Posts Tagged ‘death’
October 31st, 2011 | Meera
Happy Halloween! Today seemed like an excellent day to make this post.
Entering the bird lab this past Thursday morning, I found Mary, who usually works at the sink, sitting on a stool beside the large metal prep table that dominates the room. In front of her were two plastic trays; on each, several tidy rows of specimens were arranged. The birds that made up this small collection represented three different species: Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), Nashville Warblers (Vermivora ruficapilla), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).
All three are extremely common birds in the Chicago area at this time of year, either because they’re migrating through on their way to warmer southern climes, or because they spend the winter here.
And all three are known to me personally from morning walks through the Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the treed and windy urban oasis by the lakefront where I saw the distempered raccoon earlier this spring. I love the sight of dozens of dark gray Juncos against patches of snow on the ground, like a fireplace’s worth of cinders someone has rolled up into cozy little balls. Nashville warblers make jaunty little tail flicks as they forage through low trees and shrubs (often that’s all I see of them, an olive whisk-whisk-whisk before they rustle away through the leaves). And the mustard-yellow smudges next to each eye on White-throated Sparrows always make me imagine these fluffy, familiar creatures having just feasted messily on a stash of abandoned hot dogs.
The fact that Mary was working on these birds wouldn’t, in and of itself, have been of much note except that the specimens were in a form that I’d never seen before in the lab. Normally, these are species that Dave chooses to preserve as skeletons. One of the advantages of doing so is that there are many measurements it’s possible to take from a skeleton that it’s impossible to take from a study skin. To prepare a specimen for being skeletonized by the dermestid beetles, volunteers must first remove all its feathers and skin, a process called “roughing out.”
But the specimens Mary was working with seemed to have gone only part-way through this process. On the Nashville Warblers and the White-throated Sparrows, the feathers from their bodies had been removed, but those on their heads had been left in place. And on the Juncos, tail feathers remained as well.
In this state the specimens appeared, I confess, both fascinating and a little macabre. The juxtaposition of intact, feathered crowns, their plumage still beautifully soft and many-colored, with the dark red muscle of de-feathered bodies, created an incongruity—the likeness of life next to the unmistakable sign of death—that forced me to stop.
Why had some feathers been left on these birds?
Mary soon explained that in each of these species, subtle but significant differences in plumage coloration can be observed. Such variations raise a host of scientific questions (Are the disparities related to sex, age, or region? Can they be traced to genetic differences? Is one form of coloration more common than another, and if so, why? Does the prevalence of each pattern change over time?).
To document these variations, Mary was collecting caps from all three species, as well as tail feathers from the Juncos—because these were the parts of the birds’ bodies where the differences occurred. This way, the caps and tail feathers could become part of the museum’s collections and potentially help to answer some of these questions.
But when she was finished collecting what she needed, the beetles would go on to skeletonize the rest of the specimens’ bodies as usual, thus preserving the ability to take bone measurements from them in the future. The fact that I’d seen the birds’ bodies in this state was a coincidence: an accidental glimpse at a bit of scientific frugality.
Here are some of the variations this kind of data will hopefully help to quantify:
Juncos can have crowns that vary from a light gray to a deep black, sometimes tinged with brown—and while all Juncos have white outer tail feathers and black inner tail feathers, there can be considerable variance in the amount of white and black on the intermediary feathers. This photo doesn’t show the subtle differences in the shades of the crowns very well, but you can clearly see how much more black than white there is in the tail feathers of the bird in the foreground, and how much further out the black extends to the edges of its tail.
Nashville Warblers can have a patch of wonderfully rich chestnut-colored feathers in the center of their crowns, something I’ve never noticed when birding because the tiny flecks of red are all but impossible to see amidst or underneath their otherwise gray head feathers. Adult males all have some red in their caps, but the amount can vary widely; and some adult females have a little ruddiness there, too, while others have none. These differences are unfortunately very hard to see in the photo I took, but if you squint you might be able to see some red stippling in the third specimen from the left.
Finally, White-throated Sparrows actually have two well-documented morphs, or variant forms. You can see these quite clearly in the photo above: one morph has distinct black and white stripes running vertically down its crown, while the other has black and tan stripes arranged in the same pattern. Both morphs can be found in both sexes.
