I’ve been attuned to death lately. As a cancer survivor, and someone that has experienced many times, the loss that death brings, it’s not a scary or uncomfortable topic. My dad and his brother died tragically when I was only 3. My mother died 8 years ago. That same month, my best friend’s dad was killed. My grandparents on my mother’s side are both gone. Two friends recently left this Earth after a struggle with cancer. Another friend this year, to suicide. I’ve been in enough close calls throughout my life in vehicles, airboats, and doing field work, to feel like a cat tallying up its count towards 9 lives.
I have friends deeply involved with the local conservation cemetery that dig graves and manage the land. I got a good sense of that place, when I thought my number might possibly be up, scouting for the best plot. Full sun, so wildflowers could grow. Or maybe in a shady spot, for the comfort of any future visitors to my last little resting spot.
Loving the outdoors, and all the things that fly, crawl, and run, I notice death everywhere. Deer bone remains scattered in the woods, butterflies snagged by a lynx spider, song birds killed from flying into a window, mangled raccoons on the side of the road. I love nature shows, but since childhood and to this day, have trouble watching a prey animal be hunted. I feel horror for them, and see the pain and panic in their eyes. But if they escape, I feel equally horrible for the hungry predator and its family, that may starve to death.
I worked at a vet clinic for many years throughout high school and college, and contributed to lots of animal deaths, holding a beloved family pet in its final moments. I’ve held my own beloved fur balls in their last moments too, shedding tears onto their soft fur and limp bodies.
I know the horrors of factory farming, and have participated in local, small scale humane chicken butchering. I talk to food producer friends, about the challenges of raising and slaughtering their own animals, and dealing with their predators. It’s not easy, and usually fraught with heartache.
I feel grief for the deaths of ecosystems. I remember soaring over this beautiful state in a plane several years ago after a terrible oil leak, weeping for the widespread loss of animals, soil, plants, and human livelihoods. The guilt was not lost on me, that I was flying in a gas guzzling plane that demands the same oil, that was gushing into the Gulf killing everything.
I kill plants all the time, and feel a bit of sadness when I do. Does the kale I raised tenderly from a seed, recoil when I rip it’s stems off, week after week? Recently, when a large oak in our yard had to be removed, I felt an ache and emptiness when standing where it once was, like I had lost a friend. I wondered if the tree, and all the critters living within it had suffered, as chain saws tore through the tissue that took years to build. I don’t know…with all that science is discovering about the sophistication of plants in their environment, I can’t help but feel kinship and responsibility toward them.
Death is just always something I am aware of. But the past couple of months have been particularly heavy with the reminders.
Recently, I had to say good bye to my beloved Arthur Kitty, the famous Squash Cat. In the past 3 days, 3 of our chickens died. One brutally by an opossum which was dreadful to witness, and another after two days of me trying to nurse her to health.
My friend PJ died unexpectedly this week. While we weren’t particularly close, PJ meant a lot to me, and I had assumed we’d be working on projects together for many years to come. He started a little seed library with just a bit of my help and some starter seeds. A man after my own heart! He was just the sweetest person. What the hell.
Today, an acquaintance I see regularly out and about at various events we cross paths at, spent time with me in the sugarcane field (killing plants with a machete). He shared with me that for over a year, he’d been wanting to tell me that the love of his life, died from cancer 20 years ago. He told me their story, both the beautiful parts, and the tragic end. Three squeezes of the hand was their signal to say “I love you”. She gave 3 squeezes in her last moments. He wanted to share this, after reading my blog and learning of my cancer story. I was so grateful he told me, opening up his heart to mine.
I don’t mind all the reminders of death, which is omnipresent and hand in hand with life itself. I don’t mind, because they invoke gratitude, love, and respect for life, at the same time that they leave me feeling broken.
Life’s worth is more tangible and heartfelt, because of death. The sun wouldn’t be as glorious, if it never rained. Flowers wouldn’t be so special, if they were always in bloom. The loss of a friend, a pet, a place, wouldn’t be so painful, if we hadn’t loved them so much.
So don’t miss a chance to express your gratitude and love. You never know when the last time to give or get three squeezes will be.