Have you ever wondered how long it takes to die? Once a guinea pig died in my hands – just like that she was alive and then her teeth jutted out and she was dead. My garden is filled with fish we have fed to death; Rainbow, Sky, Skippy, Goldy, Louly, they are all buried there. It always seemed incredible to me that one minute he or she was rising to the surface, the next he or she was on its side with its tail hanging down.
I remember my ten year old self looking at my grandfather in his coffin and thinking about how we had been taken to the hospital to say goodbye. He was bald and thin and I knew that he didn’t know who I was. My grandfather was an artist – he was a man who found beauty in twigs and mushrooms. He went to church on Sundays, sang hymns while he gardened, and his home was covered in icons that came from the rodyina- the mother-land, and paintings of Northern Ontario he had worked on in his basement. He was going to Heaven, I was told. And even though I never had the chance to ask him, my ten-year-old self decided he must have been sad. Later at the funeral my grandmother caught me slumped over and staring at him in his coffin and asked me if I was bored and truthfully, I was. I wish they had let me see him when he was sick, when he was still fighting, when he forced himself to sing so as not to vomit, when he knocked the concoction he was supposed to drink off the table because he really wanted borsht but knew he couldn’t stomach it. I wish they hadn’t waited to take me when he had begun to die. He died peacefully. Obituaries would be far more interesting if they were about the death itself, but I digress.
One evening a few years ago, I went snow-shoeing on the lake with my daughter. It was the best part of a winter day – no longer sunny but light and gentle. We walked in silence with a mission to get to the island about half a kilometer away. We made it and turned back. When all you do is look down and occasionally out, you tend to miss what might be beckoning you on the right or on the left. So when Jane said, mum what is that I stopped and looked to where she was pointing just to the right. A snow mound I said, but Jane said that snow mounds don’t move so we went over. Jane began to run, well if that is what you call moving quickly in snow-shoes. I watched her kneel down and by now I could see it was a bag and then I heard my sweet daughter cry out and so I began to run as well. Two puppies. Who mum, who does this? I told her to take a puppy and put it in her jacket as did I. We moved as quickly as we could back to our chalet where we hurried in and tucked them under a blanket that was normally draped on the couch to hide the holes the mice had made.
The puppies couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old and we heated milk and soaked bread and tried to feed them. I’ve learned now that when death is around the corner the appetite goes away and Jane’s puppy didn’t want to eat. When I said, Jane you take my puppy and let me take yours knowing what would eventually happen both to the puppy and to Jane, she refused and cooed to the puppy softly. Eventually they fell asleep and when Jane awoke the puppy was dead. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep she quietly said. Look Jane, this one is alive and wants you. And in that brief second, I watched a piece of Jane both die and come back to life.
And so the puppy lived with us and we told the story of finding her over and over. Jane grew older and eventually left the puppy that is now a dog. Karma sits under the dining room table as I type and commit my memories to this screen. The screen stares at me – more demanding than a mirror. It is impatient for more and more and I can only give what I can on any given day. Karma is patient and loving and even though she is almost blind and covered in bumps I cannot quite bring myself to saying, it’s time.
You may want to know what happened to the dead puppy and what we did with her on that cold winter day, but really it is the one who lived that we should talk about. It’s like this morning when I was driving on the highway and ahead of me I could see that both lanes were covered in blood but the cars just raced through. I slowed down and followed the blood to a terrible dark beast lying on the side of a road. A bear, a cub. And now I wonder about the mother not knowing where her cub is and whether she is alright or sitting and crying. But of course she isn’t alright and nor will she ever be – she too has begun a slow death. And in my head I write the obituary for that terrible beast, the baby bear.
On November 3rd 2013 Bear was killed in a hit and run accident on Highway 30. She had been following her mum, but stumbled half way across. She was dragged for twenty feet and then flung to the side. All that remains is a blood stained section of the highway, her torn body and the cries of her mother hiding in the bush. We hope she died on impact, but we can never know how long it actually takes to die.