It is a late Sunday afternoon, and I find myself musing over a current experience. In my days right now, there are several losses of love, significant losses–the kind that invite pain into my heart. I remember the past even as I experience the present, and know that in the future I will inevitably find loss in my lifetime mailbox once again.
Sometimes we experience an event that has occurred before and that now echoes down through the years. When my mother died, the earlier death of one of my closest friends was like a musical theme, repeating through my “emotional” ears. When my Nana died, the death of my friend echoed, and also the death of my mother. It seems that we can never escape such past touchstones of the heart. With each succeeding experience, we come once again to the very place at which we started. I think of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” and how he spoke so eloquently of returning to a destination which turns out to be the spot at which we began. He said:
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”
These lines from “Little Gidding” are perhaps my favorite in all of the poetry of the world. I studied them in college and they never left me. They capture so much of what my experience has been: those old echoes of the past transcending time and moving throughout my life. Recently I have had an experience that qualifies in all these ways.
In May, I bred my Dalmatian, Breeze, to a handsome boy who lived in Canada. She traveled back and forth by plane to meet him, and their meeting was successful. In June we learned that she was pregnant and in July, after a long two weeks of premature labor, she gave birth to a healthy litter of six pups. From the second week of July through the first week in September, my life was consumed with taking care of, raising and loving three tiny boys and three tiny girls whose birth and early days were miraculous to me.
At first they seemed like little white piglets (Dals don’t get their spots until the second week after birth) and then a band of spotted, blind, and deaf little beings, crawling on weak legs around their whelping pen. And then they became truly ambulatory, lurching around on trembling legs like drunken sailors. It didn’t take long before they were crawling up and out of their pen, and landing on the other side with a resounding thump.
I raised the sides of the pen, but one morning I came out and one of the little girls was sitting on the floor with an expression on her face that said: “So, what took you so long–I’m dying of hunger.” We raised the sides of the pen again, marveling at how quickly they grew. They were only six weeks old and yet had begun the task of challenging themselves in their life–even if this only meant contesting the height of the walls that penned them in.
Soon, it was time for them to go to their new homes. I thought I would cry myself dry-eyed each time one left and I held onto them tightly as I put them into their new mothers’ and fathers’ arms. Their departures haunted me for days, echoing down through the years: all the losses I had endured throughout my time on this earth: my best friend’s death when I was sixteen, my mother’s when I was twenty-one, my beloved grandmother’s when I was thirty-five, another good friend’s when I was forty, then another friend in my fiftieth year. And perhaps the worst of all, the loss of my dearest “special” dog two years ago, the death I still mourn and am unable to resolve. And even now, my current best friend fights off metastatic melanoma, stage four, dueling with surgery after surgery, trying to remain her bright-eyed self even as she looks death full in the face.
All these losses bring me back to the first, accumulating power the way a rock does as it tumbles down a hill. I am more used to death, but I am no more resigned to it. The pain of letting go of each loved one is terrible in its intensity and I still fight it with my heart, no matter how expected it may have been. The transition of these little pups out of my life–though no death–still brought the loss of love back down on my soul, still forced me to let go of those six lives that I had loved so intensely, and would continue to love, no matter where they lived. All of them had their own personalities, all cuddled and each kissed my face in their own way, all played rough and tumble individually, all cried when hurt, or at being left alone, or waiting to be fed, in a manner particular to themselves. They were most certainly blessed with their own characters and I mourned them that way, each unto his own. They would never be far from my mind.
Letting go of them was so very difficult and, predictably, it mirrored the other ways in which I had had to relinquish those I loved over the years. It reminded me of the loss of my mother, and of the loss of my Gulliver, in a very poignant and painful fashion, and of course, all those who fell between. And yet I knew, as Eliot had taught me in my twentieth year in that bleak, gray college classroom, loss is a necessary and permanent part of our human condition. Furthermore, it is part of what makes us human, after all. How many other species have the ability to experience grief? Very few, and even that is the subject of argument for scientists the world over.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t trade away our ability to experience grief, to allow ourselves to feel the pain of letting someone go, even when that person means so much to me–no matter how difficult it is to bear. I wouldn’t wish away the joy those puppies brought me, the very joy that brings on the pain because it makes me human. Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to live any less vibrant a life. And so I kiss them goodbye, wish them good lives, and get back to work of writing, and living.