Laying on the love seat behind me, her breathing sounds as it always does this time of night. It is slow and rhythmic and loud, punctuated by bursts and snorts. Her paws twitch a little and her lips curl at whatever it is that dogs dream about. There on that grungy old love seat that has over the years become exclusively hers, Jaz sleeps as I write. This has become our late night thing. Sometimes, when a sentence won’t do what I’m asking of it, I’ll read it to her and sometimes she’ll even wake up to listen. She may not be the most attentive editor, but I always know she’s there. Tonight I am letting her just sleep and keeping my words to myself. She looks – and sounds – too comfortable to bother. She sounds peaceful and content. Really, you wouldn’t know that anything is wrong with her.
A few months ago we found out that Jaz is sick. We were told then that she had maybe four months left, but for a dog with only one month to go on her sentence, she’s doing very well. So much so that she almost ran down a man on a bike not long ago. Cancer or not, she doesn’t cotton to men on bikes with their hoods up riding past her house. I would imagine he didn’t think she only has one month to go.
Despite most appearances though, she’s showing signs of waning. She tires easily and she limps on her cancer-ridden front shoulder. And she has a way of looking at us now, one that I try not to humanize with description of emotions with which we can identify, but one that is different than it once was. We’re watching her begin to fade.
And all of that leaves me raw and open. In the face of fundamental, natural change I walk with sadness and appreciation and reflection. I know that what is coming is going to be hard and that the graduality of it is some inherent way of preparing us – and her – for what is to be. Life has a way of holding your hand like that.
With this I am also reminded that the beauty of life is not what is simply beautiful on the surface. Real beauty digs down and sometimes is uncomfortable. It is perfect in its imperfections. That which brings us to a new level of understanding of and connection to all that is around us is sometimes the struggle that dances beneath a pretty and illusory exterior.
Last spring, for Rainbow Pony’s fourth birthday, we got her a butterfly garden kit. It was a simple cage in which you put a milkweed plant laden with butterfly eggs. The eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the plant, spin into a chrysalis and transform themselves into a butterfly, all within the confines of the cage. It’s a relatively unobtrusive way to capture the rhythms of nature. Life presented for easy human consumption.
Our encapsulated milkweed plant, we quickly discovered, was so heavy with eggs that the resultant caterpillars would have eaten through it before they were all properly nourished. So, we got more plants, took the first plant out of the cage and turned our screened porch into one gigantic caterpillar zoo. It wasn’t long before fattened caterpillars were scaling the walls, windows and everything else in the room, searching for the perfect spot to begin their metamorphosis. In the end, we counted more than thirty pupae.
The whole process was fascinating to watch so closely. The image I had in my head before we began was one of grace and delicacy. I pictured a fluid transformation devoid of the inelegance that seems to plague our human existence. After all, this was nature and nature was perfect.
What we saw, though, was the primal and imperfect struggle that life is. The caterpillars would anchor themselves prior to their pupation with diligence, as if they knew the fight they had ahead of them. Once hanging securely, its skin would split at the head and the caterpillar would convulse and whip itself around violently in order to shed this now unnecessary shell. Most survived the process, but some didn’t. Some broke their anchor and fell helplessly down. Some seemed to succumb to the struggle itself and stopped moving, dying where they hung. It looked agonizing from my human perspective.
This is a video of the process I managed to catch on our porch.
The emergence of the butterfly was no less wrenching. After more than a week, the pupa would tear at a seam and a wet and mashed butterfly would begin to make its way out. Once free, it would hang by its feet and slowly beat its wings to dry and expand them. Some wings stuck together, never to open fully. Some were misshapen or asymmetrical. Some fell. Some seemed to just be too weak to even try.
Most caterpillars made it to the pupal stage. A little more than half of the pupae emerged as butterflies and flew away. I picked up a lot of butterflies that never made it out of our porch. Nature, it seemed, was far less than perfect.
But, just like the mistake of humanizing my dog’s emotions as she ends her journey or attaching the human concept of pain to the metamorphosis of a butterfly, the idea of perfection is a limiting and flawed human construct. Life in all forms and in all stages is perfect in its own way just as it is a struggle in many ways. Perhaps it is the struggle that makes it perfect. Perhaps the word “perfect” in the natural world is incongruous with the word “flawless”.
We try so hard to separate ourselves from struggle and from death that the concepts themselves have become synonymous with imperfection in our culture. These things are difficult, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t perfect.
As I write this, Jas is still breathing loudly behind me. She is also dying. Right now. Slowly, but surely. Maybe she does feel some of the same sadness we feel with the impending loss of a member of our family. Maybe she knows what is happening to her and feels a peace with it that we don’t understand because she hasn’t been socialized to disassociate herself with death. Maybe the butterflies that fought through that process we were privileged enough to watch didn’t feel the agony that I attached to it, but a visceral elation that we have numbed out with all of our hopes and expectations.
Perfection is a tricky thing and prone to interpretation. I think I once imagined perfection to reside beyond pain and struggle and loss. What I have come to understand is that it is woven so tightly into all of it that perceptual judgments cease to exist. All that is in our natural world is perfect – all of the struggles, all of the triumphs, all of the beginnings and all of the endings.
Perfection is the beauty that lies underneath the obvious. It is the beauty of not just the elegant butterfly or the healthy, vibrant dog or the colorful flower, but of the whole of each of those things. It is the struggle and the journey that makes it beautiful. And that is the perfection I want to know.