This is in response to Cormac James on Aeon, who worries about what to tell his five year old son about death because Cormac is an atheist. Big deal. What’s God got to do with it? There’s a particular irony in this man being named “Cormac,” a writer whose accounts of evil, suffering and death has hypnotised the whole field of Western literature profs.
Cormac says “Sigmund Freud’s belief that ‘in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality’”. I think not. I think everyone is convinced of their own consciousness being THEM and that their consciousness can escape their bodies and endure somehow out there in some form with no body. But if all consciousness AND unconsciousness has left the body forever, that’s the definition of death. That’s when someone can note the “time of death,” certify a “cause of death,” and dispose of the body since there’s no more use for it.
The idea of God is really an identity with no body -- nobody, nobadaddy. Indefinable. Can’t kill it because there’s nothing. It’s an idea, one that transforms and disappears.
The best lesson -- and a five year old should by now have had a pet that died -- is simple before-and-after. Bob’s first wife was working in a nursing home that cared for an old woman who was only living because a machine breathed for her. This caretaker was not “churchy” but she protested to the head nurse that she thought it was cruel and simply making money for the institution. The old woman didn’t even have any living family. The head nurse said, “Okay. Turn the respirator off.”
“I don’t have the authority,” said the hapless CNA.
“I give you the authority. YOU turn the machine off or you’re fired.”
Hapless needed the job. She turned off the respirator. The old woman died in a moment or two. Hapless felt very strange and she never forgot. Figuring out death is only a task for the living.
It’s the EXPERIENCE that can only be felt. The brain-dead are body-dead, identity-dead, GONE. It is the living who know it and ONLY the living. Everyone knew that once in the days when there was chicken for dinner on the farm and someone went out and killed it. You can’t eat it alive. Have you no culture?
On my cat post a few days ago I talked about reducing the size of a kitten litter by “human intervention.” I drowned the extras. (Cat litters can go as high as 13, though it is “normal” for there to be three or four.) Three. I cannot catch this feral female, Patches. If I could, I would get her spayed -- if I had money or could find help. Men here have offered to shoot her, but it's against the law to shoot in town.
There are pop-up cat spay clinics on the rez, but not advertised off it. If I COULD catch her and her kittens, I could take them to the nearest humane society (thirty mile drive), where they would be killed by plunging a needle into their hearts, because they are untameable and because all the kittens on the planet are born about the same time in a great wave of synchronicity. Many of them will die soon, because this is the crushing wheel of life that creates thousands of beetles or whatever, and then kills most of them. Kill death by reducing fertility. Predators have to eat, too. There are no vegetarian predators.
I asked the veterinarian for cat tranquilizers so I could catch them. He was shocked and horrified. “Just stop FEEDING them,” he said. They’d find a way to eat, but it wouldn’t be as nice. He charges several hundred dollars to kill a cat.
My bathroom sink is rather splendid. I knew within an hour when the kittens were born. Patches came for breakfast much thinner. I carried them gently, used warm water and it took only a minute or so. It was not that different from a womb. I wept. I did something I can’t call prayer because who would I pray to? Call it mindfulness. Call it poetry.
Then I took the little bodies out to the trash roll-off. “Been gopher huntin’?” asked the old rancher unloading his pickup.
“Had to drown some kittens and feelin’ bad about it,” I told him.
His wife said, “A terrible job, but sometimes it has to be done.”
What’s so privileged about kittens that it’s okay to kill gophers but not kittens? Kittens are domesticated, meaning if they are tamed (ie: form a bond with a human, like the fox in “The Little Prince”) they are different, in a different category. We’ve attached, or at least find them useful. Owned so we protect them. Give them individual names. We tamed a gopher once. It drowned by jumping into the toilet when someone left the lid up.
Why does the United States kill five-year-olds, not entirely by accident? Sometimes with malice and enjoyment. So long as they’re not OUR children. Only Other. Only Feral. Meaning, no identity, no attachment, no duty to protect, no value. Unless there’s a use for them, which use might not be sitting at a kitchen table eating Cheerios, without names.
And why does Cormac worry about what HIS son thinks when feral children have already found out about dead things, sometimes human -- call CSI. The domestic children get up in the night and search the Internet to look for pictures of death, torture, suffering, to understand what it’s about that it’s so secret, a big door on the front of the subject marked “GOD,” who is purported to be unkillable, at least if you accept the proper definition. Otherwise you’ll notice that God is dead. ALL the gods are dead. They’ve lost their identities except for poetry. (Actually, by age five most American kids have seen a LOT of death portrayed, heard a lot about it.)
My mother's mother in the center,
Her sisters second in from each end.
My mother took the photo.
When my mother was dying, she asked me what I thought the “other side” would be like. I said, “It will be like where ever you were before you were born.” She pondered that as a good Presbyterian, then moved over to science. “I hope the next planet will be as much fun as this one!” she said cheerfully. She was acting. For our sake. Her cousin knew. “What were her last words?” she asked. But can you count the muttering of a comatose person without their dentures? I told her the “next planet” thing.
My mother’s identity was not lost. Neither was her mother’s nor her grandmother’s. Her identity was genetically and culturally blended from those of the people who raised her. She was lucky. Neither catastrophe nor drugs tore those identities out of her. Some people have to leave a hole in that place or invent a fiction or just not think about it or -- the worst, to regret the identities that created their own. I knew that early and therefore refused to have children.
It didn’t do any good. There are still people whose identities are in part derived from mine: students, readers, people I so dearly loved and tried to be like even if it meant damage or suffering. Still, there a little part of me that remains feral. I think it came from my mother. Or maybe from books. It makes me risk -- like telling you this. I can already feel the hands slipping over my mouth.
My mother used to say, “All cats are gray in the dark.” I would agree. Except that sometimes a little gray half-kinkajou invades us despite resistance and now sleeps behind my knees. I’ve finally decided Hop is NOT related to any of these yard ferals -- in fact he’s not feral, just unfed. Sometimes some cat like that will come busting onto the scene and his identity will be so loud, messy, stinking, and otherwise vivid that you end up tolerating the beast -- even though it just flipped my computer mouse on its back for the third time. Can I help it if he gets comfort against my throat? Makes it vibrate with his purring? His song.
Double in size and still growing.
Very messy eater.