It was an old and beautiful library that smelled faintly of cedar and Charles Dickens. Books on the walls, deep, velvet cushioned chairs and couches, the whole place softly lit with deep thoughts. It was the final day of autobiography class with a dynamic and highly sought-after professor. Each of us had ten minutes to read from our final essay paper. An hour into it, a woman in her late 20’s with a soft smile and 80’s hangover perm began reading about ducks on a pond. She must have been good, because I could see the dust motes swirling in the early morning air, five ducks gliding across water still drenched with the pre-dawn silver of the sky. And into this library-lake scene, the jaws of a crocodile snap soundly and suddenly in the air. And then there were four, and a rush of ripples moving hurriedly toward shore.
As she continued to read, the woman crafted an analogy between the unsuspecting duck on peaceful waters, and her decision to have children. She’s a carrier for a chemical deficiency that creates emphysema. She watched her cousin struggle for each of his breaths and die at the age of nineteen because of the disease. She, herself, never developed the disease, but knowing she could pass it to her children made a jaw-snapping reality for her.
It’s been almost twenty years and I still remember this woman and her dilemma. I also remember at the time thinking so what? Have kids. Don’t have kids. What’s the big deal?
Only two decades later do I realize the big deal is not the children, but the decision. What seemed an insignificant choice to me was a huge choice for her. Little goldfish nipping at duck feet, or huge crocodile jaws gobbling up life force, it all depends on the perspective from your place on the pond.
When I tell people through swollen eyelids and salty cheeks about my decision to live uncompanioned by animal friends as Silas and I roam the world pursuing a gypsy lifestyle, I am often met by the gaze of my 20 year old self, the gaze that says So What? Have pets. Don’t have pets. What’s the big deal? Yet from my side of the pond, it’s a very teary, very sobbing big deal. Ive been companioned by animals for so long, and so deeply, that I don’t know what it’s like to make my way through the world without them by my side. Their presence is an appendage, a foundation, like legs, or feet. How do you say goodbye to your feet? How do you say to your right foot, “Helllooooo down there. Hey you! Yeah, foot. I gotta let you go now. I’m going to sacrifice you so that I can live this dream, heed this calling…”
Preposterous, I know. Yet for someone like me whose animal companions have shaped her spiritual footing, it’s an apt analogy.
Today I gaze across the pond of my life and I watch the ducks glide in the early morning air, dust motes swirling golden like little planets with orbiting suns. There’s no crocodile in the water today, but his tears roll down my cheeks. And I marvel that some decisions are smooth as glass, and glide through our life, afloat. Other decisions have teeth, jagged and piercing, drawing blood. Then there is the water that contains it all, predator and prey, gentle and harsh. The water never says to any of its inhabitants “You’re not welcome here.” Nor does it say “You owe me.” It accepts all, nurtures all. And I wonder if I, too, can be the water. If I can swirl and eddy and flow, allowing all, including all, nurturing all. My heart pinches and expands. I fear. I hope. I accept. I resist. I open. I crumble. I love, drowning and floating by turn.
I see her still, the woman in the library, reading her grief through an essay of tears. And I say a prayer for her, wherever she is, childless. And I say a prayer of forgiveness upon the head of my of my own twenty-year-old, uncomprehending self. And a third prayer for all of us standing at the edge of the pond, considering our fate through smiles and tears, daring to let go, to become the surrender and the generosity of the water.