On Dying and Slow Time

I’m writing this on November 16, 2020, with the intention of publishing it a year from yesterday. It’s more for me at this point than anything I want to share with the world. These past few days have been difficult. I spent them with someone I love dearly as the two of us sat in vigil with her dog, Arlo. I did not know Arlo for long, but he had a fierceness and personality that touched me more than most humans have.

We took him to the veterinary hospital six days ago because he wasn’t eating, occasionally stumbled, and generally wasn’t acting like his normal self. They kept him for two long days treating him for the heart failure that we knew would eventually come. Some of the symptoms were treatable and we brought him home on Friday afternoon. It was understood that he was going to die, whether it would take days or weeks, no one could say. Unfortunately, we didn’t have as long with him as we would have liked. But then that’s the way of all things we love, eventually time comes for everyone.

I can’t say that I’ve been more present or more “there” for anyone and anything in recent memory. My step-son died four years ago. While that was deeply painful, it was sudden and completely unexpected. I’ve lost other people and animals in my life, but that was always something I wasn’t present for. Or it was mediated by some clinical environment. It is unfortunate that we are not frequently able to sit with the dying. To hold space and be with them in a sort of slow time. It is painful, but there’s something deeply meaningful about sitting with that. With understanding the transitory nature of all things. With connecting with the two unshakable truths at the core of being - the unending depth of suffering at the heart of existence, and the boundless love that moves the universe. The latter makes the former worthwhile.

For whatever reason, our modern world doesn’t have a healthy relationship with death. We fear it. We keep it at arm’s length because we don’t like the reminder of our own mortality. As with all of our unhealthy tendencies, there’s money to be made in that. Or maybe it’s just human nature to not take ‘momento mori’ to heart. If I make it to old age, I hope that I can go the way that Arlo did. Without machines or monitors. Surrounded by people that love me, remembering my life in slow time, and reciting Tennyson. Appreciating one last beautiful day spent basking in the cool, Autumn sun with the wind on my face, ending with a kind angel of death that can send me across that rainbow bridge with love and compassion.

These last few days have been some of the longest of my life. And while it was painful, I’m grateful for that. Because the things we love deserve nothing less. We lose something when we don’t engage with death beyond attending a memorial service. When we don’t sit with the dying and find some ineffable comfort in it. I’m grateful to Arlo for finding me worthy enough to be one of his people. Grateful for the brief time that I had with him. Grateful for knowing that fierceness is not a function of form but of spirit. And grateful beyond measure for the reminder that small, difficult, broken things can be beautiful.

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