I was so intent, trying to look ten feet in front of me, that I didn’t realize what was under me. As I looked down at my hand, on which I’d been crawling around, I saw the furry edges of a decomposed squirrel sticking out from under my palm. Instinctively, I yanked my whole arm back, as if I had grabbed a live electrical wire. And then thinking, “well, I am down here to clean up,” I reached down and grabbed it and kept going. Good thing I brought gardening gloves!
Even as I listened to Activist Theology on my headphones, my brain couldn’t help but wonder, “what dead things are lying under the floorboards at the Church campus, down the road? And if I can miss something dead, under my hand, as I crawl around, what kind of death am I missing at Church, because I am too focused on what may come?” With depth under the house, my thoughts were getting equally #Deep. It didn’t hurt that in my audio book Robyn was talking about “the tyranny of the now,” “disruption,” and the ways in which Christianity in Western culture has been complicit in the modern day Babylon.
As I crawled past the deceased squirrel carcass, the pathway ahead seemed to open up. It was vastly more cleared out, allowing me to make a bit more headway. The place where I entered, where the air conditioning ducts entered also, resembled the coagulation of boulders in the bottom of a canyon, the imagined result of many a rock and mud slide. I was at the top of the mountain. It would all be downhill from there.
Crawling toward the next, low-hanging conduit, I saw how the insulated surrounding of the vent shaft was corroded and decaying. “This is a metaphor for all the things that keep us warm and comfortable,” I thought. For now, it’s working. But when its shelf-life ends, we are going to be in wholesale trouble, if we don’t have an answer to the issues of life. The philosophical thoughts continued.
Right before coming to a series of more AC channels, I blinked away some dust, as I crawled. When my eyes opened, staring back at me, was a spider in its natural habitat. Saying, “hello,” I exhaled on its web, and watched it barely move — winter lethargy. “How many slumbering arachnids have I crawled through?” I thought to myself, as I kept going. The experience would have been entirely different, had it been spring or summer.
My unofficial trail had taken me from an area of less concentration to greater, and I was coming to a place where my athleticism would be tested, where the terrain would ask me to crawl through openings slightly larger than my body. The last open space on the floor boasted an opening in the brick foundation. “This must be the front porch and the thoroughfair to the laundry room,” I told myself. and yet, despite the price of admission I’d paid, I could not see what was back there. The opening was large enough, but the architect erected a small bar of bricks in the middle, keeping human-sized intruders out. “Oh well,” I told my curious side, “It doesn’t seem like the smell is coming from there, anyway.” I kept going.
The duct channels were a labyrinth more than a maze. I knew the entrance and exit, and the trip called on my patience and mental presence. As I began creeping, over and then under obstacles, I became afraid of my own sound, wanting, needing to hear if anything else was under there. All-in-all, I found a few other nasty parcels — part of a squirrel face, several piles of feathers, cat excrement—the digested remains of these animals—but nothing that could provide the smell that kept growing in my nostrils.
My mind snapped back to words from my spouse. A couple weeks earlier, she had awakened in the wee hours of the morning, hearing a vile and dark sound — the sound of something wailing for all it was worth. I was about 9% awakened by it, but only enough to wonder if it was a dream. The sound was one part like an air-raid siren, the type that sound from atop a water tower for the volunteer fire department, and it was one part like the gurgling of an outboard motor on a boat, trying to get started. Both guttural and deeply vocal at the same time.
We had forgotten that sound over the weeks, but my mind brought it back as I was creeping along. Was the sound two weeks ago something about to die or something about to kill?
It was the former. Oh, God. Definitely the former. As I came around a bend in the tubing, I met a place where several pipes came together. It was a major artery of the AC unit, and wrapped like an “L” shape around the brick-made cornerstone of the house, it was situated on top of the only slab of cement amidst the plastic-covered dirt. And there, nestled in the crook of the “L” shape, cozily crammed up against the cornerstone, I saw it.
It was a dead cat. When writing this entry, I was tempted to post a picture of the decayed remains of the cat, but did not want to get slapped, next time any of you saw me. It was pretty gross. As I had gotten closer to the corpse, small tufts of white hair had warned me that something loomed ahead. Its white hair was matched with fiery orange patches that had faded with the matted dirt.
