I have seen the dead before.
Funerals, hospitals, textbooks, et cetera. I am familiar even more with the concept of death. I’m an author—a novelist—but more important, an avid reader. I was there when George told Lennie about his dream the last time, there when Paul carried Kat to the dressing station, there when Antium's Senators greeted Coriolanus. I am familiar with the death rattles of the greats, so perhaps it is that familiarity that leads me to believe in the Clear Last Breath.
He exhaled again and I knew this would be the last time. As the air drained from his body he grew cold, limp, and of course…dead.
That is a quote from nothing. I came up with it. But it could be from anything, even from one of my own books. I know it better than anyone; I too have fallen victim to the theatrics of the Clear Last Breath, one final release of the spirit through the lungs as a body becomes a corpse. That’s how it happens sometimes, I’m sure of it: a final and halting gasp which unmistakably marks the end of a life. But tonight I learned that there are other times, murky times, where the heat of the dying is indistinguishable from the heat of the newly dead.
Animals are important to me. They always have been. I learned what we all learned about animals, which was to cry when Bambi’s mom was shot; to root for the dalmations and hate the evil Cruella De Vil. To cherish our house cats and dogs as family members. But my learning didn’t stop there. I loved all animals, including the strange, ugly, and undomesticated. From a young age I would cry if someone killed a bug in front of me. I handled creatures like hornets and spiders in bare hands without fear.
Dead animals were, and are, upsetting to me. We all cringe a bit when we see roadkill on the streets. Though it took me a while—fifteen years, to be exact—I began to feel the same, empathetic pit in my gut for the animals on dinner plates. A dead cat in the road carved the same hole in me that a dead turkey on a platter did.
But it was strange to think that way, I quickly learned. Not everything deserves to live, after all. It sounds nasty when you say it so plainly, but that is simply how things are set up. I’m reminded of this fact every summer solstice when we Americas take up arms against the barbaric and evil Yulin dog meat festival, in which 15,000 dogs are consumed. Those dogs don’t deserve to die. But the 22 million chickens eaten every day in America do. Having a different opinion would be extremism.
I have a favorite animal. I think it’s important that everyone does. Our connection to animals is something we often shy away from. We deny them and use them as commodities to protect our anthropomorphic worldview: Humans Above All. To call someone an animal is an insult, but the humor is that we are animals, just tall and relatively hairless ones. A favorite animal is important, because it is a happy little reminder of our connection to those things which aren’t us, but are like us. Just look up “animals acting like people” and as the millions of videos you’ll discover will show you, it thrills us to see ourselves reflected in our beloved creatures. This is an important thing.
Opossums are my favorite animal. Part of loving opossums is understanding their unpopularity. People are frightened off by their naked tails and humanesque hands, but the truth is that opossums are quite remarkable. They are quite smart and quite clean as well, especially as far as woodland animals go. They slow the spread of Lyme Disease by eating ticks, and don’t carry rabies. They are sentimental and social creatures who tend to den together even if they aren’t mates. Their disposition and intellect are a little similar to that of a cat, even, and opossum rehabilitators who live with the animals report them to be quite cuddly and friendly creatures.
But opossums are not one of the lucky few. They really ought to be counting their stars to be excluded from those animals that we have deemed to be food, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to live. Most opossums don’t need to fear getting turned into a sandwich, but they certainly ought to fear getting hit by a car. Because the truth is, if an animal like an opossum gets hit by a car, there is virtually no probability that the driver of said car, or anybody else for that matter, will make any attempt to save their life.
I went to the grocery store tonight after a terrible, terrible day. The best kind of terrible day is the kind that has a magnificent story behind it, because then you can at least get some gratification from telling everyone the perilous story of why your day was so terrible. This was the worst kind of terrible day, where there’s no frightful tale to spin and no fun to be had by airing out your sorrows. No, I just felt bad, and I was tired and busy and overwhelmed, and all I wanted to do was come home from Ingles and go straight to bed.
But I couldn’t, because while I was driving, I suddenly noticed that there was something in the road in front of my car. It was late, and what I saw from a distance just looked like a discarded trash bag or some other clutter. When my headlights cast over it I realized it was not just something, but rather someone: a wounded opossum in the road. There was blood on the street, reflected in the white light from the glow of my headlights. And the opossum was standing upright, looking at me with blood dripping from his nose and mouth.
I put my car in park and sat there for a moment, stunned. Seeing blood when one is not expecting to is jarring enough, but more shocking still was this: the victim was left standing and clearly very much alive, also very much the victim of a car strike.
So why was no one around? Why had no one stopped to help?
This road had a 20 mile per hour speed limit. There was a parking lot fifty feet in either direction up or down the road. This was perhaps the single most convenient place to strike an animal, as it was the single most convenient place to stop your car and help them afterwards.
I had a brand new towel in my trunk. Some ancient memory from Steve Irwin’s The Crocodile Hunter came into my mind: the best way to calm down a wild animal is by throwing a cloth over their head. If it worked for ostriches and kangaroos then it would work for an opossum, right?
More or less, it did work. I wrapped my new little friend up in a cozy towel and within a few seconds we were driving to the nearest animal hospital.
Not to paint too warm and fuzzy a picture, here, though. I was absolutely mortified. We both were. The opossum was bleeding steadily and his breathing was alarmingly ragged, each wet breath struggling out as a shrrrrrrrk…shrshrrrrrrrk…shrrrrrrrkrkrk. His breathing began to calm in few minutes as he adapted to the utter shock of me: this large, alien being who had abducted him. I uncovered his face when I felt him calm down a bit, and he relaxed his neck to let his head rest on my chest. The next time I looked down he had raised his paws outside of the towel and rested them on me too. It would have been quite a tender moment if it hadn’t been for that awful, pained sound of his suffocated breathing
There wasn’t a Clear Last Breath. I think that’s why I thought he was still alive when we got to the hospital. The veterinarian told me that he had died only minutes before, likely less than a mile away from the hospital. I sat in my car outside and cried for a while.
Literature romanticizes a lot of things. The Clear Last Breath is yet another example of one of these beautifications. The truth is, the loss of life is devastating and irreversible. It is the single most permanent thing we ever do. Death frightens and morbidly captivates like nothing else, and the pain that it leaves us with is often insurmountable. Whether death strikes a king, a soldier, a friend, a stranger, or someone wholly unlike you (an opossum, perhaps) it is a strong thing. A large thing. A dark thing. But I have learned that, despite what spellbounding beautifiers like Catullus and Hemingway will lead you to believe, death is often a subtle thing too.