DNA analysis has shown that this polymorphism in White-throated Sparrows arises from genetic differences. Both White Stripe and Tan Stripe birds, as they are usually called, show a slight preference for mating with individuals from the other morph. This opposites-attract tendency (which goes by the unwieldy name of “disassortative mating”) keeps the approximate proportion of each morph in the overall population stable, so that neither morph disappears or becomes dominant.
Most fascinating of all, at least in the case of White-throated Sparrows, the morphological variations we see in their crowns are also associated with clear behavioral differences. White Stripe males are more aggressive and more showy—they’re more likely to engage in “spiraling,” a wonderful-sounding behavior that involves singing as they ascend the branches of a tree by circling it. They’re also less dedicated providers of parental care, and less monogamous than Tan Stripe males. As for White Stripe females, they are almost as bold and selfish as their male counterparts. (This may explain why both WS males and females seek out calmer, more reliable partners from the opposite morph.) For more on this subject, I’ll point you to this excellent post by GrrlScientist, who explains the genetics behind these behavioral variations far better than I could.
What I love about my own experience of all this is that it illustrates so clearly a principle I’ve always felt to be true about the study of natural history. That is, the macabre (like beauty) is not a thing that exists as an inherent property of the world, not something with a palpable presence in time and space. Instead it arises out of the complex interaction between ourselves and the world. Even if disquiet is our first reaction to a memento mori, it need not be our last.
But to the extent that encounters with the macabre invite curiosity—like the curiosity that struck me so forcibly when I walked into the lab and saw those unusual-looking specimens on Mary’s trays, and led me to learn some of the things I’ve shared with you today—I think it’s an extraordinarily useful quality in science.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two additional things I hope you will investigate:
1) Flinchy, the t-shirt company co-founded by my favorite fellow bird lab volunteer, Diana Sudyka, has several new designs available for purchase. I own one of them, and can testify to its quality and attractiveness. And greater luminaries than me endorse Flinchy shirts, too.
2) I wrote a piece for the Scientific American Guest Blog this week about my rather extraordinary friend Nina and her Field Museum project, LinEpig. You can find it here, under the curiosity-provoking (though not macabre) title “Internet Porn Fills Gap in Spider Taxonomy.” Nina picked the title, because she knows even better than I do that first you catch the eye, and then you tell the story.
Till next time, dear readers-mine. I hope it won’t be so long again.
April 23rd, 2011 | Meera
From the time of Hippocrates the ancients believed that there were four cardinal fluids of the body—sanguis, cholera (or yellow bile), melancholia (or black bile), and phlegma.
These four liquids were known as humors (humor being the Latin word for ‘liquid’), and good health was thought to depend on the maintenance of a just proportion among them. The balance or commixture of the humors was known as a man’s temperament, that is, his ‘mixture’ (L. tempera, ‘to mix’)…
If the temperament…was greatly disturbed, the result was distemper…
—The Classical World, Classical Association of the Atlantic States
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in th’ alarm,
Your bedded hairs, like life in excrements,
Start up and stand an end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience!
—Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4, William Shakespeare
So many of our words for madness are blunt, pitiless, jarring to the ear and to the mind. Insanity wails like a siren; derangement veers headlong into an embankment like a car spun out of control. Crazy is something you spit.
But distemper, well. Distemper has a different air. Listen to the word: Its classical roots lend it a literary sort of elegance. It has the sound of a mild and floaty agitation that will eventually pass away, returning things to their properly settled and accustomed state.
Distemper: a momentary ripple in the cup of tea you’ve just stirred with a spoon.
Distemper: delicate enough to be applied to princes whose minds are at war with themselves.
Distemper: a condition that might be even a little romantic.
But words are sly, unscrupulous things.
I spend quite a lot of time in Jackson Park, a lovely wooded space that runs right up against Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side. Ross and I often find ourselves there when we want to take a walk someplace calm, quiet, and green (or gray, depending on the time of year). It’s also where I go many weekend mornings, to join a small group of dedicated Hyde Park birders who spend two or three hours there each Saturday in search of warblers, thrushes, sparrows, swallows, ducks, herons, and the occasional thrilling raptor.
