First, you’ll need a shovel. Back in the fall, when I knew the end was near, I went to Home Depot and bought an Ames Steel Blade Round Point Shovel. It has a 48 inch wood handle and according to the product description, a super step for safe and secure foot placement.
Since that day, I knew I would be the one to bury him. I’ve cared for him, and loved him for 15 years. Even when he wasn’t mine, he was mine. But, much like the time leading up to the time when you make one of the hardest decisions of your life, you’re in denial and you look for other ways out of it. First, I called the vet and asked how much cremation cost. “Multiple cremation where you don’t get your pet’s ashes back is $180. Individual is $250.” I couldn’t afford that, let alone imagine the thought of leaving him somewhere, whole, and then getting him back in the form of ashes. So I called my cousin. I figured I could pay him $50 to dig the hole. He agreed, but by the next afternoon when he hadn’t called or stopped by, it was clear what I needed to do. I had known all along. That’s why I bought the shovel to begin with.
It was a beautiful, early-March afternoon. Still a little chilly, but with the sun changed so that you can feel its warmth just a bit more. I left the other two dogs on the deck so they could watch me. They should know that this is how it goes, I thought. That this is how we all go. I don’t think they really understood much besides the beautiful, early-March afternoon, the wet air filling their noses with miles of the coming spring, and that apprehensive alertness dogs get when their master is far away but still close enough to see.
Up on the hill, next to the Japanese Maple where Daisy is buried, I marked the edges of the rectangle. Zero’s grave is smaller than Daisy’s because Zero is considerably smaller than Daisy was. This is the first time I’ve ever dug a pet’s grave. Growing up, my brother always dug them for me and my ex-husband dug Daisy’s. Daisy and Zero were the closest of mates. In Savannah at first, and in New Jersey where we settled for a time, together. Daisy was like the Amazon woman equivalent of dogs. I named her Daisy because she was big and tall and beautiful, like Daisy Duke. And Zero was her ever persistent suitor. Her Enos Strate.
Then, you start. Which is the hardest part. On the surface of the earth, it’s rocky and filled with roots. Once you break through the surface it starts to get easier, but then you’ve got nothing but a hole to empty, and a lot of time to think. The wet clay started to turn the color of Zero when he was a puppy. And I remembered the flyer we put up when he got loose without his collar on the night of his second birthday. We called him “a chocolate brown puppy with 24 carat eyes” and we offered $200 for his return. After four weeks of prank phone calls and dead ends, an old tramp called. He said he’d found him near the river and had taken to calling him Red. He couldn’t afford to feed him so he gave him ice cubes when he could. I still remember his silly little emaciated face looking up from the ground as they walked up to the house together, and the recognition in his tail when he saw us.
Zero’s tail was a thing all unto itself. It definitely wagged him. Actually, it more accurately spun him in circles.
I struggled about whether I should tell Zero’s origin story here, but this is about his end, so all I will say is that Zero’s former owner was my boyfriend for some time. He was a drunk with the worst hair imaginable. The first time he ever showed me that he was an abusive drunk, he put Zero out on my fire escape for the night for absolutely no reason. I should have left him that night. But when Zero looked at me through the window with that adorable face, tail still wagging, the next morning, I didn’t want to leave him. Eventually, we both left that man in our past.
At some point in your digging, between your tears and sweat, you’ll hit a particularly tough rock or root, or possibly both. Just like in life, when you are at what you think is your weakest, something harder comes along to make you prove your strength. So, in the name of love and respect for your best friend, you muster all that you can and you get that fucking rock out of the ground. And as you grapple with it, you think that this is nothing in return for all the times in the last 15 years that you were sad, or defeated, and how he had nothing but happy, sloppy kisses to offer you, and that tail, and how that rock will make a fine headstone.
For Zero, the free dog. July 4, 1998 – March 12, 2013