Wednesday, April 20, 2005


My middle son is a sweet 23 year-old who suffers with some mental and cognitive disabilities. He often appears at my bedside looking down at me with his eyes wide with the pain of his inexplicable life experiences and the expectation that I can make sense out of the things he’s forced to go through. This morning it was more than that.
“Daddy, Daddy. Mingo’s been hit on the road.”
“Oh, no. OK, I’m getting up.”
We’d adopted the Greyhound about 10 years ago and he was getting pretty old. He was one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever lived with. I’ve never experienced an animal that was so full of love and affection and serenity. He was a scaredy cat though. Everything frightened him and his nature was to put distance between danger and himself at the rate of about 40 miles per hour. That’s why we never really worried about him being on the road. Whining engines, humming tires, banging tailgates on monster dump trucks sent him acres away in seconds if they surprised him. So why did he walk out in from of one? I think his senses were diminished by his age and he just wasn’t aware of the monster that was about to eat him.
Mingo was mangled. His body was broken and twisted with his chest cavity ripped open and a lung globbed out on the asphalt. I took his bed out to use as a stretcher and felt the coldness of the lung when I picked it up to put it with him on his bed. One of his ribs was naked in the bloody hole. I suspect that his end was so fast that his mind never had time to grasp the flood of sensations as his bones broke and flesh tore.
Why write about such gruesome images? I write them because they’re stuck in my head and because I work with death every day. I know that I have to move them from the interior to the exterior in a way that will heal me from my loss and in a way that will help to heal my culture.
We don’t want to touch death as I did this morning. We sterilize it in our modern cathedrals of medicine and science with its bean counting and gowned and gloved priesthood. My two sons and I dug a grave with Ming lying in a wheelbarrow nearby. The middle son helped me lift him from the road into our one-wheeled gurney and the youngest cried as we dug the hole. I kept him home from school to do it because it was important for me to have him near and because he needed to touch death as a human being not as a subject of medical science.
“People used to do this for each other all the time. When someone would die, the men in the community would get together and dig a grave and the women would wash the body. There was no embalming and so they had to get the body in the ground fast.”
“How long ago, Dad? In the time of Jesus?
“For thousands of years before that, son.”
Except for occasional instructions from me on how to handle a shovel to cut roots or make the walls of the grave straight, we dug in silence. I knew there was healing in the work. I knew there was healing in the soil. The youngest likes history, so he made some comments about the family graveyards he’s heard about scattered around on family farms. The middle son just worked.
We soon loaded up and went to a nearby nursery and bought a beautiful little red, Japanese maple. I wanted Mingo’s body to feed something as beautiful as it decomposed in the earth. Then the three of us laid him in the ground and simultaneously covered him and planted the tree. We raked the spot clean; pressure washed the road where pieces of my good friend were still embedded in the lifeless black surface.
Occasionally people drove by either staring straight ahead or glancing at us as if the strange work crew they saw were alien to their road-world. Locked inside machines all protected from our humanity and their own, they didn’t even seem curious about life outside the windshield.
Life that melts into more life – cycles of living and dying and living again; I’ve got a little ceremony to plan for tonight to honor my buddy Mingo and his living out the plan of the Creator. My hope is that he misses me as much as I miss him.