I’m looking out at my very modest backyard as I write this. I see large trees in yards beyond mine, as well as the various plants and flowers that my wife carefully cultivates. It is fully summer now, and all that nature can impart to our little backyard it is providing.
My dog died three weeks ago tonight, just about this time. Some won’t appreciate the bond that humans can have with animals, so if that is you, you might want to move along. But death is death, it leaves the living asking the same questions.
I think of myself as a writer. Sometimes I think a writer cannot fully experience anything until he has written about it. I write about death, among other things. Mainly, I try to write about the meaning of life. I want life to have meaning, feel there MUST be meaning to it. But pretty ideas and philosophies are put to the test when the reality of death is put in front of us and we cannot ignore it.
There is so much I want to say regarding the recent passing of my dog Bella. It may sound as if I am speaking of personal matters, and I am, but I hope to find universal principles from my experience. When someone, or in my case something, who is very close to you dies, there are many thoughts and emotions that flood through a person. Part of it is loyalty: I would do anything for her. Love doesn’t end with the death of the loved one. But I realize there is nothing I can do for her. I could feel guilty, or miserable, but that would do nothing to help her. She is beyond anything I can do for her, and I’m not done loving her yet.
Part of it is pure selfishness on my part. Part of grieving is dealing with being the survivor. That’s when the guilt sets in, when I realize that my grief is as much about me as it is about her. My grief should be directed to her, not at my own feelings. But again, she is gone. Forever.
Forever. The word hits hard on such occasions. Life is about possibilities, it’s about “maybe if I try hard enough” or “well, not this time, but maybe next time”. Humans aren’t made for ruling things out with absolute certainty. We’re born to be optimists, to believe that we can have whatever we want if we are patient, hardworking and believe. So saying goodbye forever is not natural. Maybe humans just delude themselves, maybe it is only in times of loss that we allow ourselves to see the truth. That everything we love can and will be ripped from us in time. Time is a wheel that crushes all before it.
Death is also a milestone, when we look back at the time we’ve known someone. Fourteen years is a pretty long time, no matter how old you are. As a matter of fact, fourteen years seem more precious to someone who is older. With fewer years to waste, each year becomes more precious. I look back at who I was when I first came home with a little puppy in a cardboard box, think of all the time we spent, of all that has changed in my life in that time. And I see in her passing the passing of all things. Life ticks by us in sections, and here was one big section that is gone forever. One more piece in my collection firmly filed in the past.
I try to write about meaning, but meaning tends to desert us when we experience loss. Meaning doesn’t MEAN anything sometimes, it is an abstract notion that matters little compared to the very tangible losses we experience.
In the end, meaning is not an intellectual but an experiential thing. Reality is too large for us to grasp with our mind. It is only the heart that can truly understand the really big issues of life. I remember being a man in my twenties, visiting an aunt who was dying. I spent the night with another aunt, who was then in her eighties. We spent a good amount of time discussing the meaning of life. She was a good, intelligent woman, but she was about to lose her little sister. She didn’t have any more answers than I did.
Old age will not permit us to understand life and death anymore than youth can. But if a person lives life openly, he will know how it feels. If you leave yourself open to love, pain, and loss, that is as close as you will get to understanding. Do not hide yourself from such things by constructing philosophies or beliefs that seek to explain away what you feel. Feel and do not turn away from the feeling. Embrace whatever feeling you experience, because it as much as anything else is real. Feel, and the experience of it will give you whatever wisdom and understanding is granted to humans.
Shortly before I started writing this, I looked in my backyard and noticed a chipmunk feeding from the hummingbird feeder my wife has by the porch. A few moments later, I looked out the back window to notice a baby bunny sitting in the grass, as well as a bunch of birds bouncing around. I soon returned to my seat just in time to see a cardinal alighting on our fence. With the myriad flowers, the world truly seemed alive. And it was all in my little backyard, the place that my dog Bella reigned over for over fourteen years. There was something about the abundance of life that was occurring that touched a place in my heart. And I understood. I’m sure it sounds silly to you, but I understood.