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Life and Death are Lovers

The other night while my younger son, Simon, and I were driving home, excited about the prospect of watching The Matrix (a long-awaited experience for him) a fox jumped out in front of our car. I had never, in all my 44 years, hit an animal yet the experience felt eerily familiar; a flash of golden fur caught in the bright headlights and a heart-breaking 'thud'.

skeleton in the desert

We both began to cry, almost before our conscious minds had time to process what had happened. We backed up, pulled over, put our hazards on and got out of the car. The fox was a young one, maybe five months at most. His head lay in a pool of vibrant red  but his small body, covered in thick rust-colored fur, was in perfect condition. His breath came in rhythmic heaves. And he felt vacant, as if 'he' wasn't really there at all. We brought him to the side of the road thinking we'd wait with him for the few minutes it would take for him to stop breathing. Half an hour later, he was still heaving, his heart still beating at a furious pace. It was nearly zero degrees and we couldn't stay with him by the side of the road any longer so we put him in the back of the car and brought him home. His body didn't respond even as we bundled him up in sweaters, meant for Goodwill, from the back of our car.

At home we put him on our back porch, lit the chiminaya and sat vigil with him feeling certain it would be only a matter of minutes before he took his last breath. Three hours later his breathing had calmed and his heart at regulated. But there was no sign of life in him. His pupils were non-responsive as was his body to our touch. I traveled painfully between feeling certain we ought to assist him in his journey toward death (beyond what we had already done with our car hours earlier) and feeling protective of his right to die at his own pace. By midnight, as I sat down with him once more, after warming myself in the house for a few minutes, the conviction arrived solidly in me that I had the responsibility of helping him go.

I have never consciously taken another life. I realized as I sat in front of this miraculous, perfect canine body, that I had no idea how to do it. Simon told me that if I pressed on a certain spot at his throat I could successfully constrict his breath; I would strangle him. This seemed the best method. It turns out, of course, that it's harder than they make it look in the movies. And this little fox's life force was strong. It was as if his body hadn't gotten the message that this life was over. His autonomic body wasn't in communication, or perhaps was even in conflict with, that other less measurable part of him called 'soul'. Twice I held him firmly, blocking his airway with one hand, the other hand placed on his heart to feel as the strong organ ceased. Twice I waited at least a minute or two after his heart stopped before releasing his throat. Twice, within moments of my releasing his throat, his body gasped, taking in a long strong draw of air. Yet, other than his heart beat and his lungs, nothing on him was animated. His body and his pupils were still non-responsive.

I became engaged in a battle with the primal programing of him, DNA that goes back to the beginning of life in the universe, whose sole task is to survive, no matter what. Despite the fact that his soul was long gone. Finally, sobbing and raging at the willfulness of life that did not care a bit for his well-being, I put his beautiful head, ears tipped with thick black fur, snout punctuated by sharp white teeth, into a plastic bag, placed my hand on his heart one final time, and cinched the opening tightly around his neck. Slowly but surely the fierce force of life that held him hostage left his body.

I spent the first years of my career as a therapist sitting with people as they died. I still remember the exact moment with each individual when the soul of them left their bodies. It's a visceral, palpable experience. This fox's life was over but his body's prime directive continued. I felt in him, both life and death; lovers entwined in an ancient dance of mutuality; the vesica piscis created by the two encompassing all life as we know it.

We two-leggeds have attached judgment to this dance. We take the process of death personally. Of course we do. But in the process of this egoic act we devalue one half of this necessary partnership. We try to take death out of this lovership, without which - of course - there is no life. I'm fairly certain this fox wasn't taking anything personally. Environmental Studies professor and writer Neil Evernden talks about this relationship of life among creatures other than the two-leggeds. Nothing is personal. It's all a dance. The coyote and the rabbit are like lovers in many ways and in the process of the hunt, a reverential ceremony, occurs the necessary love making dance between life and death. The offspring of this love making is the birth of life in its new form. Upon being caught the rabbit will often literally succumb, offering itself to this process in which its life force will simply take up a new residency, leaving the rabbit body and entering the coyote for a time before moving on as the coyote deposits its scat on the earth. Death is the end of one thing and, at the very same moment, it is the beginning of another. Energy doesn't cease. All life energy remains vital, though it changes shape many times over. Over and over. In the constant dance between these two eternally intertwined forces, in their love making, lies the meat of what it means to be alive.

I learned this again, in a way so much more intimate than anything I had ever experienced before, as I sat with the fox for those five hours. And I came away with a fervant wish for our species, especially those of us who live in cultures that have institutionally estranged ourselves from death. I wish for us that we re-acquaint ourselves with the integral relationship between life and death; judging neither as 'good' or 'bad'. Grief and rage are beautifully reverent responses to the loss of a loved one. And fear is an understandable byproduct of the uncertainty of life for a creature endowed with a consciousness of its own life. But none of this makes inevitable our wholesale vilification of death. Nor does it require that we imagine life, at all costs, is preferable to its eternal mate, death.

In an effort to offer this fox back into the relationship his kind innately have with the wild world, the next day Simon and I brought him out to a wilderness area just outside of town; a place where we have seen and heard coyotes running in packs of great numbers. We laid him in the soft bowl between snow covered knolls a distance off-trail. We apologized for our violent part in changing the course of his life-of-great-promise and we asked the ravens, vultures, racoons and coyotes to find him and consume him.

This afternoon, at sunset, I went on a run out to this spot to see what has become of him. His body was gone, nothing left but abundant canine footprints and a wide swath made by the fox's body as it was dragged, all trailing off into the thick underbrush. I am convinced that what was his life force is now alive and well again, having morphed itself gracefully and willfully into its next iteration.

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