I like the tall grasses and woodsy forests of the place. I like that it feels—not wild, not that—but friendly to wild things that gather at the edges of my urban life. Among the wild things that have made Jackson Park their home are a small population of raccoons. We see signs of them, we birders, when we tramp by the water—mostly tree stumps chewed to pencil points, or trees still standing that have been fenced off from raccoon teeth by the Parks Department. Since we’re there during the day, the raccoons themselves are usually quite elusive, although binocularing into the opening of a hole high off the ground in one particular tree we have often seen a pair of raccoon babies deep in striped sleep.
Lately, though, the signs Procyon lotor has been leaving us haven’t been so sweet. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing corpses lying in Jackson Park clearings or on pathways, so many unanswered complaints. And sometimes now, you can even see a raccoon moving around in daylight hours.
There was one this morning, on the bank behind the coot and the mallards. It was an exhausted-looking apparition, weaving aimlessly, as if it were a man who’d just woken up in the woods, bruised and hungover, and didn’t know where it was. Red-winged blackbirds buzzed above and below, there was the raccoon. The time was eight in the morning and it was right there in plain sight, long tail sweeping the earth on a trail normally followed only by human feet.
That kind of behavior isn’t normal for a nocturnal creature. You might, if you’d been born several centuries ago, have been inclined to say something had left that raccoon distempered.
Something probably has. According to Pat, our unofficial bird walk leader, the Chicago Parks Department is on the case, and will be sending out a biologist this week to take a look. But the most likely explanation is that the raccoons of Jackson Park are dying off as the result of an epidemic. And the most likely suspect is canine distemper, an air and fluid-borne virus that infects both domestic dogs and several species of wild animals, including coyotes, wolves, ferrets, badgers, and raccoons.
As diseases go, canine distemper is extraordinarily nasty. First it causes fever, shivering, diarrhea, vomiting, and inflammation and discharge in the nose and eyes. Somewhat later, after it attacks the nervous system, the infection delivers a second miserable wave of symptoms, among them seizures, tremors, muscle twitches, weakness, and general bodily instability. It also changes behavior in ways that look a lot like rabies, making for animals that seem oddly fearless even when their usual habits are suspicious and retiring.
There is no effective treatment, even for pets—let alone animals most consider pests. Death is inexorable, but perhaps not swift enough. And juvenile raccoons are especially susceptible to canine distemper, so the young ones we’ve watched in the tree have certainly already been affected.
I think of them and their relatives: all those swirling humors mixed into painful and unfamiliar combinations, all those temperaments disturbed beyond repair. No princes of Denmark, they. These antic dispositions haven’t been put on; they’re carried in the blood. This madness has no method to it, and it doesn’t matter which way the wind blows.
For a disease named after such an ancient notion, canine distemper is remarkably wet behind the ears. The very first case of the infection is thought to have been described as late as 1905, by a French veterinarian known as Henri Carré. Its precise origins are unclear, but what does seem irrefutable is that the disease never existed in wild animal populations until they came into contact with their domesticated canid brothers. It happened to wild dogs in Africa. It happened to spotted hyenas in Kenya. It happened to golden jackals in Israel.
I’ll tell you what I find incredible. Even the king of beasts isn’t immune to this chaos. In the 1990s, an outbreak of the virus bloomed within and killed many of a population of lions in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Soon after, it spread to the lions of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National reserve.
(Neither the king of beasts nor man himself. Exposure to canine distemper virus doesn’t cause any symptoms in humans, but there is some evidence that it may be involved, years later, in the onset of Paget’s disease, a condition in which the body begins to break down and rebuild bone tissue in abnormal ways—making it dense, brittle, and fragile.)
I wish there were some meaning to all this. If I were Hamlet I might spin a story here, tell you perhaps about a queer and painful retribution for the sin of rendering what was once wild tame. I wish the deaths of a few urban-living raccoons mattered more than they probably do to the state of the world in general. I wish the mere existence of a word so poetic reflected something true about our bodies and our minds. (That we were as mutable as fluids? As simple to mix and unmix?) I wish distemper were a romantic metaphor, instead of just a species of blunt and pitiless death.
