on montages and life fires

Every death partakes of every death before it, shares in its sorrows and  dwells in its shadows. Every life, though, is unique and has no precedent: it offers to the whole its very own home-brew, its stains, its stings, its lovely meandering hours.


Those I have loved have been dying on me since I was a small child, and the first deaths were so startling and off-putting that I tucked them into myself and walked on, unable to speak of them or cry or mourn in socially acceptable ways for at least two years (long after everybody else had grieved and moved on). The two-year mark would generally be a watershed, and I would do my crying then, scribbling fast into a notebook every last thing I could remember so’s to have something authentic to hold onto. Whether it was my grandparents or raccoons or horses or dogs, for all my beloveds, I hoarded their sayings, their habits, their photos and their things, and made for them a small altar in my heart and room or the woods which we all haunted. The fires of their lives were kept lit in this way, and I made them keep living for me: I talked to them, listened to them, kept them burning hot inside me and on this earth.


Home movies provided refuge many a time from grief and, being a visual learner, I always watched before yesterday as if I had one foot in the past and one in the present: laughing some, weeping some, seeing anew how we touched one another on the way through when we had not yet tasted the death that would part us. I loved the old 8- millimeter footage my mother captured of my childhood, adored the VHS tapes I got of our lives as adults, and happily switched to digital recording twelve years ago when a fluffy ball of black and white hair with a pink nose joined our otherwise empty nest. Coober Pedy’s early moves were all captured on camera: wiggle-butted Old English Sheepdog pouncing on tennis balls, navigating stairs, stalking a pot, teaching his people some lessons while testing the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be chewed.


He was a funny dog, hard-headed and vain. He had no use whatsoever for anything touching his back legs or anything looming ominous in the sky (mechanical cranes were his greatest foes). He didn’t approve of noisy people or lurking behavior. He could back-sass without making a sound, moving his mouth as if barking except not, and doing it so energetically that his chin hairs shook. He ate a calendar one day and gave himself a tummy ache during a book-signing with mom, and followed that up with a long trip home made quite eventful for all involved. He herded whoever showed up: chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, dogs, cats, and people.


We forgot to get footage of most of that: we were too busy living. But we captured those early years well, and recently, worried about how quickly he seemed to be declining, I had Costco burn them to DVDs. As a courtesy, their film studios provide three clip montages. We watched those a month ago and laughed ourselves silly over this big fluffy dog, told him about it later, and steeled ourselves for his leaving.


Whenever we love someone, we get into the habit of each other, and death’s most startling effect is stripping habit of its presence. Films and photos and things, however, let us revisit that, hold onto it. Yesterday, in between digging his grave as he lay there quiet under his heavy downy comforter, we kept expecting him to wake up any moment and make a comment on some aspect of things that wasn’t quite to his standards just yet, but he lay there still. Utterly still, all habits of supervising us having fled to somewhere of which we as yet know nothing. We couldn’t stop it, though, the habit of expecting him to intervene, participate in what was afoot: this was quintessential Coob. Involved. Only now he did not move. There was only the awful stillness and almost no wind. That alone should’ve garnered at least one scowling groan from the OES, but no. In the heat of midday we came indoors and decided to look at the home movies. Straight on it was one thing and fine enough through tear-misted eyes. But the montage?


We watched one set to violin and piano, and the clips included the two of us and my daughter on a visit home to meet this new pup years ago, then Coob growing out of his pink nose stage alongside his new flock (us). From a well rimmed by sorrows for all who have gone before us, we sat transfixed. I finally found words and a whisper: “It’s as if we are all already dead,” and my husband—this dear man who has been here for every single death, every loss, every new grave, every moment since 2001—nodded, bereft. “I was just about to say that.” Something about the montage had quickened our souls and laid it all on the line, and we saw things differently than either of us has done before. In the larger scheme of existence, we are indeed all already dead, and there’s nought we humans can do about any of that. Ever. So we must get up and get busy with living, with joy, with learning, with giving, with being, with whatever fills us to the brim and beyond. We said this to each other and then headed out to finish the grave.


As it turned out, we eased Coober Pedy onto his last bedding just as the sun touched the western mountains. Typically he walked round and round and round the bed before settling in just so. In these last months where we’ve had to help him, we cut some corners on those rounds, telling ourselves it was for his benefit. Yesterday we did that in our hearts, long minutes gazing at the hot yellow orb seeming to flow golden into those far-off hills, breathing deeply, trying to do this last thing well enough that it could honor the being who has just left us. We raked the covering soil one last time as the sun disappeared and the wind came up, knowing ourselves, feeling ourselves already fully dead. Coober Pedy always loved the wind. It was in some way his bailiwick and still is. We put away our tools and walked into it, beings afoot, hearts afire for a little while yet here on this earth.



  1. odelle

    Dear Hannah,
    Your last two posts have , as always touched me to my center. I too have a deep love of animals and have two dogs that are my best friends, almost lost one this last year. Each day is a blessing with them. We come, we go and it is the love, the mundane day to day that we miss. Thinking of you

    1. nyalawest

      Thank you, Odelle. I appreciate your kind words and, yes, it is the mundane, the smallest things that used to shape our days without us even noticing that come up first and stay the longest.

Leave a Comment