About five months ago I wrote about a recent scare I had had with my dog, Napoleon.
(That's him, there, toward the right . . . the avatar I use.)
I knew he was growing old and was increasingly in bad health, and something happened back in December that scared me and more than half persuaded me at the time that his checking out of my life was imminent. But then it all turned out to have been a false alarm, something easily fixed, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Still . . . I titled the post "Part I" because I knew that there was no long-term solution to the real problem that my poor dog was growing old and that I was going to eventually lose him.
I lost him this past Saturday.
I am working nights, these days, at theon the weekends. Which means I need to get plenty of sleep on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons in order to be rested enough to do my job on Saturday, Sunday and Monday early mornings.
When I got back home early last Saturday morning I ate some breakfast and then went out to the garage to play with the dogs (Napoleon and Homer). I let them out to use the bathroom, then secured Homer's leash (he's still very much a puppy) so that he couldn't get away and I did some work in the garage, cleaning up after them. (I can't stand the idea of leaving them in crates - no matter how large the crate - while I have to be away, but they are not used to not being in the house; they express their displeasure by soiling the garage's concrete floor, and I express my penitence for theirby cleaning up after them.)
I suppose now, in hindsight, I should have noticed something. Napoleon didn't move about much in the yard, preferring instead to sit in the sun. He didn't go to the bathroom and, later, he didn't express much interest in food or water. But he had been getting old and infirm for a while now, and I chalked it up to not much more than that.
After a few hours I put him and Homer back into the garage, told them I would see them again in a few hours, and went off to sleep.
When I woke up around 8:00 or so, I went back out to check on them. Homer was anxious to see me, but Napoleon was dead on the floor of his open crate.
* * *
As before, when I lost Virgil and turned to Napoleon for comfort, mywas simply to keep moving. I snapped the leash on Homer and took him for a walk. This, after all, had been one huge motivating factor in my finding Homer a year and half ago: I knew that I would be losing Napoleon soon, and I wanted to have another bulldog to comfort me and to help share the space Napoleon was going to leave in my life, exactly the way Napoleon had comforted me and helped to share the space that had been left in it when Virgil died.
Perhaps fortunately for me, work beckoned. As I've mentioned before, one of the biggest attractions of doing what I do these days is that my job requires that I put aside any thoughts of myself and focus instead on others. I am convinced that being able to do so for hours Saturday night was a for me, because when 7:00 am Sunday morning rolled around I think my subconscious had been able to sort out the fact of Napoleon's loss (no, screw that for sheer euphemism . . . my loss of Napoleon) whilst the rest of my brain was otherwise engaged. I felt strangely composed driving from the hospital to collect my dogs.
Homer, again, was incredibly excited to see me; Napoleon, naturally, remained in the blanket in which I had wrapped him the night before. I loaded both into my car and drove the 20 minutes to my parents' house on the Intracoastal Waterway.
After I arrived I found a spot under their porch that was blessedly free of PVC pipe, cable wiring, etc., and started to dig. Homer was attached to his leash, which was tied around a railing on one of the backstair banisters, and he watched me toil. Unlike when I buried Virgil on Emerald Isle, the soil here is not really soil but clay. Which means it is waterlogged and very heavy. Scooping shovelfuls out of the ground was, but I kept at it longer than I needed to. Much, much longer.
Like everybody, I like to think I know why I am doing the things I am doing. I like to think that I am rational, and that I have a good reason for what I am doing. But I'll say this for digging a grave: the sheer physicality of shifting that much dirt will draw you up sometimes.
And the nice thing about clay is that it will hold the walls of a grave well -- there is no sliding of loose soil about the pit you are digging. All you have to do is point the shovel blade straight down, step on it, and a nice sized chunk will come off while the rest of the surrounding earth stays in place. You can dig one of those nice, well-defined graves like you see whenever the Winchesters are digging up a corpse on Supernatural, the kind of grave-digging you think doesn't exist outside of Hollywood.
Unfortunately, that also means that you don't have the excuse of sliding walls of dirt to keep digging. Once you've got a pet's grave fouror so, once you find yourself at that stage and taking a break to rest on your shovel to get your breath back, once you are that deep into the ground and you find your shirt soaked completely through with the effort . . . well, then you have to stop and ask yourself why you are still digging.
The answer, unsurprisingly, is that because if you don't keep digging then you'll have to stop, and when you stop you will have to bury your dog, and you don't really feel like doing that. Unfortunately, once you realize that this is what you are doing -- delaying the inevitable because you don't want to have to make that final goodbye -- you know it is time to stop.
* * *
I carried Napoleon in my arms for the last time, in the blanket I had wrapped him in, and dropped him into the deep, deep pit I had made for him. Homer, who had tangled his leash around various fence posts, was yet by Napoleon's grave and he looked at me.
"You were a good boy, Napoleon," I gave my eulogy, "you were a great boy." And then I shoveled the clay back onto the body of my good, great boy. After I had filled in the grave I found two flat paving stones, left behind from some unfinished previous work of home improvement that my parents abandoned before they abandoned this house to live in a condo. I used those stones to mark Napoleon's grave.
* * *
After a night's worth of work and a day's worth of grave-digging, I was exhausted. I knew already I wouldn't be able to get nearly enough sleep to feel 100% for Sunday night's shift, and that I wouldn't get any rest afterward because I had my last CNA class first thing Monday morning.
But that was okay.
One thing that occurred to me, on the 20 mile drive back from my parents' old place -- and this may sound weird -- but I wonder if we haven't undergone some unappreciated loss by our efforts to make death and the loss of loved ones as painless as possible.
Please don't get me wrong, and please don't for a moment think that I am trying to equate the loss of my pet to anybody's loss of a beloved relative. (For what it is worth, I've lost beloved relatives too.)
But it occurred to me that -- all in all, and understanding (as I have, for years) that being forced to say goodbye to Napoleon was always how our relationship was going to play out -- I felt better for having been there for all of it with him, and I felt better for having killed myself Sunday morning digging his grave. It was almost a sense of expiation, as if by breaking my back to prepare his resting place I had . . . I dunno . . . honored him? Acknowledged him?
One thing I think our modern material outlook gives too little shrift to is the real need humans have for symbolism and emotive meaning. I firmly believe that the Universe is a vast, abstract, random series of events and what makes humans and Consciousness Itself so wonderful is that we absolutely refuse to see it that way.
Humans are not the tool using creatures, we are not the beast that walks on two legs, we are not even the laughing ape . . . we are meaning-creating creatures. We create meaning in the world.
From a strictly materialistic point of view, I suppose I could have taken Napoleon's body to the local vet and had him cremated. It would have cost some money, and it would have been vastly easier.
But, sad as it was, it feels infinitely better to have actually buried him.
Goodbye Napoleon. You were a good boy.