Death, Dogs, and Cherry Blossoms

Death, Dogs, and Cherry Blossoms March 30, 2023

Last Friday was seven weeks — 49 days — since my brother’s death.

It happens that in many schools of Buddhism, this 49 day period is significant in death rites. Throughout this period, according to Japanese Buddhism, the deceased undergoes a series of tests that decides their next incarnation.

It was a nice coincidence then that right around this time, on Sunday, some of Jim’s friends held a wake, a “celebration of life”. I only knew a few of his friends, but our mom had met many more of them over the years, since he lived in her house for almost all of his life. So I drove her to the wake, and we had a few drinks on a Sunday afternoon, which put us in the mood for some heavy conservation when we got home.

Now, back in December 2021, after Jim’s stroke left him unable to drive, I took Mom to the animal shelter to adopt a dog for the two of them. From that time until Jim’s death, Mindy the Dog had never been alone in the house, one or the other of them had always been there.

In a way it’s been as distressing a transition for her as for Mom and I. A few weeks ago one of her family disappeared, with no explanation; and since then I — a guy she’d only seen a few times, but who brought her to her new home — have been around a lot. It’s a lot for a dog’s brain to navigate. She’s been acting up, destructive behavior, so we’re working on crate training, and had to put her in there for a few hours while we were gone.

So to let Mindy stretch her legs, and to help settle my brain after a weighty afternoon, I took the dog for a walk.

Mom still lives in the house I grew up in, and when I was young I would walk Kato, our German Shepherd – Akita mix (big dog, three or four times Mindy’s size) along the cleared field where the high-tension power lines run on their tall metal towers.

Forty years ago that field was well-trimmed, an unofficial park and playground for us neighborhood kids. So I took Mindy over there, walking by the former home of a childhood friend which was now in disrepair. Thinking gloomy thoughts of death and decay and decline.

As if to fit that mood, there was bulk trash dumped in my old playground and dog-walking area — an old couch, building scrap. And the hill I used to walk along, between the alley and the power lines, was overgrown with brambles.

But also, growing amidst the weeds, were a few small cherry trees, in full blossom. I don’t know how they got there: perhaps seeds from someone’s backyard tree were dropped by birds, or perhaps someone deliberately planted them years ago as some sort of an attempt at neighborhood beautification.

The thing about nature is that it is inarguable and impersonal. The trees simply do not care about how our individual lives are going. We can argue with each other about how we should feel, we can make our bad moods contagious by mistreating each other, but spring comes, in all its mystery and thus-ness.

“Break open
A cherry tree
And there are no flowers,
But the spring breeze
Brings forth myriad blossoms!” — Skeletons, Ikkyū Sōjun, trans. R. H. Blyth & N. A. Waddell

“You may wish to ask where the flowers come from,
But even [the god of spring] does not know.” — Zenrinkushū, Tōyō Eichō ed., trans. R. H. Blyth

And we being as we are, the spring blossoms pull up memories. The cherry tree in our grandfather’s backyard, or going blossom-viewing (hanami) in Japan’s Kansai region sixteen years ago…a perspective reminding me that this mood of death and decay and decline is also temporary.

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