Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Doggies and Death

Barney was a gorgeous reddish Golden Retriever.  He bounded rather than walked.  His bark was deep and powerful and concussive.  He never jumped on strangers, but his furious licking and lapping and loving could easily be construed as an attack - a friendly attack, but an invasion of personal space nonetheless.  The Little Cuter has strong memories of this afternoon when they were both young:

When the cancer ended his life in the vet's office, his owners were told that disposal was up to the doctor.  "No way.... we want to bury him at our lake house."  "Bring in a container and I'll look the other way," the vet replied and so they returned with a suitcase and wrapped him up and took him to a burial site in the dune next to their weekend retreat.  The hole was deep and difficult to excavate; the brother and the husband spent the better part of an afternoon sharing the shovel and sweating.  Finally, three feet deep and wide, they placed him and covered him and secured the location with a stone.  A very big stone.  

Several years later, a landscaper decided to remove some ground cover and trees on that side of the house.  They forgot to tell him to leave the stone undisturbed, and now Barney is still there... somewhere.  They know the general location, but specificity was sacrificed along with the flora.
Murphy was little more than a large hamster, but we loved his daschundness unabashedly.  He was the Little Cuter's animal, but her intentions were bigger than her capabilities so we all shared the responsibility.  He came when she was 8, and died when she went off to college a decade later.  It was a slow process, and TBG spent most of those last 3 days watching him lie in the sun in our bedroom and waste away.  I went our to pick up Chinese food and, of course, the beast took that opportunity for a death throe spasm.  When I returned with dinner, he was dead.  

We ate, then put him in his sleeping bag then in a plastic bag then in a cardboard box.  We decorated it with his name and some loving thoughts and selected a space to the side of our driveway.  It had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and was accessible from the neighbor's yard so that the Little Cuter could see him even if we sold the house.  We said a few words and shed a few tears and then TBG took the shovel to dig the grave.  Half an inch into the soil, he hit bedrock.  There was nothing to do but laugh.

Murph spent the night in the box in the garage, and in the morning I took him to the Humane Society.  They offered three options - a single cremation with return of his ashes for several hundred dollars, a group cremation with return of our portion of the ashes for somewhat less, or, for $20, I could have him rendered.  Did I want the lovely volunteer to explain the process?  Not really.  He'd be turned into fertilizer and she left me with a lovely thought :  "The next time you see a blooming rose, you can imagine that your pet helped it grow." 

For the first time since he'd died, I was able to smile.
These somewhat random stories have been prompted by spending the weekend with my grieving friend. She's unable to let herself off the hook, knowing, concretely and absolutely, that there was more she could have done for her brother as he lay dying.  Confronting the physicians.  Transferring him to another, better, fancier, more prestigious hospital.  Understanding the ramifications of waiting to begin treatment.  Not taken a vacation when he first became ill.  Grasping the seriousness of the situation at an earlier point in his illness.  On and on and on, she berated herself.  She wasn't looking for comfort.  She seemed just to need to vent.  

"Medicine is an art, not a science" didn't get me very far.  "The outcome was destined to be the same regardless of what you did or didn't do" just gave her the opportunity to list, once again, all the things she knew she should have said or asked or demanded.  "How could they know?"  "Why didn't I....."  "I wish I had...."  She was angry with herself and I didn't have a handle on the door to her pain.  

She was able to smile at the treatment the Veterans' Administration had provided, and appreciated the benefits (transportation to, a burial site in, and a head stone provided in any national cemetery except Arlington) they offered, but there were no smiles at the end of the story.  There was only pain and angst.

And, it seemed that every time we began talking about her brother, we ended up with Barney or Murphy and the story of their graves.  I'm not sure how that happened or even what it meant, except that it left us with grins instead of grimaces.

It was a much better place for us to be.