The first time I remember seeing a dead person was at the funeral of my maternal grandfather. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember my mom lifting me up to see him in his coffin. I had no clue what was going on or why everyone was so upset. Probably because I didn’t spend much time with him, I didn’t miss him as he laid there. More likely, though, I was too young to understand the implications of death.
The first time I understood the implications of death was later on in my childhood when “Julio”, the kid from across the street, was killed in a traffic accident. Coincidentally, mom and I had driven by the accident site, but we didn’t know that it was him who had been struck by a car driven by a drunken driver as Julio and his parents waited for the bus back in Juarez. The next day, mom asked to talk to me. She was crying. She told me what happened and asked me if I was okay. I was okay, but I knew that I would not be spending any more time with Julio, the awkward kid from across the street whom we all bullied and made fun of; the kid who’d come over to play regardless of how different he was and how differently we all treated him.
It was with Julio’s death that I understood that death is pretty much a permanent thing. Sure, there have been “exceptions” to the rule that once you’re dead you’re gone, but they happened in an ancient time only found in the holy texts. My faith also teaches that life goes on beyond death, but it goes on in a plane of reality different than the here and now in which I exist. So, for all intents and purposes, death is permanent. One moment you’re alive, and the next, poof, you’re gone. Cellular processes cease and decay begins.
My biggest beef with death is its finality. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s no going back once you’re pronounced. That bothers me. It bothers me because I’m used to missing deadlines and still getting away with doing what needed to be done. It bothers me because I’ve been able to reconcile with people even after an all-out brawl with them. In short, there’s always a fix to things, but not to death. And, so, death reminds me that I’m not really in control of things.
I have two Guinea Pigs, “Chicharito” and “Little Wayne Rooney.” I got them about a year and a half ago, or so, and they have been good company while I dabble in my home office. Once in a while, I’ll take them out of their cage and put them on the desk while I’m writing. They like to explore the desk and then look up at the screen and follow the cursor or the letters as they appear on the screen. Very rarely, I’ll talk to them in full, complete thoughts, using them as my little, furry counselors.
They don’t judge.
Unfortunately, they’ve been sneezing a lot. This morning, LWR looked disoriented, but he was still eating and drinking water. I looked at his eye. It was covered in goop and looked diseased. So I took him to the bathroom and cleaned it up with some warm water. I also held a warm compress on his eye for a couple of minutes. He went back into his cage, but he wasn’t acting well. With the two of them sneezing, I’m worried an upper respiratory (or even full-on respiratory) infection is hitting them.
If they get very sick, I’ll take them to the veterinarian, but I refuse to spend exorbitant amounts of money to keep them alive. They’re Guinea Pigs. They were $12 each at a pet store. Yes, they’re my pets. Yes, they’re part of the pack, along with three cats and the dog. Yes, they’re like family. But they’re Guinea Pigs. If they get very sick, I’ll have to ask the vet to put them down.
And I hate that because of its finality.
As I move on in my career within public health, there is no doubt in my mind that I will see death again, and I will see other things that are irreparable, permanent, and final. And it scares me. But I’m known for taking on things that scare me.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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