We Live Here

A Good Death (Words)


In mid-July we lost our elderly French Alpine goat, Sophie. It got me thinking about the role that death plays in our little homestead here on the KP.

We got Sophie along with her daughter Maggie and son Ollie in early 2022 the way we’ve received several of our animals since moving here: someone was leaving the area and they couldn’t take their livestock. We went to a moving away sale, but when we saw the sign out front that read “Free goats,” Kristin let out an “Oh, noooo.” Meaning there was no way we were going home without some goats. And so it was. 

There they were in that stark February sunlight: three stolid sphinxes in a wide sloping field. Like they were just waiting for us, their suckers. Sophie sealed the deal: an elderly mama goat with an aura that told us she was the gentlest of souls. Not really knowing what we were doing, we brought them home. We like to think we gave them a happy life with our modest resources.

Since moving to the KP, I want to say death has “haunted” us, but that’s not right. It has been part of the latticework of our life here. Whether through stupidity, bad luck or old age, we lose animals — and not rarely. I remember our first: Masha the duck, likely to an eagle or coyote. It changed the way I thought of this beautiful place, our magical forest home. That evening, on a solo walk through the woods, calling Masha, for the first time I felt a vague sense of menace. From what? Whatever it was, it was not unnatural. It was a part of all things, a vital part, sort of like what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “Dark Ecology.”

Death sacralizes. It has made our home a collection of hallowed sites: the spot in the woodshed where something decapitated our beloved rooster, Warren. The little spot between two sheds where our goat Maggie froze, desperately trying to shelter herself from an ice storm. The patch of yard where I found Gil the duck dead, his bill in the water bowl. The other patch where our chicken Leona choked when we tried to treat her sour crop, incompetently.

Sophie was already old when we got her; we’re grateful she got as far as she did as healthy as she was. She lived long enough to decline — like you and me if we’re lucky. Arthritis ravaged her joints. She seemed to have trouble tolerating the frost of winter, the scorch of summer. Her mobility diminished; she had trouble getting up or lying down. She’d brace her head on the wall of her wooden shelter to leverage herself up. We took to feeding her on the ground for comfort.

Still, I never knew an animal who clung so tenaciously to life. She insisted on walking, despite the pain, supporting herself against her shed. Making circuits around it. Slowly. She would take a few unsteady steps, pause for a break, gird herself, and resume. We decided last spring that we would put her down at the end of summer. Let her enjoy the sun, with the aid of turmeric and ibuprofen. But in July things changed.

One morning Kristin found Sophie on the ground, shaking violently. She had a look of profound terror. What was happening?

Kristin thought Sophie was dying, but our life-loving goat bounced back — barely. Kristin made the appointment with the vet for in-home euthanasia in three days. She never wanted to see Sophie suffering like that again.

Her last day went like this. With our help, she walked herself down to the sunnier pasture — the first place where she lived here — and back. I remember her there last year, eating grass with what looked like such a grateful expression. She seemed so grateful for everything. So grateful to be alive. On her last day, she ate lots of watermelon, her favorite snack. After her usual painful circuits around the shed, she took a long nap.

She woke up. Occasionally bracing against Kristin, she came out of the shed and drank some water. The vet arrived. “Hello, beautiful,” he said. We talked about her condition, what might have caused her seizure, what would happen next.

It was all over very quickly. Afterward, I told Kristin, “Oh, I forgot to give her one last piece of watermelon.”

Did we do the right thing?

It could very well be that Sophie herself, if she could talk to us, would have said, “No, please let me live longer. I can take this. I would rather put up with the pain because I love grass and warmth and movement and watermelon snacks.” We’ll never know. 

Death is a transition, and transitions are hard. But death is also a reminder. In George Saunders’ 2017 novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” — which I had read not long before Sophie left us — our greatest president has to face the death by typhoid fever of his 10-year-old son. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done. But he also comes to learn: “His boy was nowhere; his boy was everywhere.”

Sophie, our mother tree, our Mimas goat. You are everywhere.

José Alaniz is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies (adjunct) at U.W. He lives blissfully with his wife and many animals in Longbranch.