lessons on life and death from a wood mouse

My clothes smell like campfire. As my marshmallow falls from my stick into the fire for the third time, I realize something is different. Someone is different. Me. I’ve spent the last week at a Callanish Healing Retreat for people who have dealt with and are dealing with cancer. For a week, eight of us huddled together in a circle and told stories, shared questions, compared experiences. Around us, the Callanish team gathered, supporting, providing comfort, facilitating, accompanying, listening. They were six life-altering, world-changing days overflowing with love, comfort, memories and hope. There are many stories I’d like to write, so today I’ll start with one near and dear to my heart, a story about life and death I learned from Consuela, a gray wood mouse with a white belly.

I met Consuela the morning after the hardest day. On the hardest day, I was angry and frustrated and sad and misunderstood. On the hardest day, we talked of death and dying, and my heart felt shrunken with fear. On the hardest day, my toes curled into the ground and I willed myself to believe “not me, not me, not me” as we were asked to write about how we might like to die. On the hardest day, others asked questions about dying, and they were answered, and I wished I couldn’t hear and imagined myself at yoga instead, even though a wisp of my spirit was curious about the answers. On the hardest day, the other young woman participating and I staked out a private lunchtime picnic where no one could find us, and we dangled our legs over the creek and spoke of not-dying. On the hardest day, she and I held tightly to life, we refused to glimpse over the edge to death, we were shaken as death was placed on our paths. On the hardest day, I felt terribly shaken, afraid and tender. On the hardest day, I felt the joy slipping away as it did when I was pumped full of chemotherapy. On the hardest day, I watched the sparkle dim as it did with each oncology appointment. On the hardest day, I sensed the disconnect between me and my body and the world widening, as it did each time I couldn’t explain my cancer to my loved ones. On the hardest day, death was staring at me in the face and I was running spooked, refusing to make eye contact, angry to be sharing the day together.

It was the next morning I met Consuela, and the next morning that she wiggled her way into my heart to teach me about death.

She was shivering, huddled on the dew-covered deck. People gathered around her, staring. My heart thudded when I saw her. I covered her with a towel, and then coddled her in my hands. She was cold, her tiny feet unsteady and her body shivering. She sucked at my finger, her eyes were closed, her little nose nudging at the creases in my hand. She barely moved. I wondered if she was a tiny baby, and how she escaped from her mama’s nest. I wondered if she was an adult, afraid and in shock. I decided she was my baby, my warm little body to nurse back to health, my small rodent friend to play with in the forest.

I settled her in for a nap as we began a musical session together, and I wondered if she enjoyed the sounds we each shared that morning. Did she like our singing, our oboe playing, our spoken word? Could she feel the love vibes and the friendship and the hopefulness? I imagined she could, as she rejuvenated in a bed of hand towels and tissue in the corner of the room. Consuela seemed perkier as we closed our music-sharing and headed to lunch. She pooped, she sucked water from damp corner of towel, she sniffed and opened her eyes. And then again, her sprite curiosity began to dampen, her soft gray body began to droop. Her lack of skin elasticity was a sure sign of her severe dehydration. I whispered to her that she needed to sip water, but I knew she was fading before my eyes. We decided that after lunch, we’d make her a hospice bed outside, near where we found her, so she could die in the wooded forests she called home.

Consuela must have heard us speaking deaths’ name and become angry, as I had on the hardest day when death was thrown in my path. She jumped up to say hello, scampered around, sniffed my fingers. What a transformation! We imagined the little bed we were building would only serve as a launching point, somewhere for our little mouse to rest briefly before she scampered off to tell her story to the other mice, a story of human encounter that would certainly become legend among the forest animals. We gathered together, many of us near the deck where we had found her that morning. I arranged a bed of leaves gated with dandelions and that backed into the creek-brush.

I knelt down with Consuela near the bushes and J The Wise, who is at the helm of Callanish, knelt down with us and we prepared to say goodbye. I blew Consuela a kiss and scratched the back of her neck. As we settled her into her leaf-bed, something in Consuela shifted. J The Wise asked what was happening, and those gathered around us murmured. Little Consuela’s foot began to tremble. I was flooded with memories of other small animals I’d cared for in their final days and hours, and I knew immediately. Consuela had begun the dying process. J scrambled closer into the bushes with me, and our hands encircled what was now most certainly a hospice bed. Consuela began to seize and I gasped, startled, at the violent movements of her tiny body. “It’s OK, it’s OK,”J The Wise said quietly, with her hand on top of mine as she asked, “Do you want to stay?” I knew we couldn’t leave little Consuela alone in her leaf-hospice bed, for not twenty-four hours before, we had talked so much of not dying alone, of being comfortable near death, of seeing nature and of feeling love during the dying process. And here we were, huddled with Consuela, and J The Wise was there, her head in the bushes with me, and G and A gathered close. There was much support and lots of togetherness, as our little wood mouse moved through the dying process. And so we waited. I stroked Consuela’s silky soft mouse-back and marveled at her big ears and delicate toenails. I wondered if we should turn her onto her belly from her side, but J The Wise, always a nurse, reminded us to leave this tiny seizing body on its’ side. We told her we loved her, and held her tiny paw.

