And Death Shall Have No Dominion

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.”

Dylan Thomas, 1933

The Pasatiempo magazine comes every Friday with the local newspaper’s end of the week edition—the New Mexican’s “Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment and Culture.”  Needless to say, with two yearling giant sized puppies hell bent on destroying my house, I don’t get out much.  But I do like to browse the magazine.  What caught my attention today was not the local events profiled inside, but rather the advertisement on the back cover:  “An Open Letter to the Citizens of New Mexico.”  The full page ad detailed a place called Orion’s Peace Camp and Learning Center.  As it turns out, Orion Strong was a boy who attended the Peace Camp in 2005 as a seven year old.  In 2013, at his eighth grade graduation, Orion received an award presented to the student who best exemplified the concept of selfless service and for his commitment to being drug and alcohol free.  On November 10th, 2014, the ad stated that “Orion earned his angel wings after a 17 month battle with leukemia. Before he transitioned, Orion asked those who want to honor and remember him to do something to uplift the community.”  Earned his angel wings?  Transitioned?  Why can’t we just say “He died.”?   Because, as the poet Rilke said, “Der Tod ist gross.”   Death is huge.  And when it happens to a child, it is unthinkable and unmentionable.

Tuesday, October 25th would have been my nephew’s 21st birthday.  He died on August 30th while away at college, about to begin his junior year.   He was articulate, intelligent, handsome and beloved by his classmates.  To celebrate his birthday, his friends and peers gathered at a harvested wheat field near the college in eastern Washington state.  In the photographs, the wheat chaff is yellowed and lifeless against the ground and there is a roiling gray sky.  There is a storm coming—one can feel it.  His friends hold balloons, each emblazoned with a message for their lost friend. The barometric pressure rises, creating an intense feeling of suffocation. And then the balloons are gone, risen to the ether while his friends remain behind to grieve.  There is a strange light in the horizon.  It is dusk, but it seems like dawn.  And death shall have no dominion.

I am sure that two years later, Orion Strong’s family is still grieving.  And I am certain that we will be grieving the death of my nephew in every year to come as summer gives way to fall, as the leaves turn blazing colors and the nights grow cold.  There is no making lemonade out of lemons when it comes to the death of a child, a brother, a grandchild, a nephew.  We each have to do what we can—my sister will establish a scholarship in her son’s name at his college; I will go back to work to fight cancer and I will make a donation to Orion’s Peace Camp.  And I hope that my nephew’s friends and classmates will remember him and seek help if they are struggling, and lend a hand to their peers that need guidance, and that each and every one of us will resolve to be a little kinder and a little more understanding.  Death is real; death is huge, death is not a euphemism.  But let us all strive so that in the end, no matter how or when it comes: “Death shall have no dominion.”

All Creatures Great and Small

 

“He prayeth best who loveth best, all things great and small.

For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.”   Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

A guest blog, tonight, from my friend Jackie Widen.

 

I find I really don’t like people who don’t love animals.  There, I said it.

 

I find it very odd and strange that the bonds we share with animals; whether they be furry or feathered, do not far out-weigh all the inconveniences (and yes, destruction) that our pets bring to our lives.

 

When I moved to Northern California in 2001 my fiancée was flabbergasted that I was spending $2,300 to ship my 12 year old mutt Lady, our 8 year old orange tabby cat Leo, and a calico-stray-who-adopted-us kitty we named Amigo until we found out that Amigo was really an Amiga, but Amigo still stuck.  The thrifty accountant such as he was proclaimed that we could have bought “all new” pets for that price.  I looked at him in amazement:  you have never truly loved a pet have you?  He admitted that despite owning many pets he had never loved one of them.  Well, I said, that is going to change.

 

The animals were picked up by a courier at my home in Houston in their brand new carriers, flown at night to San Francisco (this was summertime and it was deemed too hot to fly during the day) and then transported by a hired driver from the Cargo area at SFO to our home 60 miles North.  I admit, the last part involving a hired driver was a bit excessive – but for $100 it sounded cheap compared to the other costs of my move; and besides, the 4+ hour drive round trip to San Francisco was not appealing.

 

So the trio arrived safe and sound and settled in.  The dog and orange tabby immediately claimed the new couch.  Amigo claimed my soon-to-be husband.  He was a goner as soon as the routine was established every night when he arrived home from work.  Amigo would meet him in the kitchen, and lead him to his chair where he would sit down and she would curl up in his lap.  He was enchanted.  And he “thought” he didn’t like cats.  I explained that the only people who didn’t like cats were those who hadn’t fallen in love with one yet.

 

Once we had some dinner guests; the wife was preoccupied during the evening playing with our two kitties.  Oh I love cats, she declared.  Really? I said, do you have any?  Oh no, she said, I couldn’t own one.  Why not? I was puzzled.  Because, she explained, if I owned one and it died I would not be able to handle the grief, so I have never wanted to have one of my own.   That conversation has bothered me and comforted me over the years since because there were certain truths behind it – logical reasoning – but the variable in that conclusion is that the love you feel for that animal sustains you after they are gone.

