Doug Bruns

On dying

In Death, Dogs, Family, Life, Memoir, Writers on July 8, 2009 at 11:00 am

I think the first sentence of Jim Harrison’s novel, The Road Home, is sublime: “It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.” Harrison’s observation puts a twist on an old adage, reminding me that my pace to likely oblivion is a crawl compared to the terrorized sprint of my faithful Maggie. I was reminded of this morning after spending muchof last night on the floor next to Maggie’s bed trying to comfort her during a thunder-storm. A dog afraid of a storm is a slave to demons. At one point she attempted to climb the vertical drawers of an open closet to seek refuge amongst the sweaters and tee-shirts. Maggie has tremors when she’s afraid and her whole body is racked and frozen except for her pulsing nerves. Her tail drops and draws in around her vitals. Her ears lay back along her skull and her eyes bug out eerily. She turns to stone. It used to be that only thunder upset her. Later, lightning too began to torment her. Perhaps she made the connection that lightening is followed by thunder. Now, even a rising breeze prompts an anxiousness from her. I wonder at it all. I doubt dogs have the cognitive powers to associate a storm with anything other than noise and flashes of light. They can’t draw conclusions, presumably, and certainly not arrive at metaphor. A storm is a storm–nothing else, for a dog.

 We anthropomorphize animals, our pets in particular. We don’t even know we’re doing it most of the time. Dogs aren’t called our best friends for nothing. But stories about dogs easily grow maudlin and that does not interest me. I choose not to write about dogs at all, but about death–that would be storm as metaphor. As Julian Barnes recently wrote: “If you fear death, you don’t fear dying; if you fear dying, you don’t fear death.” Some medieval thinkers, arguing for the existence of the soul, posited that humans are aware of death, animals are not and there, in our self-conscious awareness, is evidence of the soul, and, by inference, the lack thereof in our animals. I don’t believe in the soul, but if I did, in my cosmos Maggie would have one too. This proof of the soul poses an interesting converse. What if the concept of death, escaped us–perhaps through injury to the dopamine system of the cerebral cortex whereby the ability to conceptualize death was lost–would we consequently have no soul? The more interesting question is how would we live, if like our dogs, we were unaware of the outcome? Of course, the outcome, death, does not escape us–but the consequences of the outcome remain a mystery. Therein lies the riddle.

* * *

 My daughter, Alison, is in nursing school. I understand this to be a wise career choice for these troubled times. She visited home yesterday and talked about her “clinicals.” The clinical practice of a student nurse is the “field work” as it were, the opportunity to put into the hands of the young healers the requisite tools to do their work. She is doing a good job, but is, as she said, “Just waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“Waiting for someone to die. I’ve never seen a person die,” she said. “And I’m upset at the thought.”

 There is not much a parent can say to this. Dying is part of the cycle? Death is natural? It’s the yin and yang of nature–and all the rest. Drivel. It doesn’t help. No one knows how they will react to observing death the first time. I’m fifty-three and recently saw my first dying person. The pallid riddle was laid out for full inspection. I have to admit, as bad as it sounds, watching the death of my cousin was a curious, even interesting, thing. That was my reaction at the time, at the bedside. I thought it odd then, my reaction, and still do. That was six months ago and I find myself thinking about it often, though the spectrum of reflection has shifted. Curiosity has ceased and contemplation has set in. Her death was a study; now it is a meditation. So much has been written on the subject, indeed, everything has been written in the shadow of death. I cannot add an iota of originality to the subject, but I have a few observations.

 I will start with the death of my mother two years ago. I was out of town when my mobile rang. It was my parent’s number and it was eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. My heart skipped. My father was on the phone. “Oh, thank God I got you,” he said. “I’ve got terrible news.” I listened quietly. I recognized the voice as his, yet it was acutely different. “Your mother died last night.” My reaction to this news was immediate dull numbness. Conversely, I was suddenly and intensely aware of my father on the end of the line.

“Dad, are you okay?”

“Yes. Oh, this is terrible.”

“I’m in New York. I’ll be there in about three hours. Carole and Jeff will come over.”

“She’s in her chair. She went in her sleep. In her chair.”

“That is a good thing. A peaceful way to go, Dad.” He was quiet. I was quiet. I could hear him breathing. Then he broke the silence.

“Last night was something,” he said.

“What about last night, Dad?”

“Last night your mother and me we sat and just talked. We never even got around to turning on the TV. She was in her chair and I was in my chair and we just talked all evening, maybe three or four hours. We haven’t done that in years. Then it was bedtime and I got up and kissed her and went to my room. She never woke up.”

 “Dad,” I said. “Listen to me. That is a wonderful story. Each of us someday will close the book on our life and what we all want and could only wish for, is exactly what you and mom did, to spend a few hours with the one we most love and kiss them good night.” I don’t know how much he heard of what I said. It was a remarkable exit on my mother’s part. Precisely what I expected.

Months later he told me that mom came to him in a dream. He said to her, How you doing? With that she slapped her hands together and laughed out loud, declaring, Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. He said he was embarrassed by the dream. I don’t believe in dreams or ghosts or visits from the dead, but as Montaigne famously stated, “What do I know?” I told him it was a wonderful dream and was nothing to be ashamed of. He has since shared it with some of his contemporaries. They no doubt appreciate knowing that good times lie ahead.

