Unlikely Teachers

Democracy aside, this past year has been a bitch. I feel fortunate that I am fortunate at this point in my life… and by ‘fortunate’ I mean that I am relatively healthy and somewhat secure. Some people might be more demanding of life but I am not. Enough to get by has always been enough for me. That’s probably because I learned early that life is kind of shit show and that I probably shouldn’t expect too much from it. That attitude does not come from having any difficulties with not being provided for as a child; I was provided for. The roots of my dissatisfaction — like most roots — are in deep, dark places. While having no money can force people to do things that are not so good in order to survive, having way too much money can allow people to think that they can do whatever they want… and some of them do… and those are the people from whom I emanate. They suck. They’d probably be willing to sell their souls to the devil in exchange for pretty much anything because… a soul, y’know… if you can’t sell it or spend it what good is it?

Thank heaven, all those people are now dead; I couldn’t be more relieved about that. I’m old, and walking down that road myself now and, frankly, glad to be. Even if the world… nah… never mind that thought, people are people are people. I don’t see the world changing until humanity is off of it. We seem to be a seriously flawed, self-destructive species.

I have had, in my time, though, supposed caretakers aside, many wonderful pets, mice, gerbils, cats and dogs. Good animals, all. Saying good-bye to them was sad every time. Perhaps it’s because I had such a bizarre relationship with my parents and grandparents that when my parents and grandparents died, and I knew for sure that they were off the planet, I was not sad. Au contraire. My mother was the last of the batch to die. I cried for bit when I got the news but those were tears of relief. The nightmare was officially over.

It wasn’t until November of this past year when, at the tender age of 73, I discovered what it felt like to grieve a person’s death. My sister — fourteen months younger than I, and who had shared with me a good deal of the childhood abuse that I’d been subjected to — allowed herself to die, refusing to be treated for blood poisoning. She’d had a tough life; much tougher than I, having been declared schizophrenic when she was around eighteen. She joined the Hare Krishnas in her early twenties and we didn’t see each other for decades, but after our mother died and her “income” disappeared, my husband and I stepped in to care for her. She and I got to know each other again before she decided that she’d had enough. She was the first human being in my life to die for whom I had ever felt grief.

A month later one of our two cats nobly, if shakily, walked off to die in the woods. It was heartrending and it was beautiful. I was amazed by her strength and tremendously proud of her for knowing what she wanted and how she wanted to handle it. And I grieved again.

On Labor Day weekend, nine months later, it became apparent that her brother, Nipper, was going to be leaving as well. He seemed to be in a great deal of discomfort. He had not been eating. He drank a lot of water, but never urinated very much at all. I suspected kidney failure at the very least. After a few consultations with knowledgeable people we decided that euthanasia was probably best for him… I was loathe to let him go. After the vet shaved his leg to find a vein where he could place the needle, he drew a quick deep breath and pulled back from the table.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said softly, still staring at the tranquil cat lying on his table. “I can’t understand how he is even alive.”

I looked down… beneath the fur, his skin was like parchment; there was not a trace of moisture in it. I felt as if my heart was going to collapse. The doctor left the room to let my husband and I say goodbye. It was one of my saddest goodbyes to a pet because I could see how Nipper’s death affected my husband who had known this guy almost twice as long as I had. He loved Nipper and I could feel his pain of the loss as well as my own. My daughter had suggested that Nipper had been staying alive for us… it certainly seemed, based on what we had just observed, as if he had.

When we got home, we carried him to the place I call the Sacred Circle. It is a spot in the woods, not too far from our house, where I have taken many small creatures to rest and where my sister’s ashes are as well. My husband created a space for Nipper in the ground; I placed a towel in the hole for him to rest on and placed another small one over him and then, by hand, we returned the soil to the earth atop his sweet body. I have not yet, over a week later, been able to get through a day without crying.

About two months before Nipper died, I had taken another local animal friend to rest in the circle. This one was a turtle from a pond nearby. When the community where I live had been built, the turtle, then already full-grown, was a resident in this pond… that was over twenty-six years ago. He — or she — was the only turtle in the pond. The pond and its’ only visible resident were there before the building started and for the 26 years that our community has been here, that turtle has floated around the pond, rarely coming anywhere near the edge, at least not when anyone has been there to see. It is a small, muddy pond — no place anybody would set foot in unless they had to — and the turtle was a snapper so I’m pretty sure nobody with any sense was going to step into the pond anyway.

About two months ago my husband returned from the pond telling me, excitedly, that the turtle was resting itself on the mud at the edge of the pond… that was something we’d never seen before. He told me to come down, knowing that I would want to see it. I did, and I brought my camera to capture what is probably the only photograph of this wonderful and mysterious creature that exists because it never, never, came out of water where people could see it. Nobody ever saw any more than its’ head and that, at some distance.

The turtle apparently had not moved from where my husband had seen it. I walked carefully as far as I could towards the partially submerged turtle. Our eyes connected and I could see something that looked like exhaustion. I connected on a slightly deeper level to discover if taking a picture would be all right and it seemed to be. There was a kind of an “if you must” energy around the look I got, but for whatever reason, I knew that this was, in fact, something I must do and so I took the picture.

The following morning, after returning from the pond, my husband informed me that the turtle had died and was still exactly where we had last seen it. He also mentioned that he could smell the turtle long before he could see it and it was not a good smell. The day before, there had been no smell other than the usual murky scent of the pond. Then my husband told me, that he had bought the turtle’s body back with him so that I could take it to the Sacred Circle… but that when he had picked the turtle up, its’ body had literally fallen apart!

He gave me the large black plastic trash bag in which he had placed what had once been the turtle and, indeed, it felt not so much like any kind of an animal as like a bag of guts and it smelled even worse than I could’ve imagined. I handled it as gently as I could, emptying the remains onto the ground inside the circle. As a rule, I allow the woodland animals to simply return to the earth there and, in this case, I knew that would not take long. Between the necrophagic insect life, raccoons, squirrels, and birds, most small creatures I take there are dispatched fairly efficiently.

It seemed correct to place the turtle much as it would’ve been in life. That way, too, insects would have easy access to processing the “meat” of the creature, most of which was no longer even attached to anything much. Days later I returned to discover that some ambitious and, likely larger, creature had attempted to drag the rather large shell out of the sacred circle, so I re-positioned it to allow nature and her friends do the work.

After about two weeks I returned again to the circle to see how the processing was going and to collect whatever bones there might be for possible re-use in shamanic art of some sort. I was astounded to discover that the majority of the bones crumbled in my hands. There was no structural integrity whatsoever. The bones were like sand that somehow had held itself together. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. The bones with the most strength were those of the spine and the skull was fine, as was the shell.

Like Nipper, this turtle had been alive when, technically speaking, it should not have been. I was in awe when I considered what life must have been like for a being in that condition. It put all of my personal discomforts into perspective in a flash. My heart still aches with grief… my mind is still outraged by how easy it has been to coax the flames of racism in this country into a political weapon… but now I re-mind myself of these two noble creatures who were, well beyond all odds and possibilities, performing the functions they had been designed to perform, fulfilling their roles as part of the network of life on earth. I have been humbled.

Nipper rests in peace in the woods now… and so does some of the turtle… but, having determined that we are not in a position to take on other dependent lifeforms at this late stage of our lives, I have given the turtle’s shell and skull a place of honor in our home. Turtle has been granted Pet Status and named Valiant, ever present in our lives now to remind us that we are each here for some reason and that we can probably endure more than we suspect that we can.



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