For the past few months there has been much in the news detailing recent scientific observations of my favorite beetle. The dung beetle, a most amazing creature. One that has been a totem of mine for quite some time with its ability to create new life within situations which others may chose to avoid. For its place in ancient mythology and in ancient Egypt where it was significantly associated with ritual of funerals, signifying transformation and renewal. [see September 2012 post ‘Dreams of a Dung Beetle’] Newly released research coming out of Wits University School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Studies makes this little beetle so much more special than even I could imagine.
Dung beetles display very curious behaviour for insects. The mother dung beetle seems to be one of very few insects that actually appear to care for their young. The mother carefully lays one egg at a time in the ball of dung and then remains with the ball for the next three months. Recordings seem to show her making sounds throughout this time. Scientists speculate that the mother is calling to the young, ensuring perhaps they are still alive, and creating a sustained bond. Ever resilient these beetles are not fazed by the human contact of being handled by the researchers and just continue to do what they do best. Be dung beetles. Swedish researchers recently found that dung beetles navigate their way by using the stars. Namibian desert dung beetles are the sports science specialists of the group, as they seem to have built in pedometers, counting their way away from and back to the nests. Such curious and wonderful creatures.
I can well relate to this bond of the mother dung beetle. Constantly checking that all is well and staying close by. That is the task of mothering. It is also the task of midwifing patients and families through the last journey undertaken on the way to the finality of death. This was a bond I found myself reflecting on while visiting with the family of one of my young patients last week, and in the subsequent almost daily contact with the mother. Observing how we all have needs of giving, receiving, and ensuring care that need to be met. I felt the need for being of service and duty to respond to a plea from my patient’s mother and to visit, having not seen him since January with his bone tumour having grown so large he was unable to move from the bed and be driven to the hospital. I found out on the day of my visit that the distance to the hospital was indeed a huge hurdle and not as close as I had imagined.
It took me more than an hour driving out into the countryside to see this family. The two siblings, happy to see me, before they melted into the background. The girls desperate for attention from their older half-brother, but he a typical teen not wanting much physical touch from them. Little did he know my homework until the next visit would be to allow his sisters to at least give him a hug a day. It took a while though, with some cajoling and bribery, to shake on it. And mother, always hovering, not too far away. Listening for any small call that might indicate she was needed. Giving us time on our own to assess, examine, plan for the increasing pain and difficulties, and go through the list of teenage angst and honest engagement with dying. Discussing his desire to still experience life, to get drunk, to have sex. Dreams and desires for this life that will take time letting go of. The main question for the day, one of deep existential curiosity: How do I know when it is time to go, when I have done everything I need to have completed this life and that my spirit will be able to leave in peace when I die? Such an intense question for a 16 year old to wonder about. Hoping that all will be well despite the fear of facing this final hurdle of his brief life.
We all live with hope, with dreams, with desires. Even as these change, as they must, as we engage with the reality of the moment and the constant letting go, and continue to build new dreams, desires, and hopes. The poem pasted below is one my daughter read to me as she sat on the bed reading while I wrote at the desk. Staying close in the bonded orbit of care. Slowly coming to terms with an understanding of a chronic illness that has forever changed the landscape of her life. Intimately engaging with hopes, dreams and desires, that never leave but change over time as we step by step let go, accept the reality of this moment and form new ones. Just as the mother dung beetle is watching, waiting, and singing out to the young that will emerge. A great love story indeed.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.