My mouse is dying. I have had two mice for roughly a year, having inherited them from a child who discovered that mice wiggle, squeak and nip. I grew up with a multitude of (pet) rodents, so I happen to be very fond of small, fuzzy creatures. When no one wanted to take the mice off my hands, I simply kept them.
One of them was always a little bit “different.” Baldy was smaller than her sister, her eyes glowed a brighter white-mouse red, and she developed alopecia, which really isn’t something you expect in the $3.59 mouse you buy at the local Petco. Her whiskers fell off and she lost about 50% of her fur. Despite these handicaps, she lived her little mouse life with vigor. The two of them reorganized their cage every night, scampered through the little obstacle course, nibbled their beloved peanuts and pumpkin seeds, and squeaked and chirruped enthusiastically when I held them.
About a month okay, Baldy started losing weight. While her sister was robust, you could start to feel Baldy’s skeleton. Two days ago, it became apparent that Baldy has a terminal ailment. She stopped frisking and started moving lethargically. Food no longer interested her and her bones poked ever more prominently through her skin.
This morning, I found Baldy tucked in a corner of her cage, as far from her little den (and her sister) as she could possibly be. Whether her sister kicked her out or Baldy, like the elephant, went off to die, I do not know. It’s clear, though, that she has at most a few hours left. She lies perfectly still, with only the slightest movement of her chest showing that she still slowly breathes. Her rheumy eyes are half shut and unblinking. Occasionally, a slight tremor shakes her body.
I realize as I watch her that this is the first time I’ve ever been in the presence of dying. I’ve seen death — indeed, I see it every time I eat meat, although what’s on my plate is a far cry from the living animal. I’ve seen it when the neighborhood cat politely left dead mice (sometimes just their heads) on my doorstep. I’ve seen it with the occasional dead frogs, lizards, snakes, rodents, and birds I find in my backyard, or with the animals along the roadside that had fatal run-ins with cars. I’ve even seen a dead person once, many years ago, when I went to an open casket funeral. (Jews do not have open casket funerals.)
There’s a quite amazing difference between death and dying. Death is when it’s all over. Dying is a process, and one that I’ve always found terribly frightening. I don’t just fear the pain that I associate with too many deaths. I also fear the parting. I’m not speaking of the living person’s parting with the dying (it is, after all, the living who mourn), but the dying person’s parting from life. If you are conscious during the process, you are looking upon an utterly uncontrolled and uncontrollable journey into the unknown. I hate going into the unknown. If I’m going into an unknown situation, I reconnoiter like mad. I don’t want to be caught looking foolish, or end up doing something stupid, or fail to do something important. When I used to do trial work and was heading to an unfamiliar courthouse, I’d arrive at the courthouse early and figure out where the courtroom was, where the bathroom was, what forms I had to sign, etc. Even with familiar courthouses, I arrived early to make sure everything was as I remembered. Only by exerting some sort of control could I deal with the situation. Death is the absence of that control.
But here’s the thing with Baldy: This is a surprisingly peaceful process. She’s quite obviously not suffering and she’s equally obviously without existential anxiety. The latter, of course, is because she’s a mouse. Mice are not known for serious philosophical thinking. Nevertheless, there is something philosophical about how the end of her natural life cycle is playing out. She is simply fading away. When her dying ends, I’ll dispose respectfully of her corpse. I will not know what became of the animating force that kept that body warm, and moving, and functioning. Maybe Baldy will know; maybe she won’t.
As I grow older, more of the people who are near and dear to me will experience this process. (I might predecease them but, as to some of them, I suspect they’ll go first.) I would like to think that, absent something fearful and horrible (a terrorist attack, for example), that they will transition as quietly, naturally, and peacefully into the great unknown — and find either lasting peace or some other type of eternal bliss. And when my time comes, I hope that it too is a gentle transition, without pain or fear.
UPDATE: Baldy is no more. Although I was in my office most of the day, she managed to pass away while I was making dinner. Her little mousy death was a surprisingly dignified affair. She tottered around the cage a bit, and then hunkered quietly down, waiting for death to arrive. I didn’t bury her in the garden, since it’s dark outside and I have no spade, but I did say a little prayer for her before disposing of her with as much respect as possible in the rubbish bin.