We waited. Consuela’s seizing waned, and as it did, she began taking long breaths that filled her tiny body. Her little white belly expanded with each one, rising and falling with longer and longer gaps in between each breath. Sunlight filtered through the creek-brush, and the green leaves sheltering Consuela shimmered in the afternoon light. We were transfixed. We waited. The creek continued to rush by, its soundtrack soothing. We sent her meta. We told her we loved her. Her eyes burned awake still, and slowly and at once, they seemed to take on a reddish hue. She breathed again, a long, slow breath that lifted each of her ribs. And then she was still. Our little mouse friend had left us, gone on to the next world, and only her body was left behind in the mouse hospice bed. I covered her little body with a big leaf, tucking her in as her kind, bright spirit left her. She was gone. We stood. Everyone was still there, waiting, all of us sad our little friend had died.

I guess it was time to dance with death, after all.

We left her little body in the bushes, listening to the creek and letting the sun warm her fur for the last time. Come afternoon, we gathered purple and peach tissue paper, we tied a bouquet of yellow flowers, we cut yellow felt into hearts and gathered silky jewel toned ribbon. Next to the creek, I dug a shallow grave with a rock and lined it with the delicate purple paper. We settled Consuela’s little body in a large green leaf, and wrapped her in peach tissue paper. We tied it with a bow, and topped her papery casket with the tiny bouquet and soft yellow felt hearts. There was a eulogy. We loved her, and she was a good mouse, and a tremendous teacher, and a kind spirit. Her little body ready, we settled her in the ground next to the creek and slowly filled the grave with moist dirt and river stones. Piling the river stones high and in a circular pattern to mark her short but extraordinary journey from the woods into my hands and into our hearts and finally with us into death, we said goodbye. It was a goodbye weighty with gratitude, a serendipitous moment in which all the knowledge on death I had so feverishly resisted the day before coursed through my body, through these relationships, through our knowing. We were with death, with Consuela. And yet, funerals are for the living, as someone pointed to the day before as we all spoke death. So the funeral was for us, we were the ones left behind. Did the animal kingdom have a farewell ceremony, as well? Did they wonder where she was? Were they sending out search parties headed by mice with night-vision goggles? I wonder if they found her grave, if they gathered near the creek, maybe late at night under moonlight and remembered their brave mouse friend, like we did. Consuela’s funeral was for those of us human-friends of hers left behind, wishing we could ask her, “What does death look like? What’s over there?”

To call Consuela a friend would be true, but calling her a friend would barely begin to suggest how deeply she touched our hearts, how humbly she taught us lessons of life and death. Consuela the wood mouse was one of the greatest teachers that has ever graced my life. Great teachers know how to pace lessons for each spirit, they sense when learning can happen and tread gently and tenderly around the learning heart. Consuela was the greatest kind of teacher, the kind we all aspire to be. She waited for us on the porch, and snuggled with me throughout the morning as she worked her way into my heart, cupped against my body. I wonder how she ended up there, if she knew I’d find her, if she felt secure in my hands and if she was afraid of the unknown. Consuela rested in a cardboard box in the shade, waiting, while we ate lunch, and peeked out from my hands, sniffing and curious, as we built her hospice bed. And when we were as ready as she was, she gathered us into her presence and began the dying process, not a second too early, nor a second too late. She showed us dying can be done gracefully, with dignity, peacefully, outside. She took our hands and led us gently into this lesson on death and dying.

Only twelve hours before I met Consuela, I refused the invitation to think death, I bristled at the call to wonder about my own beliefs about dying. Consuela gently showed me that death lives inside all of us, in our bodies and spirits, in our friendships and hopes. Death is always there, living in our bellies, rooted through our feet into the earth. Death ties us together, braids our bodies into the earth, links our knowing into a much larger networked, living universe. We live dying, we will all die, we will all know death as Consuela did last Wednesday morning, and I hope we can know death with as much grace and love and dignity as Consuela did. And you know what? As J The Wise quietly said when I first trembled in horror at the beginning of Consuela’s dying process, “It’s OK.” It is OK. Dying is OK.

Consuela’s entrance into my life was profound, even as momentary and fleeting as our friendship was. Her presence was more than simple presence, it was the universe, taking care and the earth holding all her beings gently and in concert with each other.

Thank you, sweet Consuela, for sharing your soul with us in life, for teaching us about death, for letting us learn from and with you. You will not be forgotten.

Pictures to follow.