by Janice Lee
Death needs a new cosmology. Death is not a black hole where things cease to be. If you want to live well, keep death close. Hope includes hopelessness and grieving is showing gratitude for that which has been lost. What would it be like to treat grief as power? Even our hopelessness as a form of decomposing and falling away that is sacred.
I remember leaning into the wood, staring at the shelf, as if I stared harder, if I continued to look at the one spot with the entirety of my being, the money would appear. The money that I had placed on that very shelf in the dream I had just woken from. If I waited and stared hard enough, if I focused back on being inside of the space of the dream, the money would appear. It would be there. Instead, I looked up for a brief second, and saw the one-eyed teddy bear smiling down at me, an almost cocky grin that brought me back into the reality which my physical body occupied, and I realized that the other reality, though it had shared the same space of this house, this room, this very shelf, was not part of this one, and that in order to move forward, I would have to let it go.
When I was a child, I didn’t see the connection between dreams and life the way I do now. I didn’t see the way that parallel realities influence each other, one to the other, an attunement of imagination, not a linear cause-and-effect, not just the buried unconscious waiting to be unearthed, not just a fictive world in which everything that manifested had no real consequence. Rather, I came to understand, that it was all of consequence, just not in the way that I had thought. It wasn’t that the events of my dreams affected how I lived my life, and it wasn’t that how I experienced life created the images that appeared in my dreams—it wasn’t something so dull or linear as that—rather, the past and the present and the future were all elusive and simultaneous in this other place, so that everything that unfolded there, was both of small and utterly grand significance. In this particular life, in the place that we called “the real world,” we had chosen to live life in a linear way, so that it had seemed that dreams were of an other cloudy and ephemeral place, not real, and yet, I knew, that the dreamworld was more indicative of what was real than anything in reality. Even the teddy bear with only one eye could see the truth of this multitudinous existence.
Last year, I almost found myself in a fatal car wreck. But I had my gaze shifted by a great blue heron that called to me from across the street. When my attention turned towards it, I also noticed the other car hurtling towards me, going the wrong way, headed straight for me on the driver’s side door. I managed to swerve away and when I glanced back at the bird who had saved me, he simply returned my gaze for a brief moment and then flew away.
The thing is, that when I survived that car crash, I also died in one. Both of them happened at the same time. The jolt of the survival allowed me to stay on this path, where I had survived and witnessed my own death, and in the other, floating above the past and the present, there I was, there I will be, there I still am. For a moment I was above myself, floating and witnessing everything from a wholly different space. But too, for a moment I felt the pain of impact, the crumpling of the car around me like aluminium foil, the crumpling of my own body into itself, the puncture of metal into flesh into ribs and then, nothing.
The distinction between real and not real, fiction and not fiction, it’s not so different than the illusion that there is a difference between self and other, subject and object, you and me, body and space.
When I began to journey to my sacred place on the land in my shamanic healing work, it is true that my dog Benny showed himself to me there, to let me know that he would be there always, even when he had to leave this reality, the corporeal one, and it is true that the most important wisdom I have learned from him is about how to separate myself from him, separating myself from my own self. What I hold onto is not just him, the dog by my side who absorbs my pain, has unconditional love and empathy and understanding for everything that I experience, the unconditional love that only a dog can know, it is that I hold onto the version of myself who has him by my side to teach me these things. I hold onto myself with him, because I don’t know how to be whole and wise and vulnerable without his support.
The day that I adopted Benny, I accepted the future loss, I accepted the consequences of falling in love so utterly with another being. What I remember is how he burst out of his cage at the shelter, a massive, matted ball of fur. They allowed us to take him on a walk around the block to make sure he was the one, but from the instant we made eye contact when he leapt out of that confined space, practically into my arms, I already knew that we somehow had been bound together. That’s my dog, I remember thinking to myself.
It feels impossible to articulate the relationship I had (and continue to have) with Benny, the utter closeness, the absurdly telepathic connection, the distance between us as displaced as the particles of sky that make up the sky, and like leaves that remain permeable to the sunlight and the air, the risk of that kind of openness that lets everything in, all of it.
