I saw the first deer on my Monday morning drive to work, in late March. Even though the days had started to lengthen, that winter was so bitter and relentless, the windchill was still intense, and everything lay frozen under feet of crusted snow. The exhaust fog was thick, and the traffic made it seem like the cars were huddling together for warmth. We were going slow, maybe it was icy. It was always icy, that winter.
It had been almost three months since Derek died.
She was laying on the small slope coming up out of the ditch, in front of a small group of poplars. This was in a small industrial section along my route, in between a factory where nothing is made but there's always work being done, and a strip mall where I could pick up an extra coffee. Which Monday morning seemed to warrant.
She was laying, it seemed, in a small impression in the snow. I cannot possibly have seen her for more than a second or two, and yet I am convinced of all the following details. Or rather, I am convinced seeing her caused the following images to flash distinctly through my mind. Her image is frozen somewhere inside me.
She was panting. Her fur was dull, I could see it like grey straw. I could feel it brittle and dusty under my fingers. I could see the underside of her flank where it pressed into the snow. I had the sensation of crushing ice in my teeth, the way it squeezes before it shatters. Her lashes were lowered over milky, panicked eyes. She was tired, and injured. She didn't want to be laying there, with the cars so close the buildings so close everything. so. close.
I thought of my mother-in-law. I thought of how loss cuts you down wherever you were standing, and that is where you sink into grief. She is such a private person, and I mean really, who wants to be broken in plain sight? Who wants to lay vulnerable where everyone can see? Who wants any of this, for fuck's sake? This isn't about want.
This is about animal need. Our animal need to hide. Run and find safety. I thought of that coiled body laying perfectly still with unbearable tension, only spending the barest shreds of energy to breathe, to keep only warm enough, still wasting heat somehow, drips of melting snow under her fluttering ribs, but still her fur so dry and crackling. I thought of her longing for cover, for trees, anything.
I thought of how grieving is like barely surviving is like simultaneously being pushed down into utter weakness by circumstances we can't control and being the strongest we will ever be again (until the next time we are stronger than we will ever be again, because what is life but an endless series of tragedies?) This is just another central ambivalence of the human condition, and isn't it natural that we're all just coiled. so. tight.
We're all soft and brittle. We bump around each other, and sometimes we shatter and sometimes we collapse.
I cannot even fully describe why this image of this deer so perfectly encapsulated my thoughts and feelings about Derek's family, and my mother-in-law in particular. Words are not enough, and the picture of it, frozen in memory with unbelievable clarity, is more than everything. I wish I could just project the vision of it, and leave words in the ditch. I cannot fully explain why I know this deer was sacred, how I know this moment was holy, how I'm certain that spot on that hill is a shrine.
I know this image is what I hold in my soul, what I carry in my hands, when I am approaching the grieving. And let me tell you, I am approaching the grieving, we are all approaching the grieving a lot. Disturbing frequency. We probably don't even know.
I think about being uncoiled, I carry the intention of unfolding softness to meet their brittle. I think about being quiet, I carry the intention of letting whatever sounds they want to make or have be the only sound. I think about the desire to hide being unmet wherever loss cut them down, and I carry the intention of letting them hide a little while in some limited human way, in me. If they want. I think of walking with them when they're able to walk. I think about how the woods are safety and danger all in one, but it's better than the side of the road. I carry the intention of walking into the woods. But I'll stay at the side of the road. Too.