White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Jessica Pierce
Jessica Pierce is a writer and bioethicist. She has published a number of books, including Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (with Marc Bekoff), Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases (with George Randels), Morality Play: Case Studies in Ethics and The Ethics of Environmentally Responsible Health Care (with Andrew Jameton). Dr. Pierce is Associate Faculty at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Center for Bioethics and Humanities. She lives in Longmont, Colorado.

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Mortality: four Studies

Jessica Pierce

 

OLD

As we get older, changes occur in our cells and tissues—changes that are not disease processes. Not the causes of death per se. Scientists call these changes aging. Aging—they tell us—is unequivocally tied to death.

Some animals—the mongoose, goat, shrew and African elephant—die of old teeth. Nature gives them exactly one full set. When these wear out they are shit out of luck.

Older elephants sometimes switch their diet to river reeds as their teeth wear down—these are easier to eat than the tough savanna grasses. An elephant named Kwanzi had her trunk and tusks chopped off by poachers. She survives by eating the same soft reeds eaten by aged elephants. Kwanzi’s entire herd switched their diet to river reeds. Elephants—it seems—stick together through thick and thin.

Evolution does not favor the elderly—or so it appears. Survival of the individual is irrelevant once reproduction is complete.

This is a good reason to delay childbearing.

Aging is more common in captive animals than wild—most wild animals get knocked off by predators before they have a chance to discover the joys of aging. Aging is a common malady among our kind. This must mean that the species Homo sapiens lives in captivity.

But aging—I must remind myself—is not a disease. It is a process of change, and change in itself is neither good nor bad. It simply is.

Isn’t it redundant to say that someone died of old age—shouldn’t we say simply that they died of age?

 

DOORWAY

Ody shuffles down the hall and stops at the doorway of the office, peering in at me with brown eyes made opaque by age. He doesn’t come all the


way in the room to put a muzzle on my lap or gently push a nose under my hand like the other dogs do. For Ody the greeting remains incomplete, a reminder that he now inhabits a world some distance away. I imagine this inner world of his to be haunted and dim, though of course I cannot know.

Ody stands in the doorway, and his eyes meet mine. I turn in my chair and call to him. I can see that he hears me, though he doesn’t come. His stump of a tail flicks back and forth, back and forth, in reply. I know, because we repeat this exchange day after day, what comes next. With a snort and a raspy cough, Ody will turn stiffly and recede back down the hall, the click-drag click-drag of his nails telling me where he is headed. But I don’t want him to go just yet.

I stand up and palms outstretched step into the doorway. I kneel and take Ody’s face in my hands. His long ears are like velour under my fingers. I run my hands along his body, feeling the spongy lumps that bulge out here and there, like a super-sized Braille inscription. The lumps, the vet tells me, are

fatty deposits called lipomas, and are a harmless, if unsightly, manifestation of age. I wonder whether, like cataracts, deafness, bad breath, and white hair, these unsightly lumps will be a gift of time that I, too, will receive.

Repeating another familiar exchange, I lower my face and touch my nose to his. I’ve always loved his nose, which is improbably colored to match the russet of his coat. I close my eyes and feel the cool roughness. His breath is a reminder of worn and broken teeth, and gums decayed by time. We remain here nose-to-nose for several long moments, and I think perhaps Ody has finally come to me, if only for an instant. I stand up slowly and turn back to my work. Ody shuffles off, click-drag click-drag, down the hall.

 

THE DEAD TRUCK

Nebraska in July is hot as hell, with a heat as cloying and claustrophobic as any I’ve ever experienced. My husband Chris, our friend Mark, and I started our ride just after daybreak, so that we


would be at least halfway through before the mercury hit one hundred. Even as we climbed on our bikes, the humidity was building and we were sweating by the time we turned out of Marks’s driveway.

Though it was warm, the ride went smoothly, and we soon settled into a congenial rhythm. Chris and Mark talked about work while I daydreamed. The two-lane roads wound up and down and in and out of corn fields, spanning off into a hazy horizon of blue on green. Few signs of life disturbed the quiet of these rural highways, save the random farm truck on its way, perhaps, to the local diner or feed store, and birds perched here and there on the telephone wires overhead.

We were somewhere between Wahoo and Mead, small nothing-towns on the outskirts of Omaha, when we first noticed the truck. We had ridden about seventy miles at this point, and the full heat of the day now blasted off the black asphalt. Coming up and over the crest of a hill we noticed a large truck pulled off onto the shoulder several hundred

yards ahead of us. Objects of some sort were scattered over the road. We slowed a little as we approached, seeing that we would have to work our way through the debris.

The smell hit us first, and then the creeping realization of what lay on the road. And then suddenly we were in the midst, weaving back and forth, trying not to hit anything. My wheel grazed past something small and pink, which after a moment’s confusion I understood to be a fetal pig, pale and drained of life. To my left and right I saw severed limbs with cloven hooves, and a pig’s head that had landed upright, its eyes pointed darkly at us. There were unspeakable things, things which still hover and crouch in my dreams. Hundreds of pieces of animal bodies lay strewn across the road, fragments of the once-living littering the highway.

