The deer fleeing for its life turns to look at me with my mother’s eyes. Dark fierce eyes, bitter-bright, locking onto mine. Not letting me go. Not looking for help or pity or comfort. Not looking for escape. She knows there’s no escape. That dark gaze locked onto mine wants but one thing. A witness to its passing, its inevitable and terrifying end.
I never actually saw the deer that night. It was too dark. I only heard its pounding hooves passing behind our home, its terrified scream splitting the night. But I “see” it nonetheless. For days, weeks, afterwards, even now, I see it. Screaming past me with my mother’s eyes. I’d watched her passing too. Her inevitable and terrifying end.
It came quickly. Late June she was diagnosed with cancer. By October she was gone.
I was her caretaker during those last brief months. I watched her flesh waste away, her energy, her light step, her quick smile, her interest in watching golf and tennis on TV, in reading mysteries, in knitting, in food, in friends, in family. In me. In her own life. It all drained away in a few short months, in the time it takes to flee screaming with pounding hooves from one side of the meadow to the other before crashing down that ravine.
And all that time in her passing, her wide, terrified gaze locked on mine. Or so it seems now.
In fact, her passing was surprisingly mild. She refused treatment and entered hospice care. She was 80 years old. Her time had come. She was ready. Or so she said, and maybe even believed, at the beginning. The medication kept her free of the worst pain for most of that time. Until it didn’t. Until there was no escaping the pain.
She watched herself deteriorate, and I watched with her. It was like a thing we watched silently together this draining away of her life. It was a painful thing, but for the most part she was stoic, reserved, resigned.
And then one day as she was struggling across the room with her walker, moving in slow motion like the deer in my dream, she turned toward me and fixed her eyes on mine.
By then her loose skin hung from her bones, her sharp shoulders hunched, her wide mouth drooped, her once silver white hair turned yellow and dull, and her dark eyes shone from sunken sockets. She turned toward me in her slow struggle across the room, fixing her intense bitter-bright eyes on mine and said, “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The worst thing. Dying. And I knew she was not looking for a response from me, nor sympathy, nor saving, nor comforting words. My place was simply to bear witness to this “worst thing”, to the terror of her inevitable passing. Death at her heels on that slow passage across the room.
She slipped into a coma soon afterwards. And then she was gone.
No escape. The unalterable, unutterable fact underwriting our existence. We avert our eyes every which way as long as we can. Until we can’t. Until the time comes to bear witness, to refuse to look away, to let the fact of another’s inevitable passing, or our own, stare us down, and lock our gaze. No escape. And all we can do is be there, fully present, in that moment, bearing witness.
There’s a story about a Zen monk fleeing for his life, a tiger at his heels, chasing him over the edge of a cliff where he grabs hold of a branch. He dangles there just out of reach of the tiger’s jaws snapping at his head, while below him he sees another tiger half-climbing the cliff to snap at his feet. No escape. Just then he notices a fat juicy strawberry dangling from a nearby vine. He lets go with one hand to swing toward the strawberry where he plucks it loose and pops it into his mouth. “Oh, so delicious!” He sighs savoring its sweetness.
Here’s another story. True story. Caught on video by a group of tourists on safari in Africa. You can watch it here on youtube. Here’s how it goes:
A herd of water buffalo approach a river where a pride of lions are resting. The lions chase the buffalos, separating a calf from the herd, and dragging it away. Only the struggling calf slips into the river. The lions climb down the bank and begin pulling the calf ashore when a crocodile grabs hold of its leg and tries to drag it under. The lions and crocodile play tug-of-war with the calf, until the lions win and pull it ashore. No escape.
Then something unimaginable happens. The fleeing buffalos suddenly stop running, reverse course, and head back, charging at the lions and chasing them away. The little calf, who moments before hand been in the clutches of the lions’ jaws—no escape, gets to her feet, shakes her rump and walks away with the herd, apparently unharmed.
What does it all mean?
These two stories roll around and around in my mind, the same way the screaming deer’s flight and my mother’s slow struggle across the room are rolled together in my memory.
What do they have in common, the monk and the baby buffalo? One savoring life while death snaps at his heels, another’s life being saved from the grip of death. The saving and savoring of life. It’s a theme I turn to again and again in my writing.
Perhaps our escape from life’s inevitable and terrifying end, like the monk’s, is by embracing life’s sweetness, savoring all it has to offer, living life in the oh-so-delicious present moment.
Perhaps our escape is like the calf being plucked from the jaws of death by something too miraculous to even imagine.
Perhaps at the very end, when there finally is no escape from death, like that deer, like my mother, and that awful inevitable conclusion chasing us down grabs hold, something unimaginable happens. Some unseen hand plucks us like a ripe strawberry from the jaws of death and swallows us whole, savoring all the sweetness of our brief lives, and reaffirming with a sigh, “Oh, so delicious!”
[This post is a sequel to my last, which you can read here. The photos were taken from an Amtrak train window on a trip to San Diego where I wrote most of this post]