Monday, June 13, 2011

 

Nonperishable Items

“Oh man, that’s a tough break, kid. Blaze was an awesome dog,” my Big Brother lamented when I called him with the news that our dog had died. I had just picked up Blaze’s ashes and was feeling pretty low, not to mention at a loss for what to do with my dog’s remains. We have yet to buy a house here, and I couldn't see scattering or burying his ashes here, in a place my dog barely knew. Strange, I know. It's just ashes, and Blaze is comfortably past caring, but there you are.

“You know,” BB said after a moment, “why don't you guys bring him when you come here this summer. There’s always a spot for him up on the hill. I know he had a blast when he was up there last time.”

And this was absolutely true. Two years ago, Blaze and I stayed with BB for a month. I spent my mornings writing at the house, but in the afternoons, Blaze and I went up on the 100 or so acres of land that have been in our family for generations, and of which my brother and I are now stewards. Some days I just wandered around, reacquainting myself with landmarks I’d remembered from childhood. Other days, I went up armed with a chainsaw and an industrial-grade weed whacker and worked on reopening the logging road that led to an old campsite.

While my routine varied, Blaze’s was the same. The moment we crossed onto the property, I unhooked him from his leash and let him explore to his doggy heart’s content. Having lived in the suburbs, he had never enjoyed this kind of freedom and it rather went to his head. He’d vanish for hours at a time. Occasionally, I’d hear him yipping joyfully in some distant part of the forest, hot on the trail of a new and diverting scent. Other times, he’d be so far away I couldn’t hear him at all. And just as I’d worry that he had gotten lost, or fallen into a pit or something, he’d turn up, interestingly spackled with twigs and mud (and once, memorably, with a dead snake in his jaws). Blaze had a good life at the Magazine Mansion and was always happy to be with us in our cozy suburban life, but on the hill, it was different. He was different. He seemed to sense that this moment in June of 2009 was a special time for him, and it made him positively radiant.

Blaze had even been to the secret spot on the hill that BB had been referring to: the sun-dappled glade that served as a cemetery to our family’s many pets. Here was where I had buried Pilgrim and Mayflower, the two dogs I had grown up with. I had put them in a place of honor, on a small rise, near a massive boulder of milky white quartz. Lower down on the hill were lesser dogs (the one who dined regularly out of the litter box, for example) and at the bottom of the rise was a flat place given over entirely to cats, more than a dozen of them, all members of the colony my mom acquired over the years. And that particular summer of two years ago, we added a few mounds to the graveyard, and Blaze was part of it.

Our funerary fun started the day after we arrived. As was my habit when I’d been away from the house for a while, I was poking around various rooms and closets, not really snooping, just nosing about. The last time I had been here was just after my parents’ death, when BB officially took ownership of the house. He had moved a few things around to suit his lifestyle. The room I normally stayed in had been converted into some kind of in-home gun repair shop. The pie cabinet where Mom had kept her collection of cookbooks was now filled with videogames and DVDs. The annex off the kitchen--a room Dad had been renovating singlehandedly at the time of his death--was now a massive storage facility for tools, dirty laundry, and palette after palette of nonperishable food and drink. BB appeared to be developing a survivalist streak, and I teased him about it mercilessly.

“Hey ass wipe,” he said, peering owlishly at me over the top of a five-foot high pyramid of Bush’s Baked Beans. “You’ve been living in civilization too long. I get snowed in here, I’m screwed. I gotta have some backup!”

“You live right on a main road,” I said. “You have a truck with a snow-plow attachment. You’ve lived in New Hampshire your entire life and never been snowed in anywhere longer than a couple of days.”

“So far!” he said shortly, and somewhat inadequately.

But I wasn’t there to fight, and presently, I found my attention diverted to a loose piece of plywood in a corner of the room which, when lifted, revealed a dark hole in the floor. When Dad started rebuilding this room, he had done it from the ground up, having a new foundation dug and poured. On the work order, it was listed as a “basement excavation” but my people don’t go in for basements. This was a cellar, dank, cobwebby and wonderful. I hadn’t been down there before, so I grabbed a flashlight and hopped down for a look. Blaze yipped when I did. He wanted to come with me. It probably smelled good to him. But evidently Dad hadn’t got around to building stairs, so the only way down was a straight drop into darkness. Or, as I discovered a second later, a crotch-traumatizing fall onto the top of a too-short step ladder.

After some fumbling about, I discovered a switch which, when thrown, illuminated the cellar in a feeble light. Like the upstairs, it too was full of tools, as well as food. But most of the floorspace under the lights seemed to be given over to a giant, humming freezer (however did Dad get that down here?).

“I see Dad bought himself a new freezer,” I called up, remembering the pride the old man had shone when he bought his first freezer, a real extravagance for him. He loved it so much, he used to have anxiety dreams about people stealing it.

“Oh!” BB cried. “That reminds me. Open it up, will you?” I did as asked, and as the frigid air hit me in the face, I saw that it was stacked to the top with assorted round objects wrapped in plastic bags or butcher paper.