Last summer at the ASLE (a literature and environment) conference at UC Davis, Cherrie Moraga told a story about when her newborn son was in the hospital. She wanted so much for him to live, with the entirety of her being, wanted him to stay with her. She demonstrated the posture of her body, hunched over, clenched and tight, hands in the shape of fists, her entire being closed off and holding onto the present with her entire grip. This was not a life-sustaining posture, she explained. A life-sustaining posture, she demonstrated, was the human body with her arms open and outstretched, absorbing light, permeable, vulnerable, giving, receiving. I held back tears hearing this story. I knew that this was what I had to work towards, that when the time came, I had to know how to let him go, not with the clenched posture I had lived most of my life, but with openness, full acceptance, and knowing. This realization would change everything.
Through it all, it is Benny who has most helped me realize my capacity to live. It is Benny who has taught me the noticing that becomes part of intimacy, the communication that constantly haunts the distance between us as also the history of my own ghosts, my own struggle with depression, my own question of why go on at all?
In a previous essay, I admitted that the future I feared most of all was a future without Benny. In that essay from 3 years ago, I addressed him directly:
Dear Benny, I want to admit that what I fear most is your death, I don’t know how I will survive it, but I don’t want to put the burden of my future grief onto you now because I know you will just absorb it and you will just try and take the sadness and lay your head on my stomach and the look you will give me, that look of, “It’s okay, Mama,” will only break my heart again. I want to admit that I fear your death will devastate me even more than the death of my mother, which I am still reliving, now, as I write this, but that also the devastation I feel daily is part of all this, you, me, our lives in the morning when you wake me up every morning by jumping under the covers or onto my chest.
Dear Benny, sometimes when you are sitting in my lap I hold my breath because the faith I had in the fidelity of your expectations had to do with the faith I had in the fidelity of my own expectations, and I need to believe that there is still another space I am living towards, and I know that you recognize my fear even before I am aware it exists and you seem to ask me, “Mama, what are you waiting for?” And I don’t know how to answer that question.
Dear Benny, the words so often fail because the distance between words is so different than the distance between bodies, and though I live for the language, I live for your silence even more. Your gestures and your paws and the quick movements of your ears and the darting of your eyes, the point is that emotions are unnameable but still important and that without words you understand me better than any human I know, precisely because they are unnameable, precisely because they are felt, precisely because you exist.
Dear Benny, the point is, I’m not in love now but I was and I used to be, and the mistakes I made have got to be turned into something other than rage or guilt and I have to believe that there is a towards ahead of me, but you know that it is this present that is equally important and that in the silent moments I can outlive the expectation of living and what you give to me I will never be able to repay and you do not ask me to. You do not ask me to.
Dear Benny, I don’t yet know how to write about a trauma that is not mine, yet invisibly and with utmost uncertainty, I have inherited its wounds and I keep trying to write about it anyway. My fear is that you have inherited this from me, and that my wounds have become your wounds and the wisdom you turn back at me is also a repercussion of my own pain and the pain you have created in yourself in your generosity as a dog, lying next to me, the intimacy as all that is needed in order to persist.
Dear Benny, it is you, most of all, who has taught me to persist.
When one experiences a loss like this, it’s not just the absence of the person or being. It’s not just that they are missing from every aspect of your life. It’s also that you have an excess of love, all of the love that you had to give that has now been displaced. And you are left there, with an overabundance of emotion, with no container to hold it, just your own body, another reminder of the ways we overfill, the love that once was joy, brimming out of the body in the form of tears, in the form of uncontrollable laughter, in the form of sobbing, in the form of stillness. So much stillness. And you remain there, in the darkness, with your own heart, with the images of him that you keep conjuring, so that you feel less alone. You are not alone, you want to say. You are not alone, you remember.
Benny held himself together for as long as he could, I know, for my sake. The weekend he chose to leave this world was a weekend in which I was held tremendously by community and ancestors. I had been participating in an ancestral healing intensive and all weekend had been working to heal my mother’s mother’s lineage, and in that communication, I had asked them to please help Benny with his transition, when the time came. The time came early on a Monday morning. The night before he had asked to stand outside and watch the sky and the stars. He had come to me quietly, not wanting to cause a fuss. The cue was his difficulty breathing, and then, blood as he coughed. A few hours later at the emergency veterinarian, Benny’s heart failed. I will forever be grateful that he made the decision for me. He didn’t want to leave me with any regrets.
I remember sitting with him for awhile afterwards. He was wheeled out on a bed, wrapped in soft blankets. He just looks like he’s sleeping, I said out loud, as I burst into tears.
