the circle of life. Birth is inevitably followed by illness, predation or survival. The death of one creature spells a few more breaths for another.
We have a colony of ground squirrels living in our yard, whom I’ve dubbed the Nibbles family. Ever since the city chopped down their overhead bodega, I’ve been tossing them walnuts and vegetable scraps every few days. Then, last week I noticed a small, furry corpse beneath the critters’ favorite tree. I tried to wrap my head around what may have happened. The likeliest answer is that it was simply his time. Death is a part of life. Reality isn’t always kind.
“People talk about ‘the odds’ of one thing or another happening. I was the 0.000015%. Probability is a poor measure in my book.”
When we first began dating, my boyfriend explained some of his health history and how several factor put him at risk for early death. I knew then and I know now, but love doesn’t hinge on logic, now does it?
On one of our walks this week, my sweetheart pulled my in tight and quietly whispered, “I love you.” I could sense something was bothering him, so I probed. When he finally found words, he expressed his fear of losing me. Not of me leaving him, but of something beyond our control snatching me away too soon: a car accident, malignancy or the cruel hand of fate.
The conversation continued down a meandering path, finally landing on the topic of cognitive decline. The wife of his good friend developed early-onset dementia and had to be put in a home after several attempts on her own life. Imagine waking up a stranger on your own body, a stranger to your life.
My boyfriend insisted that if he ever reaches that state, I should put him in a home, continue on with my life and visit him once a year on his birthday. “You know I couldn’t do that,” I replied, “even if you hadn’t a clue who I was.”
It’s a devastating thought, living even a moment without the person you intend the spend the rest of your life with. Yet, perhaps facing mortality–our own and that of loved ones–is all a part of the journey through life. Perhaps illness in an invitation to know ourselves. We are all terminal, hooked by the same gravitational pull which is reeling each of us in towards the same final destination.
While tremendously sad for the loss of these two helpless lives (and the many others beyond my peripheral), I’ve been trying to reflect on the embedded gift. I recently listened to a podcast interview with author Florence Williams, which discussed the benefits of spending time in nature. One of the highlight of my day is spending a few moments watching the ground squirrels, counting baby goslings and observing the sway of leaves in the breeze.
While death–whether my own or that of a life entrusted to my care–may subjectively appear a failure, I know that it’s not. Life is the cyclic transfer of energy. If fauna and flora lived indefinitely, there would be no energy released for further creation.
In addition, observing death is an opportunity to look outward in order to reflect inward. It’s a chance to practice gratitude and to tune into the fine intricacies of our universe. Furthermore, it’s a chance to look at our lives, reflect on our own mortality and ask, “Is this how I wish to spend the rest of my days?” And, if the answer is “no,” therein lies a choice–a possibility for change.
This brings to mind the stoic phrase memento mori, which translates to, “remember that you will die.” On several instances during the last week, death has arrived at my door and demanded I look him in the eyes and acknowledge his presence. I’ve been engaged in an internal dialogue for days. With it has come a sense of peace. Parents, pets and partners may leave the world as we know it before we do. It’s inevitable. And yet there is some level of comfort in the inevitability. We must all bide out time, making the most of our circumstances. When we know our ultimate fate, there is no need to waste time in a state of worry. Instead, we can choose to be strategic with our unknown quantity of remaining minutes. We can choose release our attachment to worldly possessions and begin to live our lives with intention and appreciation. In observing death, we can begin to recognize the true beauty of life.
“As one approaches the end, one begins to see life as it truly is.” — Hercule Poroit