“Look for a big one marked ‘R.B.,’” my brother called down. “Do you see it?”

I certainly did. It wasn’t a particularly large parcel, but it was weirdly shaped--round on one side and sort of bumpy on the other, all wrapped in freezer tape. It was awkward to handle and took whole minutes to wrestle it up out of there.

“What the hell is this?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Rocky Balboa. One of mom’s cats,” he said.

I gave a squawk and lost control of the parcel. It fell on the floor and almost broke my toes. Above, I could hear my brother cackling.

“I’m kidding. It’s a roast. I thought I’d thaw it and cook it up. We can have it for dinner, slice it for sandwich meat. I know Blaze likes roast beef, right?” And up above I heard the excited clicking of the dog’s paws as he started dancing around at the sound of those two magic words.

It took some effort to heft the thing up to the top of the ladder and, with an awkward clean-and-jerk motion, get it up to the floor above, where BB and Blaze were waiting.

“You had me going there for a second,” I said. “I almost believed you when you said it was a cat.”

BB looked offended. “Please!” he cried. “As if Dad would ever let Mom stow a dead cat in his new freezer.” He paused a beat. “We always put the dead cats in the old freezer.”

And then there came the long pause during which I realized that BB wasn’t kidding.

I went back down the ladder and peered around before I noticed it. There, in the furthest corner of the cellar, just beyond the faint glow of the overhead lights, was Dad’s original pride and joy, his first freezer (how did he get that down here too?).

Well, of course I had to have a look. Now BB sounded alarmed. Or annoyed. Or both. “I was kidding!” he cried, too quickly and shrilly. I waded through a curtain of cobwebs, flashlight bobbing on the scuffed surface of the old freezer which, after the briefest hesitation, I opened.

In years past, whenever my mother had reported the death of one of her beloved cats, especially if that death had occurred in winter, when the ground was too hard to dig, I had jokingly (and, upon reflection, insensitively) suggested she pop the bodies in the freezer until the spring thaw. I didn’t seriously believe that she would ever do that. But I was wrong.

“There’s a dead cat in here!” I cried.

Now, for the cat lovers among you (of which, I hasten to assure you, I am one. And so was my mother) I wish to point out that I didn’t open the freezer to see an actual kitty cat, frozen stiff, whiskers rigid, paws out straight, fur covered in frost. It wasn’t like that.

Instead, there was simply a plastic bag. Actually, it looked a lot like the roast I had just conveyed upstairs. It was wrapped in freezer tape. And it had a label on it. The label read “Sparky.” Sparky had died in January, living to the ripe age of 20 before his kidneys failed and my brother had him put to sleep. And then apparently tucked him away in the freezer.

“What. The. Fuck?!?” I shrilled.

“Oh shut up!” BB called back. “He died in the winter. You can’t dig a grave up here at that time of year! Not without dynamite!”

"But- but-" I sputtered.

“It’s the same with people, you know! You’ve had grandparents die in the winter and they had to go into cold storage til the ground thawed. It was good enough for them!”

I stood there in the dark with my mouth open. For one thing, I was pretty sure the funeral parlor down in town didn’t stick people in a 1970s model Kenmore chest freezer in their cellar. For another, it was the middle of June. What had my brother been waiting for? But I just couldn’t see the argument going anywhere useful. Besides, I was too distracted by what I found when I hefted Sparky out of the freezer: the cat had been laid to rest on top of a box of popsicles. This was too much for me. I lifted that out, intending to throw the box away.

And that’s when I found two more parcels wrapped in plastic and sealed with freezer tape.

“Smokey and Tigger are in here too, you know,” I said in a normal tone of voice. Already, I was desensitized to the surreal quality of this day.

There was a strangled cry of vulgarity from above, followed by a heavy thunk as BB tripped over the frozen roast, then there was some frantic scrabbling and extravagant grunting as my brother lowered himself down the ladder and made his way over to the freezer.

“The fuck there is. Dad buried them just before ohhhhhh, shit, there they are!” he said, now standing next to me. He looked aghast. As well he should. I couldn’t be certain as to the exact time of death, but I knew Smokey and Tigger died sometime in the frigid depths of late 2006, early 2007, well over two years prior to this increasingly odd interlude in the summer of 2009.

“Dad said he was going to bury them,” BB hissed. “I thought he did.”

“You mean you didn’t notice them when you dropped the popsicles in on top?” I asked.

But BB didn’t seem to be hearing me anymore.

“Oh man. I’m going to be on CNN,” he said, in a scarily sober and sensible voice that sounded quite unlike his normal one. “One of those crazy hicks they haul out in a strait jacket.”

“Right. Because having just one dead cat in your freezer is okay. But three, well, that’s really crazy.”

BB was in a place beyond my reach now.

“They’ll probably use tear-gas. Afterwards, they’ll bring cameras in and see the stacks of food and the guns everywhere and I’ll be that nutjob hoarder who lives in his dead parents house with their dead cats in the freezer. I’m a fucking Alfred Hitchcock movie waiting to happen!”