Chris and Mark both screamed. I wanted to shut my eyes, but I had to steer my bike through the debris, focusing on one object after another. In and out we wove among the legs and feet and heads and unborn. Magnified by the heat, and made palpable


by the thick humidity, the stench rose up in nauseating waves. I took in shallow gulps of air through my mouth, and sickness stuck in my throat.

The truck driver was bent over, slowly picking up pieces of animal and tossing them back into the truck. He stood and gave us a wide-mouthed grin as we passed through the last of the dead and back onto the open road.

 

EYE OF THE NEEDLE

An American soldier interviewed recently on the news described fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as “finding a needle in a stack of needles.” I find this embedding of cliché within simile interesting, and a nice way to describe a Sisyphean task—rather like trying to identify my true self by pulling out that one essential strand from within the pile of fragments in my psyche. It is hard to distinguish one piece from the others. Who am I, other than a needle among needles?

~

My daughter has a pathologic fear of shots. She begins to worry as soon as the doctor’s appointment is set. She worries over the intervening days or weeks, a hard knot forming in her stomach. As we drive to the office, she grows increasingly quiet and pale. Once in the phlebotomist’s chair, her battle against terror begins in earnest. She knows she is too old to be so scared.

~

The nurse asks in a cheery voice, “Would you like this in your left arm or your right?

Sage considers this for several long moments, and finally says, “Right.”

As the nurse readies a bandage, removing it from the package and peeling open one side of the elastic, Sage panics. “No, left arm,” she says.

The nurse takes a cotton ball out of a glass jar and pumps it several times on a brown plastic canister that says, in stark white letters, Alcohol.


“Wait,” Sage will say, taut but still holding it together. “Wait until I’m ready.”

The nurse stands patiently, holding the moistened alcohol swab in hand.

“OK,” Sage will breathe out, cautiously.

Sage pulls away from the coldness of the alcohol. “This is just alcohol,” says the nurse. “This doesn’t hurt.”

The swabbing done, the nurse lifts the syringe off the counter, flicks it quickly with her middle finger, and bends over toward Sage.

“Wait,” Sage will repeat. “I’m not ready. Please wait until I’m ready.”

The nurse stands, patiently, cooing and comforting. After long moments pass, the nurse says that now it is time.

Sage slaps her right hand over the swabbed area on her left arm. I see annoyance flash across the nurse’s face. She is thinking of all the charts she needs to check, the calls to patients, the restless people in the waiting room.

“Let’s get this over with,” she says, still keeping her voice pleasant. “It only stings for a second, and then it's over.”

She must prepare a new cotton ball and sterilize the arm again.

“Wait,” Sage will say, again and again. “I’m not ready.”

This dance repeats itself. The arm is held out, swabbed, and then abruptly withdrawn. At some point, threats will be made (if we can’t do this, then you won’t get your medicine and you will get sick; I’m going to give you one more chance, and then I need to go help other patients.) Sage, by now, is sick with fear. The needle is so small, so sterile, so menacing.

I’m proud of her when, after three quarters of an hour, she finally scrambles on top of her fear and holds it down for a three-count, long enough for the needle to do its dirty work.

And I worry for her. I see shadows of the anxiety that has stalked me for so long. An unbreakable genetic thread connects us.


~

I notice that my eyesight is not what it used to be. On the rare occasions that I am forced by basic domestic duty to pull out needle and thread, it is increasingly hard to steer the tiny strand of black cotton into the impossibly small hole in the needle. The hole seems to shift and bend as the thread draws near, and the effort to focus on this moving target makes me nauseous.

~

My grandmother lost the use of her eyes when she was in her early seventies. She wasn’t blind, but neither could she focus on close work, and for her last ten years could no longer read, which for her was about the same as being blind. When I was a teenager, she told me, “Don’t waste your time reading anything that isn’t important.” I have taken this advice seriously, and don’t read trashy novels. Assuming my eyes have a limited life-time quantity of reading in them, I save my eyes for the good stuff. Middlemarch, Sebald, People Magazine.

~

Jesus warned his disciples that maneuvering a camel through the eye of a needle will be exceedingly difficult—about as hard as it will be for a rich man to enter heaven. Heaven’s net may be wide, but its gate is pretty damn small.

~

The lesson taught in many Sunday schools around the country (though I never learned this myself), is that there is a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle.” This gate was built small, so that a man riding on a camel would have to dismount, unload his camel, and persuade the animal to crawl through on its knees. Apparently camels don’t mind walking on their knees. For a rich man, this gate presented an annoying obstacle, because he would have a great many things to unload from his camel before passing through to the holy city.

Biblical scholars who fret over Matthew 19:24 believe there may have been a misprint when the Aramaic was translated to Greek. The Greek word


kamelos, meaning rope or cable, could easily have been confused with kamilos, meaning camel. A mere slip of the writing instrument could have led to our present confusion, as could a scribe’s loss of up-close visual acuity. My grandmother could have made such a mistake, as could I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Jessica Pierce. White Whale Review, issue 2.2


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