 

These three pets eventually came to the end of their days.  To that Rainbow Bridge as some call it.   For Lady, she had a series of old age maladies — she was 17 - and she struggled to do ordinary things.   I felt hollow as I sat there in the vet’s office when they gave her that final “pink” shot.  But what a good life she’d had; what fun times we enjoyed and what milestones she marked while my 4 children grew up.  More hound than Lab which the Pound had described, she was nevertheless a part of our family until the end.

 

Amigo would love and love until the cancer she fought was just too much to bear.   My husband was the most torn apart by her decline as her need to curl up on his lap was more to keep warm as she had lost most of her weight fighting the disease and it must have felt nice to be snuggled every evening.  When I called him from the Vet to let him know the “pink” shot  had been our only alternative he wept on the phone.   As devastated as I felt there was a piece of joy within because he finally understood the bond of a beloved animal.

 

Leo had the best cat life, ever.  In 2008 he rode in our car back to Texas.   What an experience!  After living 8 years in Sonoma County, roaming in our vineyard and laying in the vines, he was back to where he started.  He did have a couple of good years.  But then he too reached the end of his rich life and became very sick.  I took him into our Vet who was a very nice young woman, fresh out of Vet School.  She babbled on and on about maybe doing exploratory ultra-sounds to examine the mass in his abdomen that had prompted his weight loss and lack of activity.  Maybe we could do this, or maybe we could have a consult with a Cancer specialist.  I looked at this woman with tears in my eyes and asked “This cat is 16 years old, he has cancer, and he is sick.  If this cat was your cat, what would YOU do?”  She paused and answered “I would put him down”.  I told her that honestly that is the answer most pet owners want to hear – the truth – because making that decision is so hard, and it would be nice to hear the Truth.  She agreed.

 

Later the next year when I brought in some foster kittens that we had found, I talked to her again.  She admitted that she remembered our conversation quite well and it helped her to counsel her pet-owners better.  False hope is useless – and expensive.

 

About a year after Leo passed away I was ready for a new animal.  It was time.  On a cold Sunday in December, my birthday actually, I dragged my husband to an Adoption Event.  I had decided I wanted a Lab.  What God picked for me, instead, was a black Belgian Shepherd who was christened Zoey.  She is the love of our lives.  It is a remarkable thing,  this loving animals.  The colors of life seem richer.

 

So for all of those folks who have avoided the expense, the inconvenience, the mess, the destruction, the fur on the baseboards and poop and puk on the carpets, for all of those awful things that come along with the joy of owning a beloved animal, I say too bad for you.  I’ll take the chaos anytime.  How lucky for us.

This Be The Verse

 “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”   Oscar Wilde

 

I buried my mother on January tenth.  After a long struggle with dementia, she passed away in her sleep.  In the end, my father was too ill to attend a funeral service, so my sister and I had a small graveside ceremony in Aspen, Colorado where they have lived, loved, laughed and played for the last twenty five years.  She was buried according to the Orthodox Jewish tradition in which she grew up– wrapped in a burial shroud in a plain pine box.  This is the way that it is done—there are no fancy garments, no treasured jewelry, no viewing of the body and no silk lined coffin reinforced with steel.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, according to the Old Testament.   There is no headstone placed at the time of the funeral; that comes a year later, after God has had plenty of time to judge the deceased, to decide which way they should go.  Sadly, I had passed judgment long ago.  And yet, the sight of my mother’s tiny coffin (always a tiny woman, no more than ninety pounds when she died) being lowered into the grave next to my dead brother was almost more than I could bear.

I don’t do funerals well and I never will.  Despite the fact that I am very good at writing eulogies, I cannot and do not deliver them.  I told my younger sister this ahead of time:  “I don’t do funerals. You will have to speak.”  She asked me why.  I explained to the best of my ability that it has to do with the work I do in my everyday life as a radiation oncologist.  Most of the time, I am able to submerge those feelings of grief and sadness at what my patients and their families are going through and my rage at the unfairness of it all.  I shove it right under, bury it deep, don’t think about it and don’t dwell on it.  But going to a funeral, and generally speaking, I do not attend patients’ funerals for this reason, all of the emotions like oxygen starved divers push their way right to the surface, gasp for air, take a deep breath and come pouring out in an uncontrollable torrent.  The ghosts of every patient that I ever cared for and cared about surround me—they grasp for my hands and my legs, they perch on my shoulders and they whisper in my ear, “Let it go.  Let it all out.”  And I do.

I never got along with my mother.  I can say it now.  As an adult, I began to understand who she was, and why she was the way she was, and that in her own way, she loved me and I of course loved her.  I can even laugh about it, in my better moments—in the last lucid phone message she left me, she threatened to disown me and write me and my three children out of her will.  Actually, it was only two of my three children—there was one who was spared her wrath.  I saved that message on my cell phone for two years, and sometimes I would replay it just to hear her voice again, after she had become mute. Then one day I accidentally erased the message.  It’s just as well.  There are better memories of better days.

As my mother was lowered into her grave, I whispered, “I forgive you.” Rest in peace, Mom.

RITA SILVER SPIRA, September 11, 1931–January 7, 2013