The most difficult thing

The most difficult thing I’ve had to do all month happened Sunday.

I am aware this month was seven days old. That doesn’t matter. If this particular situation had occurred 28 or even 31 days into a month, it still would have been the most difficult thing I had to do that particular month.

Yes, on Sunday, I had to bury my 852-year-old neighbor’s dog.

My first thought when she appeared at my front door, teary-eyed and disoriented, was it would make a wonderful blog post. I did not know if I would share the humor, irony or sadness in the story, since I would come to discover it possesses each. It’s been about six months since she rang my doorbell at 4 a.m. to lift her through a window after she’d locked herself out during a smoke break.

“Sugar is dead,” she said.

I didn’t know who Sugar was. But, since I knew she lived alone and knew she always had a Shih Tzu-looking thing leashed to her cigarette-less hand when she went outside to smoke/see what I was up to in my back yard every 25 minutes, this mystery did not last long.

The thought crossed my mind to give her a hug. Then it disappeared, as despite how appropriate the gesture may have been, I knew I would smell cigarette smoke upon contact and did not wish to do that.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, matter-of-factly. “Do you want me to come over and get him?”

Instantly, I regretted my offer. I did not know what to do with a dead dog.

“Do you want me to bury him?”

It seemed more practical than cremation.

“Yes.”

Her voice was breaking.

“Let me get my shoes. Do you want to sit down inside?”

She hesitated, so I turned back toward the house and left her standing on the front porch. I wanted to help her, but I also wanted the saga to end. The situation was rather uncomfortable for me.

I walked briskly to the shoe rack, put on my tennis shoes and grabbed the oldest bath towel I could find. I thought of how we’re supposed to handle situations involving dead people at the hospital, where I work, then I joined her on the front porch.

It served me right, really. My dad had just picked up my daughter for church. As usual, I’d followed through on my plans to skip the service. I hadn’t attended in several months, including Easter Sunday a week earlier. 

“If I were at church,” I thought as I followed her awkwardly to her house, “I wouldn’t be doing this right now.”

Her house smelled like a mixture of cigarette smoke and stale French bread when I walked in. As I made my way across the living room, it began to smell like cigarette smoke and urine. Something else entered my nasal passages as I followed her toward the bedroom. I didn’t know what it was, but I nearly lost my breath.

“He’s in there,” she said, pointing to the bedroom. I hoped it wasn’t the dog I smelled.

I’d heard dreary stories about old people who didn’t accept reality for days after their beloved pet died. My uncle, in fact, was one. His dog died behind the couch and was pulled out by a visitor a week later, stiff as a bored and likely rancid. I hoped this wouldn’t be a story like that.

On the dog bed near my neighbor’s bed, I saw the dog. Motionless on its side, mouth slightly open and tongue hanging out, rear leg stuck straight into the air, I wondered what to do. Then my neighbor stepped into the room, gasped, said “oh no” and turned away. I threw the towel over the dog.

I knew it was no time to be concerned about the condition of the dog’s remains. They had to come out of the house, regardless of their state, before my neighbor had a stroke. I tucked the towel under the dog, scooped it up and carried it out of the room.

I realized I wasn’t sure how to find the back door at the same time I realized I needed to move quickly. I tried to find the door without asking for help, as seeing the dead dog in my arms was not helping my neighbor’s state of mind, but it wasn’t going well. I heard and felt a kitchen chair move at one point after striking it with the dog. Corpse in arms, I paced from one end of the kitchen to the other before finally seeing light from the noon sun coming through the back door window.

Naturally, the door was locked. I shifted the dog to one arm, found the lock on the knob, turned and pulled, but the door didn’t move. The deadbolt was also locked. Again I moved the dog to one arm and tried to unlock the deadbolt, but it wouldn’t budge, so I put a shoulder into the door at the same time. I felt the dog’s stiff body bend and became concerned I’d next hear it crack, but that never happened.

Finally, the door came open. I considered hurdling the porch railing but realized I couldn’t have safely done that without a dead dog in my arms and followed the wheelchair ramp to the grass. By the time I got to the back of the property, my neighbor had come to the back porch. I sat the dog down by a pitch of tulips, relieved it was still intact (I thought, anyway).

“What do you think about this spot by the flowers?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s fine.”

Then she started walking toward me. She want into her shed to find a shovel. I thought we’d already dragged this out too long and told her I had a great shovel for burying animals. I decided later that was an odd statement to make.

I left her with the dog while I went to my garage for the shovel I’d used a day earlier to plant a rose bush. When I came back, she was on her hands and knees hugging the dog and speaking something. I gave her some distance.

“Okay,” she said, standing and swatting her hands toward the dog as though she was shaking them dry.

I began digging, first making the hole wide, then going straight down. After three feet, I began to wonder what was deep enough. I did not want a wild animal to dig it up, as that would have surely been traumatic for the woman. I struck clay at about four feet, so that answered my question.

I put the dog inside the hole. Then I wondered several things:

  • did my neighbor want to say goodbye before I covered the hole
  • did she want to throw on the first scoop like the women in Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” video
  • should I take the towel off

I turned to the house, but my neighbor had gone inside. I knocked on the back door and the front door. She did not come to either, so I returned to the grave. Then I went to the back door and knocked again. She did not respond.

I concluded since she’d already had time with the dog while I was getting the shovel, any more time would have been too much. I also decided I would never use the towel again if I took it, so I left it on the dog.

She returned just as I was putting the finishing touches on the grave. Only the big clumps of soil held together by the grass remained of the soil I’d taken out of the hole. I was careful when I broke these clumps with the side of the shovel so not to make her think I was damaging the dog, although it was well below the surface.

“I’m sorry this happened,” I said. “He probably feels much better now, assuming dogs go to Heaven and assuming he made it. But you never know these things.”

“Oh, I’m sure he did,” she said, seeming more upbeat than before. “He was a good dog but he hadn’t been eating or drinking the past few days.

“It was his time.”

Then she talked about her dad. She said he used to take her and her siblings to the movies, but her mother started to drive them because he drove too fast. I was relieved to hear her talking about this and laughing.

Most folks would have lost the entire day to the passing of a beloved pet. While my neighbor was immediately distraught, once it was in the ground, the situation was figuratively and literally buried. She was too experienced at the game of life to not move on.

Her days, as unconventional as they may seem to me or someone else of a younger generation, seem too precious to be wasted on sadness. She loved her dog and she loved her father – and their legacies thrive in her heart.

I, on the other hand, was the only loser in this event. I had wished someone else would come along to bear the responsibility of burying the dog because:

  • I was busy
  • I wasn’t sure what to do
  • I’d never touched a dead dog

If I faced the situation over again, I would have been more appreciative she trusted me to take care of something she loved so much. This woman had experienced death before and knew how to respond – by using it to recall someone or something she loved.

I am thankful for the lesson.

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