Grushenka Turns Final

GrushenkaI lost my beloved German shepherd Grushenka a couple of weeks ago, the family having made the decision to end what increasingly seemed like a hopeless string of hospital visits, unwelcomed medications and transfusions.   She was only seven or eight years old, much too brief a lifetime; at least too soon to say goodbye to that extraordinary, powerful spirit of hers.   We were all so blessed with her presence, and now, out of that sadness arises gratitude for all the joy and complexity she brought to those around her.

Certainly, none of us get out of this life alive, and I’m sure most of my readers have had many losses in their lives.     Nearly all pilots have known fellow pilots, as well as friends and family, who have “gone west.”    Death seems to come in waves, and I’m all too rapidly approaching the age my parents reached when their friends and family members seemed to die off one after another.    I talked to my father about how hard it must have been for him, outliving so many of them.  He was a very sensitive and emotional man, but after a while he became inured to it.   I remember when he heard the news about one of his friend’s passing, he just mildly shrugged, said a brief “hmm,” and went about his business.   At some point, I suppose, it all becomes too much.

There is no way to truly understand death, at least not scientifically.   Science can explain certain aspects of it, but science is ill-equipped to handle the big questions, especially those having to do with consciousness, and what happened before and what happens afterward.  All we really have to understand death are narratives and metaphors.

Sometimes I think about life as if it were the rectangular pattern around an airport.   Grushenka was a rescue dog, so I have no idea how she entered the pattern.  She had a rough upwind leg, struggling with two TPLO (knee joint) implants, but she recovered well, and eventually had a smooth downwind leg, carefree with the wind at her back.

Turning base, she somehow developed an autoimmune disorder, and her red blood cells were constantly being attacked.  For a while, there was some hope, with steroids and transfusions, and she was fighting the crosswinds well.  But eventually, turning final, the headwinds were too much for her, and she seemed to be giving up the fight.   Her landing was forced, as a pilot might say, but the euthanasia, surrounded by her doting family on the spot where she stood guard over the house, made it a good one.  Sadly, this was the one she couldn’t walk away from.



And Who Dies?

images-1More than 150,000 people will die today, according to the CIA (and who better to get our statistics about death from?). I think about dying almost as much as that other thing men think about practically all the time. And frankly, I don’t really understand people who don’t.

In “A Year to Live,” Stephen Levine gives an account of how he lived a year of his life as if it were the last: “One of the first beliefs we come across is that the only reason we imagine we will die is because we are convinced we were born. But we cannot trust hearsay! We must find out for ourselves. Were we born? Or was that just the vessel in which our timelessness momentarily resides. What indeed was born? And who dies?”

What was born? Who dies? Jeez Louise. The conclusion, I suppose, is to question whether that bag of bones we call our selves has anything to do with the essence of who we really are. We are, Levine suggests, timeless.

This is a compelling thought, because I have wrestled with the notion of time almost as much as I have wondered what my life would have been like if I wasn’t born with this terrible nose. Time, I have suspected, is the construct that grants our non-corporeal souls the illusion of mortality. Yup, I really meant to say mortality, because that is the illusion at least as much as immortality is. (I am not a big fan of Newtonian time, which suggests that there really is such a thing. I am closer to Kant, and think that time is primarily that thing that humans create to aid their quest for survival. Sequencing events allows us to predict more accurately, and the more accurate our predictions, the more likely our arrow will end up in the bison.)

As I age, I cling more to life than I did when I was younger and had more of it left. That thing I cling to, of course, is my corporeal life, because as much as I might believe in an afterlife, I don’t know whether it is going to look more like Tahiti or Detroit. And that clinging is certainly a bad thing, because sooner or later I am going to have to let it go, and I am so ill-prepared.

There was a very brief reality TV series back in 2006, an American adaptation of a British series called “The Monastery,” in which a group of 5 men from LA was sent to live in a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico. In one episode, the men were taken to visit the hermit, which was a very honored role within the monastery. One of the LA businessmen asked the hermit what he did all day, and the hermit said incredulously, “preparing to die.” The businessmen looked at each other, puzzled, and one of them finally said to the hermit something to the effect of, “Doesn’t that seem like a waste of time?”

To that, the hermit responded crisply, “I can think of nothing in life more important to do.” The LA businessmen chuckled uncomfortably. Maybe they had more important things to do.