I recently re-read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which is my favorite of her novels and also one of the few books that have ever provoked me to heart-pumping stomach-jumping sobbing. Since it had been some years since the last reading, I wondered if it would have the same effect. It did—even more so because of the sanctuary work that has taken up many of the intervening years.
I’ll try to divulge only as much as I need to reveal to say what I have to say, but if you’ve not read the book yet and prefer to be completely surprised by plot twists, you’ll want to skip the rest of this paragraph and go onto the next. There’s a point in the book when my favorite character bursts into the funeral for a departed relative whose tragic death has provoked her beyond the brink. She speaks quietly to each mourner in turn, claiming the departed as a member of her family, and then shouts to the heavens, so that everybody will know, “And she was loved!”
No matter that I know it’s coming, that passage always leaves me feeling sucker-punched as I gasp to contain the fists of pain battering my heart and throat. Even more so, now that I know exactly what it feels like to have the burning wish to communicate that a being was loved.
I remember when Chickweed—one of the first birds rescued by what would become the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and then VINE Sanctuary—died, I dredged the house for objects to bury with him. I wanted anybody later coming upon those chicken bones to know: This wasn’t anybody’s dinner. This was somebody’s brother. This was somebody’s friend.
Why? The intensity of the impulse suggests a primordial root. We’re social animals, so much so that we construct our identities—originally and continually—from the reflections of ourselves we see in others’ eyes. And so… something about full personhood depends—or feels like it depends—on being seen by others. (Really seen. That’s why persistent misperceptions, especially by parents and partners, can be so damaging.) And then maybe… something about goodness—or, rather, the feeling of goodness—depends on being cherished by others.
And so when someone—especially someone from a despised or denigrated group—dies, those who cherished that being want everybody to know: This wasn’t just some body; this was somebody. What makes that most clear? That s/he was loved!
This train of thought was provoked by the death of a duck called Baltimore by those of us who loved him.
Please do go now and read his obituary, which I wrote with the intent of communicating these facts: He began life in a foie gras factory, enduring unspeakable suffering. He was rescued in an act of compassion that would be considered an act of terrorism under current laws. He lived out his life at the sanctuary, where he behaved kindly to other beings. And he was loved!