Sunday, December 25, 2011

Carol and me

Part 3/3 of Lady's story. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

Carol and I could not stand there long, and we moved inside to lie down in her old bedroom and cry in each other's arms. At thirty-four years old, I am very old for this to have been my first real experience with death, which in part explains the strength of my own reaction. I knew Lady when she was healthy, when she got sick, and when she died. I knew her life story and all her relevant details. I couldn't say all these things for any person that I can recall, unfortunately. I had spent some time with my paternal grandparents when I was young, but I was living far away when they died, I had not seen them for years, and I was not able to travel for the funerals.

So it was a strange new sensation to realize there is tension at such a time, between caring for the living and the dead, or more properly, between caring for the bereaved and seeing that other people's needs are still met. Carol's father was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery, Lady needed to be put to rest, and Carol's brother and grandmother needed lunch. Carol is hit hardest, but it hurts me as well. I need to care for Carol, and Carol needs to care for others. I can help her, but I can not take over all her duties; she is the only one in her family fluent in English.

We took Johnson out for lunch, brought food home to Grandma, and took Johnson to visit Allen in the hospital, before returning to Lady. She had to be wrapped up for delivery to the humane society, but Carol and I were exhausted from the combination of grief and the tedium of having to continue caring for everyone else. Part of me could not bear to walk away from her bedroom and take care of business, but I was able to recall a pertinent phrase we have all come to recognize from novels and films: "We must care for the living." I suppose it is a good thing that such a phrase cannot be insistently and callously delivered, in the manner of Spock. My voice caught when I said it, but such reticence makes us human.

I wrapped Lady in a pair of towels and laid her in the back of my car. I was for the first time able to develop some sense of why we feel fear in connection with corpses. Perhaps it is merely an evolutionary advantage, as corpses carry disease, but that only explains selection, not how such a fear is constructed in the first place. I realized that for all my philosophical materialism, a mammal, a person, a pet, is still more than a thing to me, while it is alive. But I looked down at Lady as I struggled to wrap up her unyielding body, as I retched from the smell of her last messy bowel movement, and shook the drops of urine off the sheet I had temporarily wrapped her in, I realized that Lady was not in there any more, which meant that this thing was not Lady's body, it wasn't Lady at all. It was just a thing. And that was horrifying.

Her eyes, permanently fixed open, were unhelpful. They did not stare, they did not accuse me, but I realized that there is a practical reason I see people in movies quickly close the eyes of corpses the moment the anima is gone: you'll want it done eventually, for your own comfort, but if you wait for rigor mortis then it will be too late. And in my horror I realized the open eyes must have meant that Lady was awake when she died.

Oh, how I wish I had spent more time with her, that last night! How I wish I had just brought her to our house for the first time, on her last night alive, so she would not die alone in the cold. But how can you know? How can anyone ever know?

Beyond my inexperience with death, and my object lesson in it from having to care for Lady's remains, the other source of the intensity of my grief was seeing the effect of the loss on Carol, who I love. By the time we had finished all our duties to everyone besides Lady, and prepared her to be moved, it was 5 PM. The nearest humane society closed at 6, and had asked that we show up no later than 5:30 to fill out paperwork. As we rode in the car, Carol suddenly cried out: "I'll get you there in time, Lady! I'll do this one last thing for you! I won't let you down!" It is this least rational thing that she could say that has been the most moving moment of the past three days, and tears flooded my eyes, momentarily obscuring the other cars and the road from view. I do not think I can adequately explain it. Perhaps it is how such a loss can take away a person's reason. I do not know. I do not mean to say that I thought Carol foolish or stupid. Not at all - even if she actually believed on some level that Lady could hear her or that Lady could feel anything, such as the need to show up on time, that made no difference to me. It was simply a strangely eloquent and impassioned outpouring of her grief.

