Meditations on Death and Dying

When I came back to work from the long Labor Day weekend, I noticed a bird lying face up on a portion of the roof visible from a window I regularly walk past. I’d seen dead birds before, but never one like this.

This one was rested on its back — a position that should’ve seemed awkward to me, I think — but honestly, it looked peaceful: a little body shaped to a heart by its parted wings, the tiny stem of a head tilted to the side, its eyes closed — a fallen fruit still so fresh it looked as if it might wake up from its sleep any moment and return to its tree.

It’s strange to me that I thought this the first day I saw it. Thinking of it this way makes it somehow unreal to me, like it didn’t really happen.

Yesterday, I walked by again. The bird was still there. But now its chest had sagged in a weird patchwork fashion, the parts lumpy and uneven. The head was flattened, and I couldn’t see the beak anymore, couldn’t distinguish the features.

It occurred to me again that it was strange I was thinking these thoughts about the bird. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know this bird that I could study it almost scientifically, as if this — death — wasn’t really happening, but was more like something out of a movie in which no animals were harmed in the making.

Today, I saw the bird again. The feathers — once so organized, almost synced with each other — are starting to part ways. The heat has flattened and shriveled the scalp and neck into something that can’t even be considered a head — no semblance of resemblance anymore.

I know this is still a bird — or was a bird, was a life in bird form. Viewing and describing it the way I have doesn’t mean I don’t feel anything for it. A coworker tells me she thinks the property management should clean it up. This to me seems perhaps a more “normal” response than my own — one that calls for the removal of that thing serving to remind us of the nature of this life we live.

Yet I don’t feel a need for it to go away. There’s something about this that feels important.

Maybe it’s because our family pet is dying.

We’re lucky in the sense that we know it’s happening. To look at her now is to know with absolute certainty — to know with every bone in our body that, like hers, will someday return to the earth. Our dog’s skeletal structure seems to stretch her skin, suddenly too small for her body. An ultrasound has identified the culprit: a vampiric tumor draining her nutrients.

We know time is short.

Being this close to the dying reminds me of something I studied in poetry: duende, a term popularized by Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spaniard whose vision of the experience encapsulated by the word required a “heightened awareness of death.”

I’ve thought of this concept often while writing.

But today, when it’s so close, so irrevocable, so imminent — and in many ways, so un-human to me — everything feels stupid. I respond to this feeling by making jokes with my coworkers about self-important industry folk who act as if they invented the whole business we’re in; I imagine them at a roundtable with each other, smoking pipes, saying this or that, then crossing their arms, content with their self-important drivel, leaning back into the comfort of their own smugness and the chairs they sit.

It feels stupid that I’m taking this so seriously, so hard; that I feel this way about an animal — our animal — when I generally don’t even feel this way about most humans (obviously, based on what I said above). There’s something so innocent about animals, I guess, that makes their death feel completely unjust.

But it feels stupid to care about anything, since everything just dies anyway. Yet here I sit now, close to her and my family, as if half-expecting one of us will leave with her.

And it feels stupid that I’m even writing this. It seems like a waste of time. What isn’t a waste of time, though, when you really think about it?

Either nothing is, or everything is. And such is life. And death.

There’s nothing like death to remind you of how bewildering, tangible, embittering, comforting, important, meaningless, abundant, empty, ceaseless, terminal, dazzling, dull, delicate, harsh, complicated, simple, glorious, despicable, substantial, absurd, fierce, pathetic, fascinating, inane, frustrating, relieving, mysterious, ordinary, just, wrong, beautiful, terrifying, invaluable, measly, nebulous, palpable, painful, joyous, banal, poignant, trite, unique, powerful, defeating, enchanting, gruesome, delicious, rotten, remarkable, and impossible life is.

This coin has inseparable, incongruous sides. Nothing is more of a contradiction.

And we all have to live (and die) somehow with that.