Between life and death

Posted by on July 6, 2012

The robins called first; frantic, insistent.  I saw the tiger-coloured cat hunched by the edge of the lawn, mouth full.  As I moved toward it, the cat dropped its prize and ran down the driveway.

A tiny chipmunk lay there, heaving. I picked him up, and looked him all over. Although there were scuff marks by the neck, I couldn’t see any serious injury.

I waited, this scrap of a life hanging helpless in the hinge of my hand.  I pleaded, please…spare this little creature.

He looked at me calmly, onyx eyes shining through a white mask, dark, silken whiskers, curious pointed nose.  I held him close to my belly, willing him to fight for life, although my heart knew differently.

Several times, a hind foot lifted to scratch at the marks made by the cat and I noted the tiny pads like exquisite pillows on his feet. On the front paws, tapered fingers ended in delicate, almost transparent, nails.

After a time, something changed. I could feel it, could feel his leaving.

He sighed.

His mouth opened and he took five great heaving breaths. He twisted slightly, stretching out a body that had grown thin, let out two small cries, then his eyes grew dim and he was still.

Is it better to die in the teeth of an enemy or in the hands of a saviour? I stood there, my shoulders heavy with questions.

Did I do wrong by interfering in the scheme of things? Did I thwart the chipmunk’s sacrifice? Did I prolong a death and rob its reason? I felt like Peter, admonished for wanting to prevent Jesus’ destiny and death.

My nature is that I want to save things – I’ve always been a rescuer.  I’m a lover of happy endings, an optimist…my girlfriends used to call me Pollyanna.

But life and death is the way of things…and in nature, death to one brings life to another.  The creatures understand this in a way that I do not.  I’ve watched peregrine falcons chase shorebirds until one falls away; one life a sacrifice that saves the others.  And the story continues. Certainly, this is the base tenet of my faith…so why is it so hard to witness?

A senseless death is one without reason or meaning. I laid the chipmunk in the garden, wondering if the cat or a hawk would come for the easy meal, but the body remained throughout the afternoon.

An hour after I had buried the tiny, stiff body in the rose garden, I noticed a number of robins perched in the trees surrounding the garden, almost as if paying homage. Suddenly, they scattered, calling in alarm.  Right there…in precisely the same spot…was the tiger cat, staring defiant, another chipmunk in its mouth.

I watched, unmoving this time, and he disappeared into the undergrowth.  I tortured myself. Perhaps, if the cat had eaten earlier, it would not have returned for the other.

Two ravens appeared, winged shadows in pursuit. I heard their raucous cries. Although they may have been hoping to to frighten the cat and benefit from the kill, my first thought was that they were objecting.  The robins followed, also scolding and chattering. Perhaps there is an unnamed alliance in the natural world; blurred lines drawn between predator and prey, between ally and enemy.

Neither my action nor my inaction brought me any measure of peace…the burden of those who straddle the line and live in the tension of the middle ground. Perhaps the value is not in how we may act–or not act–but in how it changes us.

And that evening, as the mourning doves called the settling dusk and dying light grazed the tips of the trees, I saw a sentinel sit, unmoving, on the rose garden fence above a small mound of disturbed dirt.

Just there. Keeping watch.


“We are called to give ourselves, not only in life,
but in death as well.
I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death
as a final act of giving.”
~ Henri Nouwen

16 Valued Thoughts on Between life and death

  1. Rhonda Bulmer

    I think the reason we are shocked at the brutality of the natural world is because death itself feels unnatural. At least it does to me, a person with a Christian worldview. With that worldview comes the idea that someday, death will no longer exist. (The lion will lie down with the lamb, and all that.)

  2. Tabor

    There is death often in my yard. The snake takes baby birds, a hawk takes the big birds, snakes catch moles and voles, the cars crush turtles, the crows attack what they find. I try not to wonder too much because it is the cycle of life that must continue, except for what we kill, because that is not for food.

    • Deborah Carr

      So true, Tabor. The fact of life on this earth is that we die daily in many different ways – cells, dreams, ideas, emotions. And each of those deaths makes room for something new. And we also kill in many different ways.

