Fuzzing Into Forever– On Losing One’s Mother and One’s Dog In the Same Weekend…

CCI00004 My mother died last week. Wednesday?—or was it Thursday? My mind is so on autopilot right now I really don’t recall. I’ve shed sporadic tears, tears that come mostly when I talk on the phone to my siblings and friends, but because I have no idea how I am supposed to feel, or act, or re-act, life in the last few days has proceeded pretty much as normal; I’ve never lost my mother before, you see, so I’m kind of at a loss as to how to play this one. My father asked (as if Daddy ever “asked” anything of us,) that we leave him alone for a few weeks in the house he and Madre shared for so many years. As he put it, he had loneliness, anger, guilt and five or six other emotions to process and didn’t need the distraction of condolences while he was doing so. That’s exactly how I feel, like a sick cat that goes under the porch to puke in peace. Friends have told me that the realization would “hit” at some point, but because my mother is so much a part of who I am, and because although we speak by phone weekly, I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve seen her in the last twenty years, the loss of the actual day-to-day reality of her being here or not being here has been limited to minor annoyances like not having her around to give me my niece’s cell phone number so I can call to commiserate. I’ve been expecting Madre to pay me a goodbye visit, just for form and maybe to impart some last bit of wisdom or assurance, but so far she’s not made her final presence known. On the morning after her death, perhaps hoping to commune with the ineffable, I went outside into the sunshine to take a nice long walk in the woods with my beautiful young German Shepherd dogs; their gleeful, exuberant energy always cheers me when I’m feeling depleted and discouraged. They’re eight months old now, and halfway grown, having survived a horrible bout of Parvo as five-week old babies that bonded us in a way only two weeks of shared explosive diarrhea and vomiting and needles and laundry can bind three hapless hill creatures together in misery. I adore them both, but the male, Albert, has been my soul mate from the start, quick and generous, an amazing athlete, almost uncannily obedient. Of all the dogs I’ve had over the years, his connection with me has been by far the most intense and intuitive, so much so that I’ve begun guidance training him as an eventuality against my deteriorating eyesight. But here he was lying dead on the patio as his sister, Daisy, hovered uncomprehending and frantic. His beautiful golden body, that luxurious fur, his extraordinary tail, were inert and cold. What felled him, I can only guess—maybe a cardiac defect from the Parvo? But all I could feel when I saw him there was just another level of numb. Not loss, not sadness, simply utter resignation; I had a grave to dig in the hard September granite—and I had to dig it now. I’ve had to do this before; more times than I can count, actually, and each time for valued friends of my ranch family. Cats, dogs, horses, even a couple of pet chickens and a pot-belly pig lie buried in holes under various trees, vines, gardens. And it’s always the same: a hard, muddy, heart and backbreaking slog to get them in there. The ritual is pretty simple: Gather together my wits, fetch all the various shovels, post hole diggers, a hose to dampen the earth—then somehow drag the cold, dead, awkward weight of my departed friend to the burial site, and get started. ########## Digging a grave is a combination of horrifying, heartbreaking, infuriating and comic; it’s exhausting in every sense, a process that forces you through the emotional gamut and well beyond the limits of your physical endurance—sustained only by duty and adrenalin. You’re going to get bruised and muddy, humiliated by the soil. You’ll get sweaty and discouraged, frustrated by root systems and underground boulders where you thought you had a good clean hole going. Shovel handles break, muscles and ligaments shred, fingernails snap off at the quick—and then there is the awful reality of the corpse to deal with. If you didn’t get to it early enough, the body will be frozen in the most inconvenient and space-consuming configuration possible, and the only way to make it fit is to either break bones or saw off limbs—neither of which you can bear to contemplate—so you Just. Keep. Digging. Until your back feels like burning knives and your muscles are trembling in protest, and the tears stinging your face turn to sweat. But by the time you’re though and the last shovelful of dirt tamped down, you’ve made your peace with the dead husk of your friend, and have handled the corpse just enough that its horror no longer touches you. It’s just a thing now, a shell that had to be buried because it was beginning to stink– that undeniable truth of our organic temporality. The whole burial process is so healing, so primal and metaphoric, it’s almost poetic, and most Americans have no idea how evolved and symmetrical a process it is. We rely instead on industrialized ritual, the coroner, the mortician, the hearse, the crematory or cemetery with its front loaders and artificial turf, and the hired “technicians” and “directors” to do the dirty work. But I like the duty and the penance of digging a grave myself, wresting the dead shell of my friend into it, sobbing a final goodbye into the cool wet earth beneath my cheek, the finality of the sound of the first shovelful of dirt as it concusses off the chest, covers the once-beloved face. The way the earth shifts as I tamp it, cover it with rocks to guard against scavengers, leave spent in every way to drink a comforting toast to calm the pain of it all. ########### The next morning Daisy and took our customary walk up to the spring. She tried to be interested, I tried to be distracted, but Albert’s absence on our hike was so palpable we were both just going through the motions. When we got to the spring we first looked for bears, then sensing none, Daisy went for her obligatory splash through the muck while I looked up into a perfect blue sky on a perfect fall day and just wailed and keened with loss. Still sobbing, I sat down on a dried cow patty in despair, empty and spent. And that’s when Madre came to me. She always told us she’d wanted to be a forest ranger and have six boys so she could spend her days roaming the woods with them. Instead, she’d married a medical student, put him through school and training, moved to suburbia, and in between popping out four daughters and a son, worked as a pharmacist while establishing herself as a social force in our posh coastal Southern California community. None of us, her children, really got to spend much time tramping through the woods with her—although singly we’re all inveterate trekkers and naturalists. But in that moment of corporal disconnect, the sentimental, magical-thinking side of me realized that now her once-fettered spirit has the world’s best dog to roam the Ever-After Woods with. And Albert has the big welcoming soul he really needed to guide therein. And that simple conceit brings me comfort. DSC05343       RIP Beverly Mae Liechty Hansen, April 12, 1926 – September 24, 2014


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