Remembering the dead, caring for the living

Once we reach a certain age, we find ourselves going to more funerals than weddings or baptisms.  There we meet friends and acquaintances we have not seen in a while.  After exchanging notes about family and the state of the nation, we usually end up talking about diets, doctors, and the untimely death of someone we know.  It is generational.

We are beings, says Heidegger, who live in time, more crucially than we live in space.   We may forget the places we have lived in, but we will always find ourselves going back to the past and commuting in time. And although it is something we avoid thinking about, we sometimes look ahead to our death. If we are mindful about living authentically, Heidegger says, looking forward to our own death should teach us how to care.  This means being able to recognize and accept our limited place in the world, and not to persist in the belief that everything else in the world exists merely for our use.  It is to live poetically, rather than technologically.

I have seen many deaths in my lifetime: the death of loved ones and of strangers, of important persons and of obscure individuals.  But none shook me as profoundly as the recent passing of a pet Cocker Spaniel.  Simba was 16 when he died a few weeks ago, a full life given the life-span of dogs.  I remember assisting in his birth; he was the biggest and strongest in a litter of eight.  From the start, he showed a fierce autonomy and a proud attitude uncommon in medium-size dogs.  I learned to respect him, and never to treat him as a mere dog.  This meant a positive recognition of his entitlement to our affection and attention, and everything in the house and its surroundings.

He grew up in the loving company of his mother, Ducci, a gentle, generous, and tolerant being, if there ever was one.  When she died about five years ago, Simba became quieter, more reflective, and even morose, instantly perking up only when our granddaughter, Julia, or any of our children came for a visit.  He doted on Julia, whom he first sniffed at and instantly bonded with when she was an infant. He would wait for her outside of her bedroom, and when she came out, he would follow her with an aristocratic air as if he were her selfappointed esquire.

His health began to deteriorate soon after his mother’s death.  The vet said he had an ulcer in his stomach that bothered him every so often.  This meant we had to keep him away from the cooked meals that he relished like a gourmand.  The finest treat for him was grilled pork liver, or a freshly-boiled “balut” which, if I had let him, he would have washed down with cold San Miguel beer.  But after the visit with the vet, my daughter, Dezh, who “owns” him, insisted on a strict diet of bland dog food.

A few weeks before he died, Simba mostly slept, getting up only to take a sip of water, and then to go out into the garden to take a pee around his favorite plant.  His eyes were covered with cataract; he would often stagger.  But he would promptly recover his posture once he sensed someone was around.  One time, I sat beside him and placed his head on my thigh in a gesture of solidarity.  We stared at each other like two old men attempting a wordless conversation.  He then raised his head to me, as if to say in proud resignation, “My time is running out.”  I envied his serenity, his “being-towards-death.”

One morning, while I was making coffee, I found him soaked in his own urine.  He stirred and struggled to get up when he felt my presence, but he kept slipping.  For a while he remained motionless. I touched him to say it was all right, and carried him into the garden so he could properly relieve himself.  Straightening himself up like a gentleman, he then unsteadily walked back into the kitchen. The following day he was gone.

Wrapping his lifeless body in a towel, I found myself rehearsing my own final moments.  Would I be as calm, as brave, and as accepting as dear Simba? Or would I be seized by anxiety, aridly asking in remorse, to borrow poet Philip Larkin’s words, about “the good not done, the love not given, time torn off unused”?  I could find no answers.  Such questions are ultimately pointless except as reminders about how we should live.  For life and death are things that can never be explained, only experienced.  But being-towardsdeath should teach us something about living in this world.  We are not supposed to be its consumers, says Heidegger, only its attendants.

This year’s All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, a time we reserve to remember our dead, prompts us to reflect even more on what it means to be in the world.  For November has come in the wake of two devastating disasters that killed many, destroyed much, and overturned our communities.   Alas, the senseless destruction has, so far, only moved us to prepare for similar events in the future.  Once again, the focus is on technological capacity and preparedness. These events apparently have not been powerful enough to instigate a comprehensive questioning of our way of life, in particular our narrow self-referential and possessive attitude towards everything in the world.

It is interesting that our culture teaches us to reach out to our dead ancestors for advice on our personal problems.  Whether we believe in life after death or not, we commune with them to settle old misunderstandings and to assure them of our fidelity to promises made.  Perhaps we could ask them this time what they think life is really all about, now that they have completed theirs.  If they could answer, I doubt if acquisition and attachment to property would have a place in their wisdom.  I think they would say: No one lives forever. Manage your life now. Care.

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