Thursday, July 6, 2017


I didn't hit the doe. But I was there at her death, and complicit in it. 

I have hit deer many times before. Too many: a half dozen that I can specifically remember, brakes and adrenaline and dread and sickening thud and danger and blood and death and lasting damage. It is a sad fact of life that deer and vehicles do not coexist well. 

But I didn't hit this doe. That happened earlier, and I got drawn in to the ending of her trauma. 

It was a lovely spring day and I had parked my truck along a paved two-lane road in southeastern Minnesota, waiting to refill the spraying rig my partner operates. He called and said, "There's a doe over west on the property line -- I called the sheriff's deputy and he will be here soon." I walked up the road to wait, to give directions, to be complicit in her death, and to assess. Was this really necessary?

In emergency rooms it's called triage, the idea that you have to evaluate the damage in order to give appropriate aid. Often there is a sign on the wall to remind those of us with minor ailments that "the worst go first." 

When I first saw her, she was standing fifty yards from the roadway, head down in the young corn, looking for all the world like she was grazing. Maybe it's not so bad, I thought. I've known deer to be hit and bounce back relatively quickly. One December night my daughter and I collided with a nice buck whose skull and antlers shattered my windshield, leaving a silhouette of his profile right in front of the steering wheel in the spiderwebbed glass, inches from my wide eyes. I was doing over fifty miles per hour when we collided, and he took the whole impact to his head. There's no way he could survive, we thought. So after getting safely off to the side of the road and taking a look at the spectacular damage, we went tracking. We expected to find him dead within a few yards of the road. We saw where he had spun around, fallen, crawled, and fallen again. His tracks described a crazy weave in the clean snow. Then slowly, the weave became a stagger, and the stagger became a walk, and after a quarter mile his tracks merged with a trail. We gave up, shaking our heads at the resilience of this buck. 

So I wondered about this doe. Maybe she was just recovering. I worked my way around and noticed, first, that her head never came up. She never looked around, though I was less than fifty yards away in plain sight. She was not alert -- a sure sign of trouble for a whitetail. I could see one of her back legs was obviously broken, but that doesn't define things for a deer. There was more wrong. The flies were plaguing her, but her tail never flicked to chase them away. She stood hunched over, head down, staring at but not seeing a spot five feet in front of her. She had bedded down several places here and there, and my eyes teared to think of her agony in lying down and getting up again. 

The deputy arrived and we talked briefly about the doe. I hate this part of the job, he said. He took a rifle from his truck, loaded it, and walked to within twenty yards of her agony. Her head came up then, slowly, making eye contact with the officer. One quick, precise shot to the head and she fell, twitched twice and was still. 


"Thanks for all you do," I said, and he just shook his head. I walked back to my truck. 

Ending things can be a hard decision. Ecclesiastes says that "there is a time to die." How to decide when it's time for the death of a deer, a pet, a person, an idea, a relationship, a church? How to do the triage, to weigh treatment options, to opt for compassionate care or a merciful death? Ask any doctor and they will tell you that though there are important guidelines and principles, it's not an easy science. 

And beyond the science, emotion rises up and threatens to break the levees of our lives, swamping us with fears of guilt and shame. If they unplug life support, does that mean they don't love him any more? If I file for divorce, does that mean I am a failure? If we vote to close the church, are we dishonoring the generations that built it?

Endings are hard, and discerning how to handle them is harder. Triage is necessary. Discernment is crucial. And we don't always get it right. We don't have the luxury of flying into the future and looking back with 20/20 hindsight that allows us to say, "That was exactly the right decision! Why did I put it off so long?!" No, we live and love and die and grieve in the present, and -- this is important -- God knows this. 

While the people around you may well second-guess your decisions, God never does. He wraps your imperfect discernment, your fears and your hopes -- even your failures and mistakes -- into his glorious future. He takes the toughest of our endings and brings about the most beautiful resurrections. 

In a biblical view, after all, there is no hope without death. Be comforted. Grieve. Pray, and make the hard decisions. 


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