The gravedigger blues
Last updated 10/10/2023 at 11:29am
For the second time in the last few months I found myself, unwillingly, digging a grave in the woods behind our house. I picked a spot in a clearing between the trees and began to dig, which is never an easy task in the mostly volcanic rock and compressed ash that passes for soil in Central Oregon. A single raven landed on a limb nearby and squawked, which made an almost medieval echo in the wintery gray light of the forest. I looked up at him. Of course, I thought, of course you would come and insist on having your dark word.
Because death never comes in vibrant colors, and that is particularly true when it comes to good dogs - who give us loyalty and love and ask almost nothing in return. Death is a slate-gray thing, like a slow-moving fog that fills in a mountain valley and washes out the details.
Worse, old Doc was still alive, resting comfortably on a pile of blankets spread out in the garage, the man-door open so that he could feel the heat in the light, and maybe a breeze wash over his nose. He was already blind, and deaf, and in the last few weeks he'd taken a hard turn toward eternity, as all of us will someday, until finally he could no longer get up on his own, or walk, and stopped eating-which is the universal sign we know too well.
And so, it was time. Time for gratitude for the life he gave us. Time to sit with him, to cry, to tell him that he was loved mightily and with uncommon ferocity, to do whatever small things a helpless man can do to comfort a great and dying friend. And it was time to offer mercy against the suffering, which is perhaps the one great human trait evolution has provided us.
It was unavoidable then, although I fought against it, to think of the other great dogs we have lost to time, and age, and the cold and spinning vacuum that makes up our universe. And, of course, the people. The great people I knew and loved, and the people I never knew at all, like the gangster full of bullet holes who died in my arms. Months later his mother approached me, beseeching, and wanted to know if he'd asked for her in his final moments. I could not lie, though every part of me wanted to, and so I told her the callous truth: "No," I said. "He couldn't talk."
I wish now, these years later, that I had lied. That I had told her something different. That I had given her something to cherish in a world that can be cruel and unyielding in its agony. Because that is the gift of mercy. I didn't do that right, and I regret it. What is one small invention against unbearable pain?
Rochefoucauld, a 17th century French moralist, wrote a book of maxims squeezed in between his otherwise laborious memoirs. He wrote: "One can no more look steadily at death than at the sun." That has stuck with me since I was an undergraduate, but time and experience have given me pause to question the claim. Because we do look steadily at death. We wonder sometimes, in the wee small hours, when it will visit us, and in what manner. Of course we do. And when we ask ourselves that question, we are looking at the sun. When I zipped my grandfather into a body bag I was staring directly into the great and roiling fireball that makes life possible.
In the end, we changed our minds, and decided to have Doc cremated. When it was over, and the vet was gone, and the empty husk that had been our friend had been taken away, what washed over us was a sense of relief. It was, of course, a dreadful relief, heavy as lead, but relief nevertheless because we had exercised mercy and eased the pain and suffering of our friend-who deserved nothing less. We had taken that on ourselves as he left the earth, to go wherever it is that great spirits go. And we cried. And we will still cry when we think of him, even as the pain dulls over time. It does not ever go away. But it dulls. Because life, and serving the living, wears down the edges of grief. We have also evolved into that.
This morning I fed the horses. The clouds had cleared overnight and the sky was blue again, with that cant of fall light I cherish in these mountain autumns. There was a cool breeze, suggesting a late blossom of warmth before winter. And then I walked back out into the trees where I had dug Doc's grave. I looked into that hole for a very long time. And then I took the shovel and quietly filled it in.