Two weeks ago, on our way back from the beach, Ross and I encountered most of what looked like a raccoon skeleton—it was missing its skull—picked clean and made brilliantly smooth by the indifferent hunger of birds and bugs. The spine of the thing was incredible, a gentle, shroud-white curve upon the grass: half of an osseous S, one quarter of the motion you make with your teaspoon when you stir what’s in your cup.
P.S. We have had a vaccine for canine distemper for over 50 years. Every domestic dog should be vaccinated, but not all are. Especially if you take your dog out to woodsy areas, please don’t let it get behind on its shots. Canis lupus familiaris may be the original source of this scourge, but that doesn’t mean a sick raccoon can’t pass what it got right back.
March 15th, 2011 | Meera
In 2006 I wrote a short review of an extraordinary book. At the time it seemed a warning look back at the past; in the wake of today’s Japan, it seems all but augury. The review originally appeared on Bookslut; I reproduce it below. A link to the book appears at the bottom of this post. It comes highly recommended. In fact, let me know if you want to borrow my copy.
…it makes you want to philosophize. No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize.
—Sergei Sobolev, deputy head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association.
When moody visionary Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about the “poetic faith” a reader must arm herself with in order to access the truths lying beneath the illusions of literature, he probably never imagined that it would also be a necessary attitude for reading a work of nonfiction. Yet the most striking aspect of journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s stunning oral history Voices From Chernobyl is the way the text makes use of overt theatrical elements to test the boundary between literature and reality—and the way it demands an active effort on the part of the reader to see beyond the mythic quality of the tragic stories it contains. It’s a challenging requirement, and Alexievich does not make the task easy.
She divides her book into three parts, echoing the three-act structure of a traditional play. Similarly, each individual narrative is treated as a dramatic soliloquy: “Monologue About Memories,” “Monologue About a Moonlit Landscape,” “Monologue About an Expensive Salami.” When she wishes to describe a person’s demeanor or behavior, Alexievich inserts into the text what look for all the world like stage directions: “[Cries.] [Silent for a while.].” The narratives are full of the repetitions, half-sentences, and interjections that represent the natural rhythms of speech, and although these are interviews—the last of which was completed in 1996, ten years after the disaster—Alexievich’s voice as a questioner is conspicuously absent. Perhaps most telling of all, in three instances several short narratives are grouped together to give us a chorus straight out of a Greek tragedy: “Soldiers’ Chorus” in Part One: The Land of the Dead; “People’s Chorus” in Part Two: The Land of the Living; “Children’s Chorus” in Part Three: Amazed by Sadness.
The images contained in these histories are almost painfully literary: cats and dogs roam deserted villages; conscripted soldiers dig up great swathes of earth in order to bury it somewhere else; beautiful, lush fields are full of poisoned cucumbers and tomatoes; people come out of their houses to wonder at a jewel-like fire that glows over the reactor. The interviewees themselves often seem drawn towards metaphor—at one point photographer Viktor Latun is quoted as saying, quite lyrically, “the scientists had been gods, now they were fallen angels.”
Nothing could be added to make all this seem more like a cautionary myth or a dark fable.
And yet we can gain a great deal by bracing ourselves against the invitation (half-serious, half-ironic) to read the book as a nightmarish drama with a broad moral. In its specificity and its attention to the particulars of individual experiences, Voices From Chernobyl has much that is valuable to say about this catastrophe, this human failure. These narratives are more than evocative—they are interrogative. They raise hard questions about the uneasy relationship we have with science; the difference between heroism and tragedy; the impact of a history of collectivism on the response to what happened; the parallels between this disaster and the disaster of war.
In this Alexievich has achieved something quite unexpected: she has crafted a book that is simultaneously a historical artifact and a literary invention. What is true here cannot help but reach toward metaphor; what seems symbolic is nevertheless a statement of fact. In combining these approaches Alexievich highlights the limitations of both. It is unbearable to think of Chernobyl as history; it is equally unbearable to think of it as myth. To read this book is to stumble back and forth in the space between the two, and to experience what feels like an intolerable inability to bring real understanding to these devastating events.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen
October 7th, 2010 | Meera
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
—Matthew 10:29-31, King James Bible
A hundred or so years ago, when I was seven or eight or nine and more foolish and more wise than yet I knew, I used to be dropped off at Sunday school while my parents attended the main service of our church. I hesitate to define exactly what I believed, or thought I believed at the time, about religion and the origin of the universe and the fate of all mankind. I can tell you that I asked an impertinent question now and again—usually regarding the ethics of this or that divine action—usually resulting in little satisfactory return except the swift corrugation of the Sunday school teacher’s forehead. Tiny doubts in my tiny head notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that for a long time I took the existence of God for granted. But rarely did this move me. God was vast, distant, and confusing. He didn’t have a lot to do with the particulars of my life.