* * *

 I have never been preoccupied with death. I have been over occupied with life on occasion, which is perhaps the same, only sort of inside out. (“What I really wanted was every kind of life,” wrote Susan Sontag.) I think about it, death, more than I did as a younger man. Even then it was evidently part of consciousness. I recall my eighth birthday. The sun was shinning and I was full of myself, walking from my back yard to the yard of my best friends, brothers Rick and Jeff. Someone had just mowed the grass. I am big now, I recall thinking. Then I was blindsided with this thought: If I die tomorrow, I want my life to be full and without regret. It is admittedly a bizarre thought for an eight year old. Where it came from I haven’t a clue. There was no death in my family to preoccupy me. I wasn’t scared of thunder storms, though we got wild ones in Indiana. I am still thankful for the thought. It was as if someone had unrolled a map on a table in front of me, such that the dotted path to the treasure was laid out without mistake. X marked the spot. I realized the path which lay in front of me and I set out determined to follow it. My life was to be examined and rich and nuanced. I once documented a plastic surgeon at work. He asked of another surgeon during a surgery to build a man’s mouth lost to cancer, “How is he going to eat?” It is an important question: How is he going to live? How am I going to live? The question became my mantra at eight and is now deeply entwined into the fabric of my double helix. Some of the answers I have discovered are contained here, in these ramblings.

 There is a practice in Tibet where it is recommended one go regularly to the burial grounds. There, among the dead, one cannot escape the inevitability of extinction, or perhaps a more pleasant variation on that theme. It is a way of becoming less like our dogs, forgetting our death (though forgetting implies we actually knew (of) it, could point it out in a crowd, could say, I–almost–knew it then) and more like a human being living in full consciousness of it. Can you stubbornly ignore death in a grave yard? That sunny morning beginning my ninth year of existence I began my trek of the dotted line to the treasure. I vowed to see the world, read the right books, laugh with friends richly, love deeply–in short, live the necessity to fulfill the epiphany I had experienced.

 My cousin said to me a few weeks before she died, “When I come back I’m going to do it differently.” We chuckled over this. Sadly though, it was her confession of remorse, an admission of disappointment over the life she had lived–at least I think that was what she was saying. (The latin from which remorse is derived means literally “to bite back.”) The prescient eight-year old can discern a lurking disappointment of the most serious nature and will avoid it. I am drawn to the idea of living life in preparation for its end. In some traditions this complex notion is reduced to something so mundane as a rote ideal, a doctrine, in the most extreme instances, denial. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, though mass consumption of rote ideals never seems to turn out as hoped. I am self-taught at everything so am stubborn as a result. I can’t accept a doctrine so much as rush down a blind alley, take a U-Turn or be lectured to. The big questions generate itches only I can contort to reach.

* * *

 It is afternoon now and we have enjoyed a pleasant day of sunshine and warm spring breezes. But there is cloud cover encroaching from the west and Maggie is starting to act weird. Her tail is down and she’s got a hang-dog look, appropriately. If another storm hits I will give her a tranquilizer to calm her. As I write this, my phone rings and I see it is someone who seldom calls and I take the call, interrupting my time here, and my friend tells me of the sudden death, this morning, of a mutual friend, a man I didn’t know well but liked for his quiet unassuming presence. The man had a headache on Wednesday, then a sinus infection according to his doctor on Thursday and called in sick Friday, felt worse still late in the day and went to the hospital where he died the next morning of spinal meningitis.


  1. my google reader seems to select posts from the house at random and i never know if it is a recent post or one from the distant past until i click through to your website. so i read the whole of this post and then (i work with dying people) i just wanted to say : tell alison, everyone’s death is unique and you never get used to it. hopefully by now she is a qualified nurse and doing wonderful work. the energy and commitment of the nurses i have worked with never ceases to amaze me.

    • J ~ Thanks for your note–and the apparent good work you do. Allie is an RN at Johns Hopkins, gainfully employed and, I believe, do work that is important and meaningful. I will pass your observation on to her. Thank you for that.

      I find your comment that each death is unique somehow comforting, as if one gets to hold on to a modicum of distinction until the very end. I don’t know why that seems comforting, but it does. A part of me think that at that point the ego might release to something larger and more inclusive and somehow sense of everything is realized. Of course that is nothing but wishful thinking, but then the whole concept of death seems a thing one might want to wish away.

      Even at this early hour such notions are plaguing. I am certain you bring comfort to those you are helping during the most challenging of human experiences. Thank you.


      • thanks. i am glad to hear it. i read your speech at her wedding and thought it was fabulous. with regards to death, since experiencing the deaths of others at close hand as part of my work, i have become somewhat of a reluctant heidegger fan – or i shouldn’t say fan really, there are just a few bits of his i have picked up here and there such as the idea that we are all being-towards-death whether we like it or not, and that being human is being able to *be* – and with that in mind as we gracefully (or less than gracefully in my case 😉 get closer and closer to the inevitable end (i am 54) i also find myself closer and closer to a state of acceptance about it, and this is the case too with quite a few of my patients. it is often harder for the loved ones to accept than it is for the patient who is experiencing the gradual (or sudden) lessening of their ability to be. thanks for your comment and the many good things in your house which never fail to provide a distraction for my own writing. jk

      • J ~ Thanks for your thoughts and kind words. You’ve got a very nice, gentle, way about you. It comes through quite powerfully that you are a man engaged in serious business with thoughtful purpose.

        I read Time and Being many years ago and most of it was lost on me. As I pick up the tome now, I see a lot of underlined passages and marginalia, but it is obvious I was cherry picking highlights and had no grasp of the system at work. At this stage, 57, I don’t think I’ve got the energy to go back and give it the good go. But Heidegger keeps coming up in my reading and thinking so perhaps… But of course I want to read Ulysses again too!

        Your comment reminds me of Montaigne, someone who I do read (almost every day): “If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known now to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way.”

        Thanks for being part of the house. Glad to have you here–even if it does occasionally distract you from your more rightful purpose.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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