Between the Lines / An early introduction to loss and grief
Is there anything as irrevocably lost as a childhood dog?
Our daughter's 9-year-old Pomeranian disappeared last week after his morning routine outdoors. He wandered out of their yard or was perhaps taken. Peanut has been gone almost two weeks now, and he leaves a sad void in our lives that all beloved pets do.
When I ask my granddaughter Charlotte where Peanut is, she answers, "He went to the woods." Don't all childhood dogs disappear into the woods sooner or later? Doesn't our innocence eventually end up there, too?
When I was about 10 years old we got a dog. With seven children in the busy house on Old Town Road, he was hardly needed. He was a beautiful Dalmatian that my Grandmother Mal gave us. I can't quite remember the poor thing's name, but "Pete" rings a bell. "A good dog," as my father liked to say. Kids love their family dogs, but we cut him no slack. He had to fight the rest of us for any leftovers. Pete slept in the kitchen in a bed by the cellar door. He always seemed so happy to be curling up there at the end of the day.
Our dog could run like the wind and he liked to hang around as we played with our friends. When Pete wasn't with us he roamed all day through the woods and swampy yards of our neighborhood on his own. His feet always seemed to be muddy and he liked to shake off the muck onto us.
After supper one warm summer evening Pete got hit by an ice cream truck. The Good Humor man in the white suit was done for the day and was racing home. After he ran over the dog, he came to the front door to tell us what had happened. It was the decent thing to do.
My father said, "I want Kevin to come with me. The rest of you should go upstairs to your rooms until we're finished. This will be upsetting for you."
Kevin was our older brother, strong, smart and mature beyond his years. Dad got his gloves, a couple of shovels and a potato sack out of the cellar. I was relieved I didn't have to go with them, but I watched from the upstairs window as the daylight began to wane. They solemnly walked out to the street to see about the dog.
They came back together carrying Pete on the potato sack. His beautiful body was limp and his legs hung over the burlap. His head and tail were lifeless. Little drops of blood left a trail of spots along the driveway. Even a child can see that dead is dead.
Dad and Kevin walked toward the back corner of the yard beyond the basketball hoop. They set the dog down carefully on the ground and took up their shovels. Dad dug first, stepping his weight onto his shovel and turning over the dark earth. Kevin did the same opposite him. They worked quickly and silently and I could see the hole widening.
The big black hole scared me. Kevin jumped in, and they deepened the space some more. Soon it was just right. They both looked down into the cavity one last time.
Then they lifted the potato sack and carefully carried Pete close to the opening. They steadied his lifeless body and watched as the dog slipped into the hole, almost like he did when he went to sleep. I couldn't see Pete
They picked up their shovels again and began to fill the hole they had just dug. At first they placed the dirt in gently and then added more shovelfuls of earth until there was a small mounding of the grave. My father and Kevin stood there with their heads down. Pete was all gone.
Now I could plainly hear that they were praying. They were saying a simple "Hail Mary" for Pete who loved to tramp through the woods and who could run across a field as fast as lightning.
My father blessed himself. He found a large flat stone and laid it on top of the grave, tamping it down. Kevin broke a maple branch in two and fashioned a little cross that he stuck in the ground. They leaned on their shovels, and then it was done.
My face was still pushed up against the window screen, watching. Suddenly, my throat tightened up and I began to cry. I understood then that there was unutterable sadness in the world and that nobody living escaped it. I saw Kevin and dad standing with their backs to the brook. The brook became a dark seam in the fading light and the trees began to shiver a little.
As twilight fell I heard their footsteps on the porch. Mother was waiting at the door.
"Now wash up your hands and take off those muddy shoes," she urged. I was glad when the back door closed against the night. Glad to have them inside again. Glad that we were all together. Glad that the sunshine would be out again in the morning.
Then I heard my father's voice behind me. "You were watching all the time? You weren't supposed to see that. Now it's going to be hard to sleep tonight." I heard the crickets singing in the dark and their plaintive little song cut right to my heart.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" column appears each Wednesday in the Fairfield Citizen.