We spent the afternoon digging a hole: two feet wide, three feet long, and two feet deep. Do it right, do it once. The work is hard, there are rocks and roots in the way. “How did they build the f—ing pyramids?” he asks.
We spent the small hours with a dying dog — sweet angel Adelaide she was, or is — still here, still everywhere. The newly dead aren’t dead at all, but swim in that surreal extra reality. They aren’t totally gone yet… they were once here and now they aren’t. What’s in between?
This isn’t our first animal grave. The ritual is practiced. She was a good dog — just a dog, we say, but the depth of grief still surprises us.
The experience itself comes with perfect descriptors: We are gutted, I move with a heavy heart. The details seem unremarkable: She was old, she wasn’t well, we are prepared, we are adults. Yet when it happens, we weep in the vet’s parking lot, then bawl like children as we dig and dig, packing in hours of sweat, tears, ache, and dirt.
Suddenly everything is a symbol. Suddenly meaning is strung together, tight and bright. A beautiful day becomes This Beautiful Day. The perfect butterfly we find dead at the door is life itself. Adelaide’s collar on the kitchen stool summons the sobbing yet again.
A death reminds us of Death. The old dog dying becomes a symbol for a young cat dying, parents dying, him dying, me dying. The process is inexorable, a riptide that no amount of thrashing and resisting will change.
The practical details take over: How will we carry her? How wide should her space be, how deep? It’s probably best to tuck and curve the body now before it stiffens. I find myself pulling burrs from her lush coat, and he works extra hard to bust up the shale at the bottom of the hole, because he doesn’t want her laying on hard stone. We recognize the folly, but allow the private comfort. At the foot of the broad lawn, we dig and complain and weep some more.
“I feel like I’m digging my own grave,” he says. To witness death is to be shaken, awakened fully to the moment, reminded of the hour.
We spent the evening with gin and grilled cheese, freshly showered but weary to the bone: drained, hollow, heavy, and quiet. The sun sinks and summer is in full bloom. The job is finally done, fresh earth is newly mounded, dark and fertile, near an empty house holding heavy hearts. Angel Addy will be sorely missed, as they all are.
She is “just a dog” no longer.
Lisa Renee is a poet and essayist living near a big lake in New York. You can find her writing on Medium, and in Exposition Review, HuffPost Australia, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Eastern Iowa Review. She is also managing editor of nonfiction at daCunha.