Notes on a Buddhist path

End of Days

August 24, 2011 By | 6 Comments

My first shift as a bonafide hospice volunteer without the training wheels of the classroom and my mentor by my side was last Saturday. It was also the anniversary of my mother’s death, the first death I ever witnessed. I have welcomed the others that have followed.

That may seem strange to some, but the deep, deep honour of hearing the final breath of the woman who gave me my first breath was one of the most profound experiences of my life. So profound that it changed my life. I began to see all of life as beginnings and endings, opportunities and risks. Over the next years my marriage ended, I left the country of my birth, and I was by the side of four long time and much loved pets when they died. Each departure conjured up a wrenching flood of tears and waves of grief, but the sadness seemed to give way readily to a sort of resolve to get on with things. The sorrow slipped away like fog on the highway. Palpable, clenching and all encompassing at its worst, but gone as quickly as it came.

This past winter I read The Art of Racing in the Rain, an intrepid and gorgeous novel by Garth Stein, told in the first canine by Enzo, a dog of extraordinary wisdom and soul. Enzo aspires to a higher realm in his next incarnation.

“In Mongolia, when a dog dies, he is buried high in the hills so people cannot walk on his grave. The dog’s master whispers into the dog’s ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life…. I learned that from a program on the National Geographic channel, so I believe it is true. Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready.

I am ready.”

At the end of the book (no spoiler report here) I sobbed uncontrollably for well on half an hour (okay, you can probably guess how it ends).  It felt as if the grief of so much loss, so much falling away in such a short period of time had gotten caught inside of me, like ice trapped in a fissure of rock. With the tears my heart melted and years of anguish and pain crashed out of me, cascading into the open for the first time. It was healing, warming, gentle and loving in so many ways.

We are all bound to our agreement with life. We come and we go. Those we love will crack our hearts open in so many delicious ways, including when they ultimately leave us. My two cats, Jack and Clause, are both elderly gentleman inching their way towards the end of this life. Both have health problems, both are still most vocal and both love to sleep near the other. But not too close. When the time comes for them to die, I hope to serve them as best I can.

And I’ll whisper a final wish to each of them.

End of Days

by Marge Piercy

Almost always with cats, the end
comes creeping over the two of you—
she stops eating, his back legs
no longer support him, she leans
to your hand and purrs but cannot
rise—sometimes a whimper of pain
although they are stoic. They see
death clearly though hooded eyes.

Then there is the long weepy
trip to the vet, the carrier no
longer necessary, the last time
in your lap. The injection is quick.
Simply they stop breathing
in your arms. You bring them
home to bury in the flower garden,
planting a bush over a deep grave.

That is how I would like to cease,
held in a lover’s arms and quickly
fading to black like an old-fashioned
movie embrace. I hate the white
silent scream of hospitals, the whine
of pain like air-conditioning’s hum.
I want to click the off switch.
And if I can no longer choose

I want someone who loves me
there, not a doctor with forty patients
and his morality to keep me sort
of, kind of alive or sort of undead.
Why are we more rational and kinder
to our pets than to ourselves or our
parents? Death is not the worst
thing; denying it can be.

“End of Days” by Marge Piercy, from The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980 – 2010. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd 2008.


  1. Just reading Marge Piercy’s memoir, Sleeping with Cats; your sentiment and presence resonate. perhaps this is the diving board to evolution? Our freedom? Let’s hope so.ox

  2. You were the one who turned me on to Marge Piercy. Thank you so much – she is a gift. I’ll have to look for her memoir.

  3. “… [got] caught inside of me, like ice trapped in a fissure of rock.”

    What an exquisite metaphor. Hmmm, could you be a writer, per chance?

    “We are all bound to our agreement with life.”

    And maybe a Dharm … no, I won’t say it! 😉

    As for that final whisper, perhaps best not a wish for a human rebirth, but instead a gentle reminder to return as their true higher self.

  4. What a way with words you have Tess!

    “We are all bound to our agreement with life. We come and we go. Those we love will crack our hearts open in so many delicious ways”

    Wonderful to know your hospice shifts are going well.

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