Friday, December 3, 2010

The Parable of the Dead Mouse

Before Thanksgiving, I was tootling around the house one morning, getting ready to head out the door when I spied-- and nearly stepped on -- a mouse in the TV/fireplace room.  ( I actually said, Eeek!-- just like in the cartoons.)

I went into the kitchen thinking to find something to scoop him up with-- But what?  And then what?  Put him outside with a stern talking-to?  I didn't know.  I grabbed an old yogurt container from an  overflowing shelf of same. (Yup, time for my friend Janet to visit and inquire oh-so-gently, Do you really want to keep all of these?  But I digress...)

Armed with container, I march back to the TV room where I see the mouse in question.  He is moving now, but certainly not scurrying.  Can a mouse lumber?  Perhaps my dog had been "playing" with the poor thing before I found him?  Or-- gulp -- perhaps it is hugely pregnant?  Because there is definitely something not right about this mouse.  Lumber, pause.   Lumber, pause.  I watch, hesitant to scoop.  Truthfully, I am scared of this little creature and of whatever will happen between us post-scooping.

Now he is under the coffee table, then, in a relative burst of near-scurrying, I see his tail disappear under the couch.  Great. Now what?  Well, I don't have time to chase this mouse, I gotta go.  Later, I think, I'll finish this Later.  I shut the door.

Guests arrive, the holiday ensues, the door to the room is opened, the mouse forgotten or perhaps reduced to the littlest niggley nub in the back of my mind.  Then one night after watching a movie together, my friend Ladan says, Honey, something does not smell right in this room.

Oh shit.  I bet I know what that is...  I tell her the story.  It is late, we've had a long day, we agree to face the dead mouse in the morning.  The morning flies by with preparations to get Ladan to the train station in Portland.  I take my sister out for an Indian food birthday-lunch, do some shopping, run some errands, and it is dark by the time I get home.  I can definitely smell something "not right" in that room.  I close the door.

The next morning, there is 6 inches of new snow.  My friend, Gin, who I'd talked into coming over to hold my hand while I deal with the dead mouse, is snowed in.  Aren't you a supposed to be a farm-girl?  she laughs.  Okay.  I pull up my big girl panties, slip a plastic bag over my hand and a kerchief over my nose.  I'm going in.

This is when it hits me:  How I've avoided this encounter with death, how I put it off, how armed-to-the-teeth I am now with protection against it.  I nearly laugh out loud:  Here I am, I think, Ms. Non-Aversion-to Death.  

But I would still rather not move that couch--- what do I fear?  Do I imagine something from a horror film, something gruesome, imploded flesh writhing with maggots?  I don't know.  I do know I must act now or I will lose momentum.  I move the table, the throw pillows, finally the couch itself.  There on the carpet is the tiniest, sweetest, most harmless little dead mouse in the world.

Here he is, just a little creature who's time has come and gone, just a helpless little dead body.  My heart breaks open for him.  We are the same.   He is just a living thing that is now dead, as we all will be someday.  There is nothing wrong here, nothing foreign, nothing bad.  I hesitate, then scoop up his tiny body in my plastic-gloved hand.  It gives me pause-- it is still soft, not warm, but not stiff.

I ponder the wall I erected -- totally unconsciously-- to separate myself from this tiny creature's death. I know this wall, this line we draw between ourselves and others.   I know it because I have frequently been on the other side of that line in recent months.  I call it The Hedge.

It's the tiny little line that gets drawn because I am the one with cancer.  The tiny, unconscious separation:  You are the patient, the sick one, the one needing care.  On the other side of the line, life goes on somewhat as usual.  In its most virulent form this is what allows people to respond to someone diagnosed with lung cancer with, Well, he smoked you know.

Meaning what, exactly?  Not all smokers get cancer and certainly not all those who have lung cancer smoked.  It's The Hedge, the way we tell ourselves that our lives are under our control, that we won't get cancer because we don't smoke, or we don't eat junk, or we exercise, we"take care of ourselves," etc, etc, etc.  This illusion that we will not have to face death because we are alive and well and death and  illness-- well, they are on the other side of this line.

I think this is what Ram Dass (and maybe others) refer to as the I and Thou problem:  Our propensity to separate ourselves,  to believe in our separation, to ignore all evidence to the contrary.  We are all in this together.  We share the same fate.  Each of us will die, just like this mouse did.  In this, he is our brother.

Seeing my own Hedge gave me instant insight.  I try to not take other people's Hedges personally.  I do know it is about their own fear of illness and death. It's not about me, it's about what gets triggered in them.   But I think I held some notion that my proximity to death, my willingness to look at it, my desire to not deny it, made me somehow special.

One tiny little dead mouse shot my specialness all to hell.  I saw that aversion to death, the drawing of the line,  the desire to separate from it is instinctual.  Maybe it is a knee-jerk reaction of the ego, maybe it is a line that with time and attention we can no longer need to draw.  This is why the Buddhists used to meditate in charnel yards, right?  To face death.  It is not something you do once.  It is a practice you do everyday.  Because the Buddhist teachings say that if  you can learn how to die, you will learn how to live.

So. I honor you, little dead mouse, for your teaching.  For showing me my self, for reminding me what is important.  Thank you.  Now, go be born a Buddha.


  1. omg, Althea, I loved your writing. Am so grateful to have your friendship in my life, your wittiness, insight, and willingness to live your life fully no matter what. hugs, gale

  2. I agree with Gale, I've always known you were a good writer. Write more.xxooPatty