  3. Carolynn

    I would likely have done the same thing, although it’s so hard to know when we’re helping and when we’re interfering. Nature can be cruel and yet, God designed it. I rescued a little mouse from harm that I found sitting by my door yesterday. I scooped him up with a tupperware container and released him in the flower garden in the front yard. It seemed odd to me at the time that he was just sitting on his haunches, head bowed. Today, my Mom told me that her dog caught a mouse by my door yesterday. Ah….apparently, he did not finish the deed. I do hope my little mouse recovered and is happily doing mousey things.

    I do hope that you helped to bring some peace to the little chipmunk in his final moments, if only in the knowing that he could die without fear of being harried any further.

    • Deborah Carr

      Thank you, Carolyn. I think the important thing is cultivating feelings of compassion and treasuring life, no matter what its form.

  4. Lynda

    Having been an owner of a cat I have witnessed and tried to rescue birds, mice, a chipmunk….The cat used to be so proud when he’d drop his trophies at my feet that I was conflicted about praising him and scolding him. This is a lovely piece of writing. And at the very least you were showing compassion to a living creature trying to make its way in a broken world.

    • Deborah Carr

      It’s surely tempting to close our eyes to the things that we don’t want to see (like how our own food is acquired), but not particularly truthful, right? The very next day, I watched one of my favourite songsters – a white-throated sparrow, whose voice never falls to enthrall me – chasing and stabbing repeatedly at a large moth until it died. It was quite a brutal act for such a beautiful singer.

  5. Jeanne Damoff

    This is a powerful meditation, Deborah. Thanks for being willing to see, ponder, and embrace mystery in spite of the ache. Love to you, friend.

  6. Jane Tims

    Hi. I am reading Barbara Kingsolver ‘Prodigal Summer’. She deals with death in nature quite well in the book. Your post is so touching. Jane

    • Deborah Carr

      I do enjoy Barbara Kingsolver books…she’s a remarkable writer. I will have to pick up that one, Jane. Thank you.

  7. Sylvia R. Saunders

    This is a beautifully written piece. I am a writer as well (or like to think I am (!). I often ponder the possibility of writing a chronicle of my family as it existed 200 years ago and in the years between 1812 and today, to leave something for future generations that will tell
    them how come they exist here, in Canada, and make them aware of how greatly things have changed––and especially of late, how rapidly. I and my much younger cousin (who lives on a sheep farm in Ontario), are the last surviving members of my mother’s family. She writes a blog that covers the goings-on on their farm from season to season. I admire her AND her work.
    and/or Sally Bowen if you are interested.
    I am wondering if you would be interested in mentoring me in my attempt to put together a readable story of life in the early 1800’s, 1900’s and 21st century? I have lots of “glimpses” into the past, one being something written by my great, great grandmother in her 98th year (1910). She was the first of our lot to be born in Canada, an only child of immigrants from New Hampshire. She had 9 children all told although 2 sons died in childhood and the other son never married. Of 6 daughters, 5 married and had much smaller families; but without her, none of us would exist today. It seems to me, like a story that should be told. I am only interested in relating it as it pertains to my own direct family. Including all the other 4 branches would seem to make it too unwieldly. In fact it seems that way even without that and maybe that is why I have never really sat down and begun, although I have written a few brief paragraphs on a couple of individuals. I am the last person living who actually knew and remember some of the characters in the 3rd and 4th generations (I and Sally are of the 5th) and the 8th generation already has 6 ‘on the ground’. If you care to comment, I will be thrilled. Sincerely, Sylvia Saunders. (Saw the article about you in the T&T today.)

  8. ernestine

    This reminded me of an incident
    last week.
    Callie came running with something
    in her mouth.
    She dropped a baby rabbit that could fit in my hand.
    Strange I have not seen any rabbits on this property.
    But with Callie running loose
    Guess not many venture near the cottage.

    • Deborah Carr

      Thanks for dropping in Ernestine. I’m so happy to hear from you. I wonder if Callie caught the rabbit, or if she just found it.

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