A fox came to die in my mother’s garden. I looked out on a frosty morning and saw his russet limbs, neat head and brush tail lying still and silent beside the hedgerow. My first thought was of Ben my dog barking and chasing some denizen of the night before bedtime. I examined Ben and I examined the fox and found them both unblemished. But in my mind Ben stood accused until that evening when I again let him out and again heard his bark and the hurried flight of the same smooth beast who must have been bereaved of her mate.
On the afternoon when my mother returned home for a brief visit, time out of hospital after a major operation to remove cancer, a new neighbour enquired about the fox she’d seen limping. The SSPCA officer she’d called drove up at that moment and concluded that the fox must have been hit by a car. I replied to her suggestion that “the cleansing would take it away” by saying I would bury him. The neighbour nodded and seemed relieved.
That week I was hosting three of the Iona Community staff down for the Glasgow component of training and they agreed to help me. So the first of my three guests gave thanks and blessings, the second raised and lowered the other two corners of the sheet and the third placed a sprig of dark green holly on the broken clumps of clay soil before I replaced the now ill-fitting jigsaw pieces of grassy turf – and stamped them down at our minister’s direction.
We all have to die. No other thing is certain, except for suffering. People react so differently to suffering and pain, my friends and family no exception and some have spectacularly avoided the associated unpleasantness.
In a culture that increasingly insists on a sterile environment in which sentient beings (at least those we feel sentiment for) are totally anaesthetised against pain – or killed to ensure that neither they nor we feel it – I am glad that a fox came to die in my mother’s garden. And I am glad that the three relatives I have just now who are, or were, gravely ill are lucid – that their consciousness has not been drowned in a rising tide of medication.
If the neighbour had made that phone call sooner, I am quite sure our fox would have been painlessly killed by lethal injection – his body then disposed of hygienically. But I do not believe that death is preferable to pain. Not for humans and not for animals. I do not believe that it is sane or even human to expect life to be sanitised. Suffering and conflict compose the human condition as much as creativity and beauty. “Fred’s flowerbed” now is sown with sunflowers, roses, peonies and shamrock. As in biblical times, my hospitality has borne unexpected fruit. All of us in the family have a new appreciation of the gift and challenge of the present moment. Facing pain, accepting suffering, a latent beauty is revealed.