On Death: For Sky

I've lost six dogs as of today. I had no idea this was unusual at 33 until I mentioned it to a friend, he'd only lost one.

  1. Blue
  2. Alex
  3. Shiloh
  4. Sierra
  5. Dory
  6. Sky

All were wonderful in their own way, but Sky has stung harder than any loss I think I've ever experienced, and I've experienced a lot of loss beyond just my dogs.

I'm going to be grieving Sky for a while, but I thought I'd write down a few thoughts as they're still on my mind.

Life Is A Universe

One of the most persistent themes to my thoughts on life and death is the nature of consciousness. There are a lot of theories about perception, but the most definitive explanation for our perceptions is that they are simulacra of reality. We don't experience it directly, we create our own idea of it through which we interpret sensory input.

If we take that at face value, we can safely say that we recreate the universe as a simulation inside the computers that are our minds. Obviously it's a rough simulacrum (most people don't even know what kind of nuclear reaction occurs in a star!), but we have a truly insane amount of information stored in our rough simulacra.

I first started thinking about this years ago when a man I knew, who was kind, and fair, and little remembered, died of a massive heart attack while out for a jog. I started thinking about the context I knew him in, his job, and how good he was at it. I realized that, to be good at your job, like he was, you had to know a lot of little details, "procedural knowledge" to be technical, or "know-how" to be more vernacular.

Know how is the knowledge required to ride a bike. You might not understand that to turn left you actually have to first turn the handle bars to the right in order to unbalance yourself in the left direction, but you know how to do that, even if you don't know you're doing it. Most of us have the same kind of knowledge for innumerous things in our daily lives. We know how to word an email to a county clerk, or what number to dial the stove to in order to reach the temperature we desire, even if it doesn't match the real temperature.

I realized, at the time, that someone would fill his job, probably without his know-how, and would probably do a garbage job at it for a while. This spawned my obsession with documentation, which is slightly irrelevant to my point here, but it is the key argument I have about why every life matters:

Every person contains knowledge the rest of the world does not.

This is a rather autistic explanation for why life matters. Humor me. I am autistic.

We are large. We contain multitudes.

The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them.

And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?

Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,

(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?

Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

There has never yet been a poem or poet who has more accurately summed my philosophy of life. And, tragically, I have read very little of him.

These are the words of Walt Whitman, and the stanza

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

perfectly sums this point. We are all universes. Every living being contains some universe, however accurate or encompassing:

To witness a death is to witness Ragnarok, end of the world.

This, my friend, is mythology, psychology, and metaphysics all rolled into one.

The Pinch

Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

The quote is more famous for its utterance by Oppenheimer, after the invention of the atomic bomb, than its original place in the Bhagavad-Gita. I'm curious how many Americans have read the Bhagavad-Ghita simply because of this utterance, but the context is irrelevant to the meaning of the quote.

There is a technique in the Jewish tradition known as Midrash. Academics call this "Biblical exegesis" but that term rather misses the point, as "exegesis" merely means "critical explanation of a text." The point of Midrash, rather, is that any atom of the Bible contains a universe of meaning upon which we can meditate and extrapolate.

This quote, from Bhagavad-Gita is easily the most clear explanation of my point that we all contain universes. We are each a world. We are the universe, pinched and reflected, at a point. Our slope is steep, as steep as the depth of our experience. And our deaths are the deaths of individual worlds.

Know What

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Thought experiment:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like "red", "blue", and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence "The sky is blue". ... What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

I have experienced death, second hand always, many times. Five dogs (six now), three grandparents, and numerous acquaintances. Death is ever present in our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not.

But until I watched a dog that had spent every waking hour beside me for five years disappear from the world, it was only theory. To stroke a dog, panting in pain, and feel her become at ease as the sedative began to work, and then watch the light in her eyes go out as the pentobarbital worked, I had no idea how right I had been for years about death.

Today I witnessed a universe disappear.

And I was in it.

Gasping, hyperventilating, ugly crying, I could not breathe. I knew I would miss the scratching at my door at 8:00 sharp just as I was going into a zoom meeting because she didn't want to be alone after everyone that drives to work had left. I knew I would miss the grunt as I pushed her over on the bed while watching a movie so I could see the TV. I knew I would miss the stinky salmon breath induced by her Taste of the Wild dinner. I knew I would miss seeing her sunning in the backyard as I watered the garden. I knew I would miss her yelp when I backed up my chair because she'd laid down on the ground behind me, just trying to be closer to me. I knew I would miss the feel of her back under my legs as I laid on a couch and she laid at the other end.

I don't think I've ever been as close to another living being. And now she's gone.

I know that the grief I am experiencing is physical, it is a chemical reaction in my brain that reduces cortisol. There are extensive studies on grief and loss, we know how to treat it (therapy is a science). I knew, when I got back from the vet, to eat or drink something spicy: a Bloody Maria with extra Tabasco; the spice forces a release of endorphins. I knew that if I engaged in physical labor I'd also be releasing endorphins and dull the pain. It worked, to an extent.

But the chemicals don't capture the experience. Grief hurts. So much so we want to make physically manifest our pain. I bit my hand while watching her struggle with the IV. It was a way of making physically manifest the empathetic pain I was experiencing. I felt her pain mentally, but it hurt so bad I made it physical. Know what can't capture that, only know how.

Loss

It's not only our own experiences we grieve. It's the potential experiences of others as well. No one else will ever appreciate how she made sure to enforce peace by breaking up dog fights. No one else will ever be able to remark that she looks like a cartoon mouse when she runs at you, or a seal when she lays with her paws in front. No one else will ever be able hear her whimper when the poodles down the road barked at her on a walk.

Every one of these pinches in the universe become stronger as they interact with each other. We reflect each others' universes, like shiny ball bearings in a field of nothing. For consciousness is both a pinch and a mirror. We pinch the universe and reflect it back to itself.

She may not have burned as bright as Van Gogh or Keats or Newton or Aristotle. But she burned. I burned in her and she burns in me still.

I miss my dog.

Sky Blue Sendker Rest in Peace 2010-2022