“To a poet nothing can be lost.” Samuel Johnson
Something happened a few days ago that got me thinking about depicting emotion when I write, and how often I find my way to it through metaphor. Winter had reasserted itself, so Hannah’s forest hike was on icy sloggy mud that sucked at boots and made the hills dangerous on the way up, more dangerous on the way down. None of this bothered Hannah and her sister-Lab, Maggie, of course. The colder and wetter it is, the better Labrador retrievers love it, but my friend Barb, Maggie’s owner, and I groused along in a dank mist as we circled the pond, refrozen in distorted bumps where hockey players had broomed snow to form a rink. The parking lot at the trail head had been empty, as it frequently is on bad weather days, and our dogs ran at will, their noses loving the wild scents the wet ground held.
Barb and I were engrossed in considering which trail branch was least likely to be fatal to us that day as we looked down our options; neither of us initially grasped what was happening as Maggie dashed off through underbrush and Hannah eagerly followed, intent on whatever Maggie had found. Not until there was an explosion of barking, scrabbling paws rousing mounds of dead leaves, and another, unidentifiable animal sound. “Off!” I yelled. “Hannah, leave it! Come!” As I ran in toward her, Hannah retreated and headed back to me. Barb was calling Maggie off at the same time. We all ended six or eight feet back from the site of the commotion.
Ahead of us was a smallish raccoon on its back in a thick bed of brown leaves, paws bent into the air. There was no blood, just the still body of distinct gray, black, and white fur. Barb, who’d gotten there first, turned and said, “It’s dead. It must have been nearly gone already because raccoons are fierce fighters.” I looked, and, yes, it seemed already stiff, those raised paws like tiny branches poking skyward out of the fallen leaves. Barb grasped Maggie’s collar, diverting the curious sweet-natured chocolate back to the trail.
Keeping Hannah at heel, I stood well back from the raccoon but stayed, trying to gather in my sadness. Then one paw moved almost imperceptibly in the frigid air. The dogs traumatized it, I thought. It’s suffering. It’s suffering, afraid, and dying. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I whispered. Barb was back on the trail, keeping Maggie away.
“It’s dead, Lynne,” Barb called.
“A paw just moved.”
I waited. Tall trees scratched the cheeks of low-slung clouds. Then, another minuscule movement. Sorrow and failure overtook me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
Later as I wrote a check, I realized it was six months to the day since my father died. The last hoarse word he’d whispered was cold, and my sister and I put a warmed blanket on him. He was always cold while he was dying. The last time I saw him, we’d watched for his smallest motions: was that a breath? Had he moved his hand? He so wanted to live. A terrible helplessness, my stricken inability to make the difference that mattered to him, to help him keep his life, to fix it, became an internal chant: I’m sorry Dad, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
T.S. Eliot’s essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” (in The Sacred Wood, 1920) famous for his explication of the objective correlative, argues that Hamlet’s emotions are overblown, i.e., what happened in the play wasn’t bad enough to justify them, and that the play was thus an artistic failure. It’s strange to me that the raccoon’s death, so much smaller than my father’s, evoked more of my grief than anything that’s happened since he died. But this is the mysterious power of metaphor. By seeming to go away from what we’re talking about, it can sometimes lay it open to the bone.