It was different with this verse from Matthew, which I remember encountering and which (to an animal-obsessed child who stalked stray cats and scanned the ground under each tree for the injured bird I knew I would one day find) seemed infinitely comforting. A creator who would flood all his sinning children so he could start over from scratch was not for me; one who noted every fallen sparrow, on the other hand? That meant something in my world.
Today, I no longer believe in a celestial presence who counts my value in the currency of sparrows (incidentally, the onomatopoeic Hebrew word צפור/tsippur, normally translated as “sparrow” in this verse, can refer to any small chirruping bird). But I do believe in the fervent daily efforts of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors—who are out in force every single morning for much of the year looking out for creatures that are each still worth, in the minds of most, far less than a farthing.
Some days ago, a CBCM volunteer noted, carefully bagged, and brought to the Field Museum the lovely little Savannah sparrow I skinned today. (Most of the CBCM’s finds are window-kills, but this particular one came in with a broken neck that looked to me like the work of a cat.)
Because of that volunteer, a new specimen has been added to the scientific archives of the museum that could one day be of use in protecting the lives of other birds. And if the sparrow had been injured instead of dead when it was found, it would have been cared for.
Fear ye not therefore, birds of Chicago.
Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
—Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2
June 1st, 2010 | Meera
I realize how determinedly morbid this is going to sound after telling you not three weeks ago that I am obsessed with death, but at 7 o’clock this morning I got down on my hands and knees in the bathroom to pull the stiffened body of a dead cat out from underneath my claw foot tub, and at 5 o’clock this evening those same two hands of mine drew the cranium and jaw bones of a raccoon, tenderly packed in bubble wrap and Styrofoam, from the recesses of a box that arrived in the mail.
But hey, sometimes that’s just the way your day turns out.
The expired cat was not, I hasten to add, my cat; if it had been I would be in no state to write these words. As it was I slept poorly last night, knowing the poor thing was just on the other side of the bedroom wall and likely close to death. My dreams were full of it. In life, the cat was a small, black, medium-haired beastie, with egg-yolk yellow eyes and a burbling purr (cats purr when stressed or traumatized, not just when content). In death, those eyes, I noticed, were open: their pupils—like those of human corpses—fixed and slightly dilated. When in its prime it was undoubtedly a pretty little thing.
Ross and I picked up the cat yesterday evening about two blocks from our apartment. It was drenched to the bone and without visible signs of injury, but moving slowly and with an almost drunken gracelessless very uncharacteristic of a feline. We thought it might have fallen out of a window or been hit by a car, and brought it into our home with the hope that the creature would survive the night and we could take it to the nearest vet as soon as it opened today—but sadly, our best efforts were in vain.
The cat had mustered what little strength it had in order to crawl underneath the tub before it died, probably because it felt a little safer in that narrow, constricted space. It was there in the morning when we went in to check on it, and if there had been any doubt about its expired status, a hand reached out to touch it made a definitive answer immediately apparent from two things: coolness and rigidity.
The average core body temperature of a cat is about three degrees higher than the average core body temperature of a human, or about 102°F. If a cat has ever sat on your lap, you already know this. A living cat is a thing of reliable warmth. Mine, for instance, is a blanket that provides snug comfort in winter and transforms into a heavy irritation in summer. This cat was cool, though not cold, to the touch.
In death, the systems that the body relies on to regulate its temperature start to fail.The rapid contraction and expansion of the muscles that produce a warming shiver can no longer take place; nor can the vasoconstriction (tightening of the blood vessels) that keeps heat from escaping from the skin, or the chemical reactions that can transform fat directly into heat in our cells. Cold as death, they say. I can tell you that what they say is true.