Carol spends her life making sure she doesn't let anyone down. She has organization, responsibility, punctuality, all those qualities I sneer at. But I confess I have been unkind to her in my thoughts. I have thought of her as not being very good at compassion, caring, human decency. I now realize how foolish I was. Carol didn't only take Lady on over one thousand walks in fifteen years because Lady was a comfort to her. Carol also genuinely cared about her pet's needs and wants and desires, and wanted to make her happy. Whatever her faults, she is a decent human being after all and I should have seen it all along.

The humane society was very busy and while the staff were clearly harried, they were still kind and helpful. Carol said her good-byes, they took Lady away, and we sat in the car for a moment. In the car in the space facing us, were two middle-aged women. One of them was holding a pamphlet. Please, no. As Carol and I sat there, one of them approached her window and knocked on it. I rolled down the window and the woman began speaking, saying she had lost her dog, too. I was pretty sure I could see where this was going, but I prefer not to assume the worst about people; I like to give them a chance.

Carol normally hates being approached by strangers, but she was telling the woman about Lady, so I made no objection and made a few polite noises. An awkward pause arrived, and to help prevent the woman from being a jerk, I said "well, we have to go." But she couldn't resist, and she produced the pamphlet, which made mention of a "virgin birth" on the cover. (Despite the fact that the virgin birth is a meme Christianity plagiarized from many previous religions and legendary figures, I don't think any other group has worked to hard so make it quite such a selling point. Not that I cared which particular superstitious nonsense this loathsome woman was peddling.) "You're being very rude. Taking advantage of a time like this to try to push your religion on someone," I admonished her. "I'm not... I wasn't..." she sputtered. "Good-bye," I helpfully offered, and she mercifully made an exit. She is, and she was. Should it have to take someone pointing it out for evangelicals to realize what a despicable thing they do, preying on the vulnerable? I recalled the words of Christopher Hitchens, who had left us less than a week before Lady. Religion, again, had poisoned everything.

The likelihood that all this comes off as a whiny tale of an overprivileged pair of Americans who have the luxury to lavish so much time and energy and emotion on a mere pet is not lost on me. In the Congo, in Syria, in Palestine, in Bangladesh, today, people are suffering. My girlfriend lost a dog, while human beings are living without freedoms I take for granted and they may lose their lives or the lives of their loved ones to violence and oppression. I know this. In this very country, blacks, women, gays, and transgender people face violence, and institutionalized discrimination; immigrants from the countries to the south face economic oppression, and white privileged guys like me and wealthy Taiwanese immigrants are blissfully unaffected. And yes, the beagle lived a long life. I don't mean to frame Lady's tale as a personal tragedy for me. What I mean to have said is that Lady helped me understand both life and death, and she helped avert Carol from thoughts of suicide and made her a better person.

I have not yet read Martin Rowson's humorously titled The Dog Allusion (referencing Dawkins' seminal The God Delusion), which argues, in part, that people should not keep pets, but it is no longer merely in the abstract that I see that Rowson is wrong - it is good for people to keep pets. It helps prepare us to be good parents, and it helps us understand death. I have come late to this experience, yet I benefit from it, and children surely benefit from it even more.

And now I understand grief better. Carol has repeated several times in the last few days: "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do..." This inspired me to realize, even as I was pointing it out, that "You are doing exactly what you are supposed to do. You don't have to do anything. You have to grieve. There would be something wrong with you if you didn't. I will take care of you."

I have had several very real opportunities in the past three days to play the part of Ricky Gervais in The Invention of Lying. Carol has made comments to the effect that she hopes that one day when she dies, she can see Lady again, and it breaks my heart. I never realized that the scene where heaven is invented could translate into real life so literally. Mostly I have been gracious enough not to respond to these entreaties, but I have gently said, at opportune moments, words like "I believe that Lady is gone, but she lives on in your memories. That is where Lady is now." For the past three days, Carol has mostly referred to Lady in the present tense, but finally, while she was falling asleep for the night, she made some fond comment in the past tense. I think she is beginning to heal, and I do not begrudge her intentions to keep Lady's ashes in an urn in the parlor, and to keep the shades in that front room always open. She will finally be inside, and she will like the sunlight. I understand that Carol merely wishes to be comforted.

I hope I have done well.

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