It was just as I had decided death was a good topic for a column, while I was out running with the dog, that our smallest duckling - the one we called NQR (for Not Quite Right) - died on the nest.
Was it a terrible death or a beautiful one? I chose to explain to the kids that it was a peaceful one, sleeping with its brothers and sisters under its mother’s wing. NQR had simply gone to sleep and didn’t wake.
I did mention quietly that he may have been a bit squashed and one of the kids pointed out a dent in his side that could have been a brother duck’s elbow or a sister’s knee, but that was enough realism for all of us.
We discussed it and collectively decided that NQR had enjoyed a lovely week of life with us and his/her family, but that whatever had kept it smaller and weaker than the others, and a bit dim to boot, probably meant a long life was never on the cards.
Then I took the opportunity to explain that procreation may not have been a good idea if it had grown up because the babies would probably be NQR also. At that stage the kids wandered off to do something more interesting.
I felt terrible that I wasn’t there to prevent the death. For more than a week our oldest son had nursed the tiny duck, keeping it snuggled in his collar while he played on the computer and setting up a straw bedroom inside a cardboard box. My main contribution was giving permission to host NQR under the heat light in the ensuite bathroom overnight.
After ten days of intense attention and clinical observation of satisfactory growth and social development, the duckling’s passing happened in the time it took to run eight kilometres and mentally draft an article about dying.
With every expectation that NQR would catch up to his nine siblings in size and ability, my thoughts of writing about death were unrelated. They had been inspired by a conversation I’d had with a palliative care practitioner the day before.
This highly qualified, deep thinking person explained how she focuses dying people on the life they’ve lived. After two contrasting experiences; witnessing her father suffer a terrible death from motor neurone disease, then her mother who had a beautiful and dignified end to her life with palliative care, she wanted to create a situation where people’s lives have meaning before death.
In her world of palliative care, facing the last stages of life is a very exciting time, a time of growth. It’s a time of connecting back to things that matter, the core issues - our own core and the core of life. In that context, it’s hard to think of anything more important than dying well.
Yet, our western society is clearly in a quandary about death. We are frightened of it and don’t really know how to talk about it. We generally don’t prepare ourselves or the people around us for the occasion and suicide has become an all too familiar topic.
All of those reactions are rather odd when you consider that one of the only absolute guarantees we have in life is that it will end at some stage.
Perhaps the root of our discomfort is that we know deep down that we are not living very well?
While there are undeniably vastly different degrees of comfort in our local, regional and national society, there are opportunities to create a rewarding and prosperous life. Again, the opportunities are not necessarily equal but I would argue that they are there for the taking.
But has it sunk in with us that it’s not about how much we have, or who we know, how fast we can drive, or how much we can eat? I’m not sure that it has. We all know we are living in a consumption-driven, dollar-based, adversarial and increasingly polluted world but are we doing enough to change it?
Hats off to all the backyard gardeners, friendly faces, rainwater collectors, volunteers, recyclers and op-shoppers – keep up the good work until everyone catches up! Every little action towards improving our lives and those around us is making a difference.
It’s not complicated to do the right thing and maybe that’s why it’s difficult to accept. Surely it can’t be that simple? But it’s the basics that are important. Love, respect, discipline, effort, positive thoughts.
So I’m still sad about NQR, but I know that his short life was valuable because he inspired in our family some pretty good life (and death) lessons.