The cat lay on its back in a contortion caused by bloating and rigor mortis. “I don’t want to bump this gas giant into anything sharp,” I thought to myself. The only visible eye was as black as nothingness itself, telling me it was definitely dead. And yet, I still kept my distance, half-expecting a full Pet Cemetery-like event to happen. Heck, I had even brought a pocket knife, in case there was a rabid killer on the loose.
The cat’s mouth had some radioactive-looking, bright green ooze pooled up. And yet, I stayed away, partly because of the stench and partly because of fear of the unknown. “Babe,” I told my wife as I called her on my cellphone, “I found what’s making the smell. It’s a decaying, decrepit cat.” I could hear her gagging on the other end of the line, amidst chortles of disbelief. We had finally found what was causing the smell! (I saw “we”, because it was a team effort. She was watching the kids above me.
The cat didn’t have any sign of identification, which made me glad that I would not feel obligated to call any pet owners. However, it did look old. As I began to try and move its board-like body, I first tried to grab it with the refuse-filled pair of grocery bags. As it moved, parts of it began falling off, evidence that it had been mortally wounded in some kind of fight. I felt bad for the cat, as I pictured it howling under our bedroom, sounding like a gurgling air-raid siren.
After I realized it was too big for the bags, I tore off pieces of the plastic, carpeting the floor. It must have been funny to watch my trepidation as I delicately handled this former animal. “What’s the process for handling a dead cat?” I thought. “I mean, there isn’t exactly a funeral home…but if I throw it away, and someone finds it, I might be arrested for cruelty to animals…That would be a fun headline. Local pastor arrested for cult of animal sacrifice.” I pulled my fantastical mind back to the present and hoisted my corpulent cargo.
Crawling and carrying it over ducts and then dragging it through the dirt, I came to the missing air vent in the brick foundation where it likely came under the house. But it wouldn’t go through. It was stuck. And I kept jolting backwards, every time it would slip and its extinct claws would brush up against me. I knew they were defunct, but I was still scared of the diseases that were probably alive on the dearly departed.
My wife brought me a trash bag. Even though I had been mad at her for buying the scent-infused, stretchy ones, I now praised her for the bourgeois choice that masked the malodor. Finally, I pushed it through the opening and then made my way through the network, back to daylight.
The end of the story was that I put the cat corpse in the trash can and, after getting detailed instructions to do so, moved the smelly can away from the house. But that isn’t the complete end of the story.
As my mind had done, while I was under the house, it kept going, after I came up to fresh air. In the past month I had officiated three funerals, not including this animal one, in which I prayed the whole time. My relationship to death seems to be changing.
Even though I was repulsed by the decaying cat, it wasn’t the dead meat I was repulsed by. It was my own mortality. The bacteria, feasting on the carbon-based life form, was only doing what God created it to do. I was experiencing the product of the life cycle — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The earth was reclaiming the life that it birthed forth, probably fourteen years ago, by the looks of the aged cat.
When we realize that we are going to die, it changes the way we live. When I came inside and saw my own cat, alive and curmudgeonly as ever, I appreciated her sarcasm. When I saw my bounding children, I hugged them extra tight.
In this present moment, we live in the tension between birth and death. We live in a culture that tries so hard to “get out of life alive,” as a teacher told us once. But we will all die one day. There is great fear in that unknown, but we can also be freed to live our lives in great passion.
The world around me is dying, in so many respects. The respect of our Two Party System of government is dead. Civility is dying. Social connection is corrupted. The Church I serve is crumbling. And yet, this is not the end. Death gives way to life. In the Church, we believe, death is the precedent of resurrection.
So my words of encouragement to you are these:
If you see death around you, it is OK to be repulsed by it. But don’t run from the reality. Allow yourself to grieve for what has died. But then, look for the places where new life will emerge. As Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat dies, it cannot bear any fruit. But if it dies, it may yet bear much fruit.”
This is my prayer. To all who mourn the sight and pain of death, may God bring joy — that in sorrow they may find hope, in pain, healing, and in death, resurrection. Amen.