If I had had the means or the inclination (macabre even for me) to take its temperature, I might have been able to determine the approximate time at which this cat crossed the border between life and death. To do this I could have used the knowledge that the average mammalian corpse cools at a rate of about 1.5°F per hour, although it would have been difficult to come to a precise estimation. Algor mortis (Latin for “the coolness of death;” and death is, I fear, a cool customer) might have been affected by the size of the cat, the amount of insulation it carried on its slight frame, the ambient temperature in my bathroom and that of the tile on which it was resting, as well as other factors.
Still, a calculation could have been made. It is possible, for instance, that I could have somehow aligned the cat’s hour of death with one or another of the times in which it had wandered through my fitful sleep in the form of a dream-black-cat, healthy and mewling and full of vigor. If I were of a soul-believing bent, that might have been comforting.
But even if the cat had somehow managed to retain a good deal of its body heat after its death, the rigidity of its body would have told me it was gone, and had been for some hours. Rigor mortis (Latin for “the stiffness of death;” and death is, I fear, an inflexible wretch) is a tightening of the muscles that sets in in small mammals, like cats, within a couple of hours of the end. Apparently, the use of the term stiff to refer to a corpse dates back to the very beginning of the 13th century—so clearly has the phenomenon of rigor mortis been associated with death, and for so long.
What causes this stiffness is a sequence of chemical events that is, frankly, marvelous. (I think so, anyway.) Here’s how it goes. Normally, muscles contract because they’ve received a signal in the form of a nerve impulse from the brain. When that impulse reaches a muscle cell, it triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plugs itself into receptors on the surface of the cell, opening channels through which sodium ions enter. The sodium, in turn, causes a flood of calcium ions to be released within the muscle cells. Finally, the calcium ions enable two kinds of muscle fibers—actin and myosin—to bind together and cause the muscle as a whole to contract. In order to release that contraction, an infusion of energy is required to push out the calcium ions and return the muscle fibers to their relaxed positions.
It’s all a beautifully rehearsed and executed electrochemical relay race that results in tight, or rigid muscles. (Want to set it in motion right now? Clench your fist. There. Nerve impulse—acetylcholine—sodium—calcium—actin/myosin—clench. If you squeeze your eyes tight, you can tell yourself that you almost feel those microscopic channels opening and closing. You’ll be lying, but it’s a beguiling notion.)
After death, accumulated calcium ions tend to leak across the cell membrane into muscle fibers, causing a contraction that cannot be released because the cell is no longer generating energy. And so: Stiff as a board, they say.
I can tell you that what they say is true. By the time we looked in on our sweet, unfortunate stray in the morning, its limbs had hardened to the point where it was difficult to draw from its hiding place. Ross had to kneel beside the tub and push gently on its back legs, while I pulled gently on the scruff of its neck, to get it out. If I had held the animal up by its torso, which I did not, its legs would not have hung loose and sweetly heavy like those of my living, breathing cat. They would have remained as they were: curled around its body like armor.
(If I had waited several more hours, though, loose they would have come. Rigor mortis dissipates as decomposition sets in, breaking down muscle tissue and releasing the contracted fibers.)
I could see, as he pushed and I pulled, that Ross was a little red-eyed and sniffly to see the creature in what must have seemed, to him, a strange and unnatural state. I, on the other hand, had grieved the night before. It was much more difficult for me to witness the cat as it was before death, its hot breath coming in and going out in ragged pants and its body so lacking in strength and nimbleness, as if it had forgotten how to move its four paws. Life, as the Buddha says, is suffering.
But this morning as I lifted the limbs that had once lent it the lucky poise of nine lives and felt how they had gone hard and inflexible, it was clear that the cat had ceased to be a suffering being and become, instead, a body. Its very stiffness protected me from pity, providing a hard, unassailable demarcation between life and death. For that I am rather grateful, because no matter how interested one is in death, it is no lovely thing to pick up the cadaver of something whose nose you stroked the night before. I am curious, not ghoulish. This cat’s death was both unnecessary and melancholy.
About my adoration for this raccoon skull, on the other hand, I have no excuses. A friend, knowing my predilections, offered to find it for me: and so it was found. And cleaned. And packaged. And sent. And the stiffness of its beautiful bones has a different sort of virtue.
