Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Have you ever read Walt Whitman's Specimen Days? I've been visiting those words lately and feel compelled to share about this experience that coalesced with the reading (of a particular part of Specimen Days), the doing (a particular thing was done), and the dying (a particular person has died).

A few weeks back Waddles, my once favorite chicken, had to be killed. She was heavy with vent gleet which is an incredibly nasty chicken yeast infection. She had flies laying eggs in her behind and I tried to cure her but with no success. We were getting ready to leave for our mini vacay and kk was gone to pick up our friend M from the airport. I was home tidying up the "farm" with our friend R. I went to change the bedding in Waddle's isolation pen-I had separated her out from the rest of the flock cause she was so ill-and she fell over when I pulled her out. Her comb was turning purple; her eyes were not opening all the way; she was simply suffering and I could not leave her with my intern and her girlfriend for the weekend cause that would have been mean for all involved.

I dug a hole under the great oak in our yard. R said she would hold Waddles for me and I could hatchet her neck, but I said no I cannot put you through it when you don't even believe in eating animals, really. So, we waited for kk and M to arrive. K was going to hold Waddles and I was going to hatchet her, but M said she wanted to do it and so she had jumped off a plane from Brooklyn made her way to Ypsi by car and now stood in our backyard ready to help in this mercy killing.

M held Waddles, R burned sage, K readied the newspaper lined bucket, I readied my sharp hatchet. In the end I could not cut her neck. I tried and tried, but M graciously offered to switch spots with me and our vegetarian friend walloped Waddles on her main vein and ended her suffering. I placed her in the bucket and dumped her in the deep hole I had dug. And then I covered her and this peace filled my whole, physical body. It was this almost other-worldly experience; I felt a calm that I can only dream of replicating.

And what does this have to do with Specimen Days. Well, I was reading a section shortly thereafter where Whitman describes the deaths of three young men he had witnessed some years before his writing of them (and actually one of the deaths was witnessed by a dear friend of Whitman and then the friend relayed the dying to Whitman cause the friend thought Whitman would appreciate the death of the man who had died). The piece is called Three Young Men's Deaths--surprise, surprise. And these deaths were immortalized in Whitman's text. The details of each man's gentle parting are simple yet plentiful. They had left and in their leaving also left behind a significant hunk of life due to the remembering of this wise poet transcribed onto the page. Whitman's comfortableness with the transitioning from this world to something different is so full of value and lessons. His words ring true for this present moment and they ring true for tomorrow and the day after that. He witnessed the deaths and sufferings of many young men and some women in the civil war hospitals and the dying/battle fields. He captured the inhumanity of war and also the peace that came too early to so many who had been blown apart by the violence. Specimen Days is spattered with the tattered lives of people long gone. People most likely turned all the way into dust and earth, maybe some chunks of bones here and there.

Anyhow, it seemed timely for me to read about these three particular deaths represented in Specimen Days. I had this sort of great affinity for the simple emotion that he captured through the very act of writing a small snippet about each man's character and likes and then a small snippet about his demise--that one man thought enough of each to capture the essence of the last breath; the fact of it--the inhale where there seems to be no exhale or maybe the exhale looks remarkably like an eternal inhale, the struggle, the no-struggle, the eyes forever open to nothing or closed forever to all.

"He was one of these persons that while his associates never thought of attributing any particular talent or grace to him, yet all insensibly, really, liked Billy Alcott. I, too, loved him. At last, after being with him for quite a food deal--after hours and days of panting for breath, much of the time unconscious, (for the consumption that had been lurking in his system, once thoroughly started, made rapid progress, there was still vitality in him, and indeed for four or five days he lay dying, before the close,) late on Wednesday night, Nov. 4th, where we surrounded his bed in silence, there came a lull--a longer drawn breath, a pause, a faint sigh--another--a weaker breath, another sigh--a pause again and just a tremble--and the face of the poor wasted young man (he was just 26), fell gently over, in death, on my hand, on the pillow" (Whitman, Specimen Days 836).

And then I cried for these long dead men and then I cried for the peace that surrounded me when I put Waddles in the ground and then I cried for the knowledge of kk's grandma c on her own deathbed awaiting that final inhale/exhale. And grandma c did die. She passed on Thursday. KK was able to make it up north on her own intuition she dropped everything and drove up on Wednesday morning. Her father and hospice had been saying she was ready to die at any moment for 6 days. But, like the young man above, her vitality was immense and she kept on keeping on for days and days. And then she drew her last breath a little more than half way through her 89th year after kk came once more to say goodbye.

So, it has been a dying time here in this August month. Last year in this same but very different month and season, kk's grandma s took her last breath and unfolded her limbs and skin toward becoming dust. We are now down to two grandmas between the two of us--both of mine are still inhaling and exhaling fully.

Back to Specimen Days and what any of this means. K and I have been gifted to be in the presence of midwifing some of our loved ones out of this world or perhaps deeper into this very world. Though it may be the most difficult of all human emotions, there is something deeply peaceful about witnessing the end of suffering. And while it is impossible to compare a chicken's death to a human's death, the peace that seeped through my ribs after laying Waddles to rest in the tangle of roots and worms and fungi and leaves and decay was profound enough to translate to the following observation about myself and my own coming demise: Through all of this I came to the grim and lovely conclusion that being buried in a box or gauze/ or basket makes perfectly good sense for me.

A strange place to leave it all, but I am working on my exhale.

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