Friday, November 10, 2017

The Indignity of Death

It all happened in a matter of seconds: I turned onto the highway on-ramp, sped up as I rolled into the curve, caught a glimpse of an animated critter on the shoulder, grinned when I recognized it was a prairie dog, then realized there were actually two, and one wasn’t moving.

By the time I merged into the center lane, I was in tears. Okay, full disclosure: I was sobbing uncontrollably. Behind me, there was a living creature trying desperately to revive another living creature. Had they been siblings or mates, I wondered? Friends or foes? How long would the little guy shake his/her companion before giving up and carrying on? Do prairie dogs mourn? Does any animal, for that matter? It’s not like they can tug on an uncle’s shirttail and get the ol’ “They’re with the angels, now” speech. How do animals handle death? And can we learn anything from them?

Imagine if one minute your companion was, and the next minute he wasn’t. No explanation, just…dead. What would you do? After you stopped screaming, of course. You’d likely have questions, many undoubtedly beginning with, “What the—.” If you were in a public place – say, on the shoulder of a highway on-ramp – you’d have to relocate the body. Contacting next of kin would be a priority. Calling an attorney might be a good idea, too; there’s bound to be a lawsuit in there somewhere, what with the sudden, unexplainable death and all. Remember, this is America!

Survivors would want a memorial. Some would need therapy. That prairie dog wouldn’t be getting any of that stuff. Not that it would have mattered for long, given the little guy’s proximity to the white line on a busy on-ramp in Montana. Still, was he suffering? If so, how would he go about getting on?

Here in America, a fair number of us suck at dealing with death. We take pills and opt for surgery to maintain the illusion it won’t happen to us. We whisk dying loved ones off to facilities and hire professionals, so we can pretend the messy bits aren’t real. Living in Florida, I’ve learned people suffer when they’re not prepared. So, how do we stop ignoring death and adopt better ways to prepare for it? How do we handle it more practically? Beyond thoughts and prayers (don’t get me started), how can we as a culture become more helpful to friends and family when they’re recovering from the loss of someone they love?

To me, that kind of information would be invaluable. My dad died on a Tuesday in November. Just like my mom. After the family realized Dad’s condition was rapidly deteriorating, we elected to bring him home to the farm and take care of him ourselves. He was 83, deaf, stubborn, and helpless. We did the best we could.

What we did with Mom is another story for another time.

If I shared all the romantic parts, I might be able to make it sound like a Hallmark Movie of the Week. But, death isn’t pretty and, like Dad would have said, “the sooner you come to terms with that, the better off you’ll be.” He wouldn’t have approved of the way I handled his passing. Or, rather, didn’t handle it. And I was already well into the bottle when, only a few months later, our youngest dog was hit by a car. For a while, I distanced myself from everyone around me. I also drank a lot of whiskey. A year later, I still wasn’t coping well, so I took a drive.

As I rolled by that prairie dog, I immediately thought of our remaining chocolate Labrador, Rocko. He and Roland had escaped through the gate together. It was the phone number on his collar that led the kind people who found them to me. Had he seen the accident happen? Had he hovered over his companion’s lifeless body the same way? Did he have a million questions? Did he look to me for the answers?

Tears, as I mentioned, flowed uncontrollably down my cheeks, all the way to Wyoming.

Death is such a heavy and unpleasant situation, yet it’s equally as guaranteed in life as birth. So, what the—?! We celebrate one, why not the other? And no, I’m not talking kazoos, balloons, and “jolly good fellow” tunes, I’m suggesting we redefine what it means to die with dignity. There’s nothing dignified about taking your last breath in a sterile hospital bed on D-Wing, even surrounded by weeping family members. There’s no dignity in urinals and bedpans, and none in pureed sirloin or rooms with trash cans marked SOILED.

Given that our country’s employers barely allow mothers time off for birth, it might seem a waste of time believing we might one day all be granted the privilege of accompanying our loved ones to the other side without fear of losing our jobs and means of survival. It might also seem silly to think a nation full of self-absorbed consumers could even want to get their hands that dirty, let alone survive the weight of the aftermath. But, we Americans are a hearty bunch. I have faith.

And if, by reading this, one of you is inspired to bring dignity to someone’s last days, I’ll consider the effort worthwhile.

~ Dawn

#AmericanTrip #MLCRoadTrip (c) 2017 Dawn Scovill

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