A couple days later, a good friend texted me this:
In the Lakota/Sioux tradition, a person who is grieving is considered most waken, most holy. There’s a sense that when someone is struck by the sudden lightning of loss, he or she stands on the threshold of the spirit world. The prayers of those who grieve are considered especially strong, and it is proper to ask them for their help. You might recall what it’s like to be with someone who has grieved deeply. The person has no layer of protection, nothing left to defend. The mystery is looking out through that person’s eyes. For the time being, he or she has accepted the reality of loss and has stopped clinging to the past or grasping at the future. In the groundless openness of sorrow, there is a wholeness of presence and a deep natural wisdom.
― Tara Brach
I have been in this in-between state for a long time. I know grief well. We are old friends. And it is the sadness and acceptance of the cycles of life and death, that give me clarity. Clarity comes at a very high cost. But it is real. And it is necessary. This is the pain that most us of avoid our entire lives, but is so necessary in order to be able to truly live.
What kept me going after Benny’s death was that I knew that I needed to be okay in order for Benny to not worry about me. I knew that even in death, he would worry more about me than his own transition, so I knew I had to be okay. I had to be okay so that Benny could move on.
Here’s the thing. None of us will ever fully be healed. There is only more loss waiting for us, more grief. But because time isn’t linear, that healed state we constantly are looking for, we already carry it inside of ourselves.
During a medicine workshop, our teacher asked us to make a list of our identities and roles. I wrote down things like writer, good daughter, healer, teacher. I also wrote down “moosh mama” sort of as a joke to myself. Then, we were asked to unbind ourselves from these identities and burn them in the fire. I was surprised at how easily I let go of all of my identities, except for the last one I reluctantly held in my hand: moosh mama. Being Benny’s mother had become the identity that mattered to me the most.
Last month, I drove to the coast with a friend I love and respect to have a small ceremony and scatter Benny’s ashes. She watched over Maggie (my other dog), and the two of them helped collect stones, shells, and sticks as I sat in the sand assembling an altar for him. Our first night, Benny had showed me in a dream, what he wanted this to look like. Benny and I had spent time together at this very beach often. It was a special place to both of us, and the last time he visited in corporeal form, he had helped me with my own medicine work as I gathered stones for an earth painting in the sand. Medicine dog, my teacher had remarked. The last morning before we left, Maggie and I visited the altar one more time. She insisted on stomping all over the carefully-placed stones and seashells, kicking sand all over and ruining the symmetry of the altar. I let her, because I thought, this is her way of engaging. And anyways, the sea would wash this all away. As I sang a song that had no legible words, a seagull walked up to the edge of the altar and started to sing along.
I admit that this writing is more for myself than it is for Benny. He won’t read this, and he won’t ever need to. It feels impossible to articulate the telepathic ways in which we were communicating constantly, the ways in which he clung to me and followed me around the house, especially as his vision started to fade and he found it harder to track my scent. I find it difficult to access the language to adequately express the joy of watching him crunch on a slice of watermelon with that look of utter satisfaction, to communicate how I would wake up in the middle of the night, always just moments before he was about to vomit. I don’t know what the words are to depict how much he enjoyed our walks, the curiosity with which he would sniff flowers, the way he would tilt his ears when he would hear the geese flying overhead, the insight he manifested when he helped me to collect acorns at the park.
I still sit at Benny’s altar every morning. This has become an important ritual for me, to maintain this connection with him even after death. I know he is listening because he has made his presence known to me many times. On a given morning, this is what I might say to him:
Benny, I miss you so much everyday. I thank you for all you have given me. You’ve given me more than I could ever have hoped to give you in return. It has been the honor of my life to be your mama, the greatest honor and privilege I have ever known. You were and are the great love of my life. I know our story isn’t over yet. I know we will see each other again. And until then, because of you, I will continue to live.
About the Author:
Janice Lee is a Korean-American writer, editor, publisher, and shamanic healer. She is the author of 7 books of fiction, creative nonfiction & poetry: KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015), The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), Imagine a Death (The Operating System, 2021), and Separation Anxiety (CLASH Books, 2022). She writes about interspecies communication, plants & personhood, the filmic long take, slowness, the apocalypse, architectural spaces, inherited trauma, and the concept of han in Korean culture, and asks the question, how do we hold space open while maintaining intimacy? She is Founder & Executive Editor of Entropy, Co-Publisher at Civil Coping Mechanisms, and Co-Founder of The Accomplices LLC. She currently lives in Portland, OR where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Portland State University. She can be found online at janicel.com and @diddioz.