B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is the author of From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human (Nebraska, November 2015).
A quarter century after my childhood dog Sandy died, we finally got around to burying her. I assure you, this is hardly as neglectful as it sounds. In truth, my parents had made a perfectly reasonable decision to have her cremated, and then, for the next few decades, the entire family made a slightly less reasonable decision to pretend that her ashes weren’t there. But they were—zipped into a plastic bag and tucked in a tin, which we placed on the backroom bookshelf. Sandy sat there throughout my teenage years, my college years, throughout graduate school and beyond. And she was there, too, after I’d married, had a son myself, who now has his own childhood dog.
At some point—perhaps as I watched my son give chase to his pup—it occurred to me that Sandy’s sequestration on the shelf was hardly the burial she deserved. Indeed, it was a comfort to know that she was always “there,” but how “there” could a dog really be so long after her death?
The last time I saw Sandy she was sitting on her beanbag chair in our home on Breconshire Drive. I was a first grader then, naïve to the gravity of grief, and so, when told to say goodbye to my dog, I simply did. I gave her a good pet, waved farewell, then walked out the door toward the bus. Perhaps there was more to it than that; who can say, it was all so long ago. Yet what I do remember is returning home from school a few days later to find her collar curled around a copper-colored tin. There was so much I didn’t know, but I grasped the basics: someone had turned my dog to dust.
As I write this, my son’s childhood dog sits folded at my feet. She’s hardly a pup anymore. As proof: upon inserting her age and breed into an online dog age calculator just moments ago, I learned that she’s 52-year-old.
Well that can’t be, I immediately think, because if she’s old, then that would make me…
Which, to some extent, is true. Not necessarily old in “people years” but certainly older than I was. Which also means I’m old enough to face the truth: one day in the not-too-distant future, my son will have to bear the loss I once bore.
As for Sandy, eventually we got around to burying her. After several failed attempts, we finally found the perfect spot: in our backyard beneath some trees. My brother was present, as were our dogs, and after digging the hole and burying the ashes, we at last put our old girl to rest.
These days, I have few true memories of Sandy. I’ve heard stories of her, of course, but over time my memories have grown muddy. What I do remember is the safety I felt when she was around, and how for years, she served as a dutiful bodyguard for her bumbling boy. She got me through those early years by quite literally steering me clear of lakes and snakes and streets, among other obstacles sure to leave more than a mark. To call her my “constant companion” is an understatement. She was my warm shadow, my trusted friend, and the creature that, through her own mortality, would teach me a bit about mine.
Beneath my feet, my dog is beginning to stir. Probably, she wants a walk, or a scratch, or a treat. I can give her all of these things, and I will.
It’s the least I can do for what she’ll teach my son.