May 13th, 2010 | Meera
There are a few themes that preoccupy me in my life above all others: Death, if you know me, you know is primary. I can’t place when I first learned the word or grasped the perfect emptiness it contains, but I do remember (at the age of five or six or seven) regularly dampening my mother’s shirt with premature fits of mourning for what I had suddenly grasped would be her inevitable loss. Yes, she admitted, she’d die. Not yet, but one day. Not yet was too close for comfort.
That heavy terror is gone now —had slipped away, I think by the time I was eleven. My grandmother died that year. I spent what seemed like endless hours in the house where she lived, playing quiet games of cards with my cousins while her body was being embalmed upstairs in her room. I saw the tragedy of it touching my parents; my father especially seemed a new person to me. She had brought him forth, and now she was gone. He was a river with no source, the way I feared I’d be when I was little.
When her body was ready they brought it downstairs to lie before those who mourned her, and it was amazing to see her physical self so much the way she was before and yet so different. The same lines folded her face into rifts and valleys; the same powdery skin covered her fingers. But the smell that hovered around her, like sweet mint, was new. She hadn’t consented to housing six or seven liters of embalming fluid—a chemical brew of formalin, phenol, methanol, glycerin, and water that would preserve her flesh until it came time to burn it in a chamber where fires roared the air to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit—still, there it was now, having streamed through a small portal the mortuary workers made in her carotid artery and taken the place of her once hot blood.
Looking at her (She! The giantess with the jingling bangles and the frown like a stroke of lightning), what I felt was not tragedy, but awe. Yesterday, I knew, her muscle fibers pulled taut as she brushed her thinning hair, silver-white and soft as silk. Yesterday her nostrils flared with expectation at the scent of dinner. Yesterday someone joked that she was getting old, and set off a chain of events that began in the vibrating air about her ears and culminated in a parting of her lips and a stretching of her cheeks and a sound like laughter, and in between a hundred nerve cells transmitted their chemical signals across the minute gaps between them. Today, she was wholly untenanted. What an extraordinary metamorphosis.
The spectacular impossibility of death—the idea that all we are and ever have been, every quivering feeling and blooming idea that makes us sentient beings, will one day simply vanish from our bodies without warning or recourse—has amazed me ever since. So has the fact that, without truly knowing what death will mean for us, we live with it day after day. It is as if we stand at a station waiting for a train, fingering our ticket—knowing all along that what finally arrives could as well be a stone colussus stamping over the mountains as a chugging engine, could be a bird whose wings black out the sky, a fire that starts beneath our feet. Or rain. Or nothing. We wait, chat with strangers, pick up a bun to eat at the station cafe. With dying coming.
These contradictions are marvelous in their fascination. I would put it this way: The idea of death is a Rubik’s cube I carry in my pocket, always there to be drawn out and manipulated into a new configuration when I am waiting in line or staring into a snowy sky. After hours of adjusting I click one face into position at last and turn the thing over to find chaos flaring on the opposite side—yet I am convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that given enough time I shall put it in order.
If I set the thought of death aside, I often take up work. I don’t mean to imply that I work particularly hard; given the choice I, like most of you, would rather do anything but, most days. But, diligent or not, I think about the shape of work all the time, because it, too, is a kind of mystery to me.
Here’s what I mean. If I am smiling at you while you hand me my croissant across the counter, I am wondering what it would be like to stand on the opposite side, days full of the beery smell and the heat of the ovens and the sound of the front door chiming as it opens and closes against the noise of the summer street. Is this work that brings you joy, or simple exhaustion? And what is the taste of it in your mouth?
If I crane my neck to see you jouncing gently down the side of a skyscraper like a water glider, squeezing its windows clean, I am wondering—try and stop me!—how much they pay you to do that and how you learned to fly and how much they would pay me to climb so high in the cold and then fall down, a little at a time. Would I exult in it? Do you? I peer, and try to tell what you are feeling.
And if you draw my blood out of me, tighten your black cuff around my arm to feel it push back at you pulse by pulse, peer in my eyes and my cells and tell me my fate, I am definitely also wondering what it would be like to do your work: the work of knowing the body and staving off death. What would my Rubik’s cube look like in your hands?
