Friday, November 4, 2016

Death Touch

Driving down the highway through Nebraska, I got put on speaker with my boss's 13-year-old son.
"How long do I have to wait before I dig up my dead pigeon" he asked. I'm the noted expert in my community, so I responded to check it out in the Spring if he was looking for the skeleton. (Time has a unique pace in the desert. It's amazing how quickly the clouds can pass overhead, and how long a summers day can feel. Yet a season can blink by without a rain.)
For years I've been growing my knowledge and building my reputation on all things in Nature...but the most common questions seem to entail that which has passed from this world. Kids bring me skulls, half rotting snakes, or we stop to look at the leftover rabbit's feet from a coyote's meal. I have become the expert in identifying skulls, desiccating lizards, plucking feathers off dead birds and the like. None of this is done out of menace or aggressiveness...but honor, gratitude and scientific curiosity. My museum exhibit collection includes several skulls and skeleton fragments, patches of fur, and a number of embalmed lizards, snakes and spiders that are as old as my parents. 

 A few years ago, when I worked in a different desert-- in California, some co-workers nicknamed me "Death-Touch" after a neglected mouse that was to be snake food died in my hands. I had many encounters with dead things before then, but not any experiences with the transition between life and death. The final breath, the energy transposed from one being, through the others in the room, and out into the expansive Earth. When my great grandmother passed away when I was 17, I opted not to be there for her final moments, and to instead remember her in all the happier previous moments we had shared, and through stories I had heard.
When my pet dog died, I heard about it days later in another state. Our pet cat crawled away, like many felines, to have her final moments in solitude.
I had reflected and processed all these events. I have spent hours reflecting upon and coming to terms with my own mortality. And perhaps not surprisingly, the person I spoke about mortality the most with was my recently deceased partner, Sid.

This summer, someone brought me to a baby rat, shivering on a stone behind our mess hall. Amazingly, it was still alive, but struggling. I did what any Naturalist might do... I picked it up, (double checked it wasn't a hanta-carrying deer mouse) and encouraged the kids nearby to touch it, pet it and hold it.
(As an aside, I've worked at a lot of programs in which nature is viewed and not interacted with. In my experience with connecting students to nature hands-on, I have seen much deeper connections arise.)
Before I knew it I was feeding it milk from a syringe and watching his tiny incisors pull the juice off a melon, his little face scrunching and slurping as his hands tightened and relaxed by his face. I was informed by a co-worker that she had already named it, and quickly found myself working to make it a home, keep it warm and feed it.
I was surprised he lived through the first night, but then I became hopeful, too. I've never liked the idea of caging an animal, even for the purpose of education, but this one seemed to find me, and so I began to imagine all his possibilities.
Two days later, as Harriet was warming in my bosom at breakfast, I noticed he wasn't moving, and casually excused myself to assess, and then bury him in the bushes before announcements.
The rest of the morning, I was wrecked. I played it off so nobody could tell, but that nickname Death Touch came to mind, along with the unforgettable passing of my long-time friend and short-time lover just two months before. One of my dear students, who was attending our Paleontology program from Belgium for the fourth year, said, "Cass, I think you have the same problem as me. You are better with dead things than with the living." His sentiment was felt, though I felt like crumbling in that moment. It was easy to get caught up in the loss...of Harriet, of Sid, of all the little beings that didn't arise to see the sun rise on the Earth that morning. In fact, the hardest moments were not when I was sad and longing for a companion, or in need of a hug...nor when I replayed their unknowing final breaths through my head... but those perfect moments under the sun with the leaves shaking, when everything else melted away and I was completely present, only to realize that Sid would never experience that moment, and it was mine to share with myself. 

Today, Halloween, all Hallow's Eve.... with the new moon yesterday and Dia de los Muertos tomorrow, the veil between this world and the next is said to be thin. I happened to be in Sid's old neighborhood. I walked on his old route through town and looked up at his apartment window. Mostly, I saw kids in silly costumes being fed sugar and tourists standing apart from the locals who knew Sid, but were probably not thinking of him on this day, in this moment.
I was reminded today of the life I am living and have lived. Of the precious breaths I am afforded, and the beautiful people who helped shape me to who I am, whether they're still on this Earth or not. I don't believe it is unproductive to reflect upon the dead. But I strive not to dwell on it. Instead, I hope to honor the Death that has Touched me by living fully and completely...and not taking things for granted, and using my energy to enact change and educate people. I'm also looking forward to creating an altar and sharing stories to honor those who have passed. 

When my boss's son digs up his pigeon, my hope is that we can acknowledge that it's life has passed, give it thanks, and use its skeleton to further his knowledge and curiosity of the world around him. I am thankful for Harriet,  and the bobcat that unknowingly donated her skeleton and tail to my museum last year. And to Sid... for all he was and gave to this world. And for what he showed me about myself, as well as who he has since woven into my life.