Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Dead Dog Stories

Yesterday morning Roxy awoke earlier than her usual 6:00, meaning I did as well. I was too tired to wait for her ritual pre-voiding lollygag tour of backyard smells, so I left her in the fenced yard of the empty house next door and went back to bed. When I finally did wake up she was waiting, escaped, outside our kitchen door. From her panting I could tell that she'd gotten some ya-yas out in the neighborhood and from her dripping I could tell that her journey had included a stop in B--'s meticulously landscaped fish pond. It wasn't until she'd been back in the house for a few minutes that I noticed that she'd also been rolling around in shit, some of which still clung to the fur under her neck. I hadn't yet had enough coffee to afford an even-tempered response, so she got a cold garden hose shampoo that was about as comfortable as a boot camp physical and as gentle as a decontamination scene in Silkwood.

On my way to work that morning travelling south on 147 I spotted a DOT truck at the side of the road. There a man was shovelling, yes, literally, lifting with a giant implement that could only be described as a shovel, the body of a large setter. I took in no more than this impression in passing, so how ever in that second or two could I have perceived in his labors such a melancholy grace?

Later in the car on the way to dinner, K told me that when she arrived home, Roxy was lying motionless in her crate and showed no response until K said out loud: Roxy, are you dead? She said she now knew what it would feel like to come home to find the dog dead. She then asked me about a story I'd told her long before about burying the family dog, an episode I was now surprised to find hadn't wafted into my brain when I'd passed that setter being shoveled into the truck. Her question was somewhat odd: Did you leave the dog in the house while you dug the hole, or did you take her out right away?

My mother had phoned me and my brother from her office and gave us each the same message: Jet is dead. She's on the couch. You and your brother have to deal with her--I can't do it. I called Craig to decide what to do. He took a pragmatic view.

"Can't we just take her to the vet?"

"No fucking way. A guy I worked with who had worked in a vet's office told me that when you take your beloved Fluffy to be cremated, it's done in batches. The ashes they give you may or may not contain trace amounts of your pet. Absolutely not. We're burying her in the backyard."

"It's February. We live in Michigan."

Reluctantly, my brother agreed to go with me to the hardware store. I rented a pick-axe, bought some lime, wondered how much the cashier was wondering about the combination. When we arrived at our mother's house, our boyhood home, I began sobbing even before making it to the room where the body of our eighteen year-old dog lay on the ratty couch upon which she mostly spent her final years, curled up napping like a cat. Later, when I would recount this story--the surprising violence of my grief for a dog--to my shrink, she would tell me that it's because our feelings toward our pets are (unlike those about our families) totally unambiguous that their deaths may be particularly mournful. For several minutes I sat crying and stroking her lifeless head. I got up. We went outside. We selected a spot in the corner of the yard and marked out the grave in the snow.

"How deep, you think?"

"I don't think we'll need to go all six feet for a dog." A good thing, too, because our initial blows with the pick axe were for naught. Thirty minutes later we had barely scratched the frozen soil. I don't recall how we came up with the idea, but after a visit to a tool-savvy neighbor yielded a beat-up circular saw, we proceeded to cut a grid into the icy dirt so that the incisions allowed us to much more easily break the soil. And so we travailled: cut a grid, chop it out, cut another grid. After a couple of hours of trading the axe back and forth, we'd gotten maybe a foot into the ground. Stupefied by exhaustion, I suggested to my brother that maybe mass cremation wasn't so bad after all. And here comes the transcendent moment in this story: my brother, who'd indulged my insistence on burying the dog in the frozen yard with the grumbling acquiescence of a younger sibling, was now himself insisting that we finish the job. He took the axe out of my hand and returned to digging with an energy that was both disquieting and heroic. I tried to keep up with our alternating shifts, but when my turn came I could barely manage a couple of pathetic swings. Finally, when my brother as well was on the verge of collapse, the frozen ground gave way under the axe to reveal beautifully soft brown dirt. After the weight of the pickaxe, our shovels felt as light and wieldy as spatulas. We shovelled spongecake.

When the hole was finished, we paused to stare into the ground that would receive our dog. We went inside the house. Too tired and purposeful to cry any more, we lifted her body onto a sheet and carried it to the grave. We lowered her down and paused again. Had either of us believed in God this moment would have been a prayer. Instead it was a silent benediction to the order of things.

From inside the house Craig had gathered an orphaned bag of Jet's food along with what might have been considered her affects--some toys, a couple of beef bones, a leash--which we placed alongside her in the grave . It was only when I began to dust her corpse with the lime, the white powder falling on her still and perfectly contrasting black coat, that I fully apprehended her death. My sobbing, renewed by the task of turning the dirt back into the grave, ceased only when her body was fully obscured.

We continued in silence to fill the hole. We returned our borrowed tools. We went home.


Blogger Chia Pet said...

There are very few things I read with as much enthusiasm as anything written by my brother. And as the opportunity to do so has always been rather sparse, I delighted in reading a vivid account of an emotional event that we experienced together. With this said, the anal retentive historian in me must refine some recollections.

Chris, we buried Jet in her comforter with her food dish, bones, and Christmas stocking...which, of course, thanks to our mother -- a lifelong and career procrastinator -- had not yet been stored. Hell, for all I remember, it could have still be hanging on the mantle.

1:14 PM  

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