These are twin fixations, work and death. They are connected to each other for me in ways I can hardly articulate. Death, I trust I expect I presume I imagine I long to be true, is what makes sense of the work of a life, gives it a reason to exist at all. And work, I think I guess I wonder if I hope I believe, is what redeems a life in the face of death. And yet I have been very often mistaken about what work means for me.
Twelve years ago I thought I wanted work to be pleasure, that’s all: sheer pleasure. Find what you enjoy and do that; call it work if you want to, but it’s just a name. Doesn’t mean you have to sweat over it. I was wrong.
Eight years ago I thought I wanted work to be service. Find a need and fill it; maybe you’ll be good at it, maybe you won’t, the important thing is that it be important in the world. I was wrong.
Six years ago I thought I wanted work to be what I did so I could live the rest of my life. Work ought to recede into the background, leave you alone at the end of the day. This time I thought I’d finally figured it out, but I was wrong there, too. Work is more than that for me. I don’t want it to leave me alone. I want it to be a way—not the only way, but an important one—I can prepare for what’s coming.
So when I stand on the El platform in the middle of winter, or jostle my way down Michigan Avenue in spring, and you are all around me, each one of us here for not even a single systole or diastole in a single heartbeat in the impossibly long life of the universe—when I see you there, I want to shout my question to you all: What are you doing with yourselves, friends, while you wait for that other train? What work have you chosen? Tell me.
Maybe you mix water into flour, salt, sugar, yeast, pulling an invisible universe of life and chemistry into being and pushing it over a fire until it grows enough to offer me my morning roll. Maybe you teem up and down walls. Maybe you will be the one to check my heart, my breath, my blood, my brain, and see that they have each stopped once and for all. Whatever it is, I want to know.
I tell you this now because I’ve thought about both these things lately perhaps even more than is normal for me. (Normal is measured by Ross no longer being taken aback when I run through with him a new imaginary scenario of his death, or mine, or my parents, or our cat’s. I have envisioned airplane crashes, car wrecks, psychotic gunmen, sudden cardiac arrests while running, drowning in foreign oceans, and plain old getting old and losing our minds. I work through the event, the hospital, the phone calls, the funeral, the sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, the night after the funeral. I am nothing if not thorough.)
But, as I say, more than normal. That’s because on April 1, 2010, a young man I knew in college died. He slipped from a waterfall while trekking in northern Thailand and fell some 30 feet—gracefully, said the woman who was with him that day, as he had lived. He was my friend, but I hadn’t been as close to him as I might, and we had not seen each other in years. My experience of his death is not the same as what is felt by those who knew and loved him as a funny, wise, strange, dear, evolving presence in their lives. Theirs is not my grief to grieve.
What I have felt, besides a deep sorrow that someone so kind and loving is gone, is something akin to the awe that was in me when I looked at my grandmother’s body twenty years ago. It seems hardly credible that death could have come this way.
Come it did.
When my friend hit the ground below the waterfall, the impact of it sent shock waves through his head, and his brain shifted forcefully against the inside of his skull. Tissues swelled, blocking the passage of blood, which pooled instead of pumping. The long threads of injured axons sheared and detached themselves from cell bodies in the white matter of his brain, leaving no way for neuron to contact neuron. Messages, and the means to send them, died. It all happened in an instant. And in that instant went everything that was the person I knew; every muscle memory of the bear hugs he used to give, every e.e. cummings or Khalil Gibran poem that recitation locked into the networks of his cortex, every dream and every lust. First he was breathing, singing, laughing, jumping, living, and then he was not.
And because I know one day I will not, either, I find myself thinking once more about work. Oh, I prepare for death in other ways, too. I make my life with the person I love. I try to see what I can of the world. I dip myself in books like feet in the ocean, and when I emerge I am dripping with ideas as icy as the Atlantic. But these are easy choices to make. Work is the hard one.
For now, I do this. I’m working right now, if not for pay, working to find a path across these small, square keys, oily with my fingerprints. Making out of them things that are only slightly less temporary than myself. When you get down to it, spending your life writing seems a little foolhardy. But it is difficult work, and that seems to mean something.
In fact, I know that it does. I know because when I imagine that train coming in for me, and think how my cells will cease their motion and their talk and my skin be full of that sweet mint smell—when those thoughts come, as they so often do, I’m pleased to think that this is what I did before the end.