Mortality nudges into our awareness at different points in our lives. Sometimes it strikes like a fist, and at other times it brushes alongside with the merest touch. It tapped me on the shoulder several years ago, about the time my wife and I were trying to have children.
Because of a serious illness in my youth, I had to take various medicines on a daily and ongoing basis. I was grateful for these drugs, which literally saved my life. But it was ironic when my physicians told me that I might never be able to have children. Tests showed that as a side effect of the medication, I had become almost completely infertile.
The news created a crisis of meaning for me. What was the point of living, I asked, if one day I would vanish from the earth and leave no progeny? Every trace of me would disappear.
Life Is A Continuum: Every Part is Connected
Each morning I walked to a small park near our home, where I would sit and think about these questions. Usually my dog, who was just a puppy then, would come along.
As I watched him run and gambol, it occurred to me that life is a continuum. Every part is connected. The dog frisking on the grass, the swallows swooping low over the field in search of insects, the ripening blackberries — each living thing is vital to the well-being of the whole.
My own life would end someday, I realized, but the important thing was that life itself would continue. Whatever was essential would be preserved.
Chinook is older now, and so am I. At eleven, he walks more slowly because of the fatty tumors under his joints. He has also had to adjust to the two children who have been added to our household, one who is adopted and one who is not. Equally enamored with both of my children, I wonder at my earlier obsession with perpetuating my own personal strand of DNA. Having a family, I understand now, is more about sharing love than sharing genes.
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Miracles Do Happen!
Doctors are sometimes wrong, I found out. Miracles do happen. Vets can be mistaken, too, like the one who told me that my dog would not last the winter. When he said that, it was no tickle in the ribs; his prediction felt more like a jab in the solar plexus. But that was two years ago, and with the help of two aspirins a day, Chinook is still game to chase a squirrel or go wading in the lake.
But doctors and veterinarians are right in their long-term prognosis. For all of us, human and otherwise, life is a condition that is 100 percent fatal. When the blow finally falls and Chinook dies, I may stagger a bit. Intellectually I know he may not last much longer, but emotionally I will probably be completely unprepared, like most others, for the coup de grâce. For some reason, though, death no longer frightens me as it once did. It too is part of the continuum.
The Dream of Life & Death
I am reminded of a dream I once had. In the dream, I am driving down a solitary road. Dense forest lies on either side of the highway. Suddenly, a deer emerges from the thicket and leaps into the roadway, where it stands momentarily, illuminated in the bright sunshine. Where I had thought myself alone, I now find that I am regarded by an Other, exchanging looks that combine amazement and rapt attention. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the deer disappears, bounding into the dark shade of the woods on the other side of the road.
That deer is followed by another, which also appears and disappears, and then another, which likewise materializes and vanishes. Each one evokes, for me, the same surge of delight. Time stands still as the animals, one by one, leap into sight. I seem to be praying, not with my voice, but with my entire body, whose molecules are shouting, “Yes!” and “More!” Though different individuals, all the deer contained the same marvelous essence of Otherness.
The meaning of the dream was at once apparent to me. It was about life and death, birth and rebirth. For life disappears and reappears under diverse disguises. It reveals itself for a single flashing, startling instant before returning to the impenetrable darkness from which it came. But through all its many manifestations, there endures something worthy of our wonder and awe.
The Circle of Life Continues
The same stream flows in everyone. My old, stiff-legged dog is not the same as the romping puppy I learned to love all those years ago, though he seems no less beautiful to me. My adopted son is not the same as my biological daughter, yet I see something of myself reflected in both of them. In each child and every creature, there is a presence that awakens what is most tender and ardent in ourselves.
It is always there, ready to be rediscovered, even when we seem to lose sight of it. Having run beyond our vision, the object of our dreams will spring back into view, going and coming within the continuum of life.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
©1997, 2012 by Gary Kowalski. All Rights Reserved.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet
by Gary Kowalski.
In Goodbye, Friend, Gary Kowalski takes you on a journey of healing, offering warmth and sound advice on how to cope with the death of your pet. Filled with heartwarming stories and practical guidance on such matters as taking care of yourself while mourning, creating rituals to honor your pet’s memory, and talking to children about death, Goodbye, Friend is a beautiful and comforting book for anyone grieving the loss of a beloved animal.
About the Author
Reverend Gary Kowalski is the author of bestselling books on animals, nature, history and spirituality. A graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Divinity School, his work has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Czech and been voted a "Reader's Favorite" by the Quality Paperback Book Club. Gary's work centers on the connection of spirit and nature ... acknowledging our kinship with each other and with a universe that is passionate, evolving and alive. Visit his website at www.kowalskibooks.com.