“Okay, okay, don’t hurt yourself,” I said. “You’re on your own with the nutjob part, but we can fix this.” I reached into the freezer. “Here, grab a cat.”

I don’t know what Blaze made of the spectacle that followed, watching two grown men pulling heavy plastic bags out of a hole in the floor and hauling them (with, I might add, a certain dignity and solemnity) out to the pickup, then running around, frantically looking for shovels, but he commendably kept his silence. I think he was happy just to be included, since we popped him in the cab with us and drove straight for the hill. He didn’t run off when I unleashed him this time, but followed us to the secret glade. When we got busy with the shovels, he even pitched in, digging a little with his forepaws.

We worked with a will, BB digging furiously, as though he expected a CNN truck to roll into the clearing at any minute. But after a while, we had everyone, you know, settled in. I found a few nice rocks to roll on top of the mounds. Then we stood there in the woods, listening to the wind, the chittering of the birds, drinking in the sudden, unexpected peace of the moment.

Having attended a couple of the ceremonies on this spot, I remembered it was customary for us to say a few words. Blaze seemed to think it was proper too. He came over and sat next to us, looking up at us expectantly.

BB spoke up. "Well, Smokey was a pretty crazy cat. She lived under the bed, but she liked Mom pretty well. Tigger was a great mouser, and he sure could climb trees. Sorry you guys were in cold storage for so long. The old man never got around to planting you, and then he went off and died with Mom and never got around to it. Sparky was a good cat. He was Tigger’s littermate and after Mom and Dad died, he always used to follow me around the house. Geez, I hated putting you down. You—"

BB went silent then. It had been quite a speech for him anyway, and I figured he was getting emotional, so I didn’t interrupt. But after a moment, I hazarded a glance at my brother, thinking he might be a little choked up about things, and not just the three cats we’d laid to rest. I was wondering what I might say to cheer him.

But BB wasn’t crying. He was scowling at the graves in front of us.

All four of them.

“What the fuck,” he said quietly. “Did we just bury the roast, too?”

And we had, of course. But you know what? By then we’d pretty much lost our appetite.

***

“Well, at least Blaze will already have some roast beef waiting for him on his way to the happy hunting ground,” BB said philosophically. Then, despite himself, he started laughing. Which, incidentally, is one of my Big Brother's radiant virtues: the ability to find humor in the most unlikely places. Which is probably why I called him in the first place. Suddenly I was laughing too, the first time I’ve been able to do it in almost two weeks. But it felt right. So did BB’s suggestion to bury my dog on the hill where he enjoyed that special and all-too-brief summer.

And no disrespect to the family cats who rest on our hill, but Blaze won’t be with them (or the roast). He’ll be up on that sun-dappled rise.

With the good dogs.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

 

Blaze of Glory

You know, I never meant to be away this long, and I certainly didn’t mean for my first post in months to be such a painful one to write, but it can’t be helped.

You see, Blaze died last night.

I wish there was a better way to tell you this, to ease you into the awful moment. Nearly everyone who has ever been a friend of the blog was a devoted admirer of my dog. And with good reason, if you check any of the links in the sidebar about him.

It all happened very quickly. I came home from work last night to find out Blaze had been throwing up a little. He’s a dog, of course, and barf-production is part of the job description. Plus he has always been prone to springtime allergies, which also leads down the path to vom, so his being sick was in no way unusual.

As he came to the door to greet me, it did seem to me he was walking a little slowly. I chalked it up to some arthritis issues he’d developed over the winter. We never did know Blaze’s true age, but he had to be at least 10. Most days, he was his usual manic self and once in awhile he’d have an off day and totter around for a bit. This too was par for the course.

He laid around the living room with the kids for a little while last night. The Brownie spent time with him, stroking his head while he wagged his tail. The Éclair put some food in his bowl and brought it over to him. “Blazey’s tired,” she said. But Blaze didn’t want to eat. He got up, walked slowly over to me and nudged his head under my hand. I was in the middle of something and gave him a perfunctory pat. Then he went to Thomas’ room, where we put his kennel and dog bed, and laid down, keeping Thomas company while my son did his homework. After putting the Éclair to bed, I went to check on the guys a short while later. Blaze seemed to be sleeping peacefully. But in fact, he was already gone.

Thomas was beside himself--he’d been in the room the whole time and hadn’t heard or seen any signs of a problem. Screaming and crying, he begged me to help him get Blaze out of his kennel. Things got a little blurry after that, a jumble of images. Her Lovely Self is holding a door for us, her face streaming with tears. The Brownie is standing in the hall, head turned, unable even to look at her dog. Next thing I know, I’m speeding down the highway to the veterinary ER, Thomas in back holding Blaze. But we both know it’s too late.

It turned out Blaze had some kind of fluidic cyst near his heart, a defect he was probably born with, and which never gave him any trouble. Until it ruptured last night, and the excess fluid pressed on his heart, stopping it with crushing swiftness.

“Even if you’d brought him in earlier, there was probably nothing we could have done,” the vet on call told Thomas kindly. I wasn’t so sure about that--all I could think was why didn’t I pay closer attention to my dog? I would have seen something was wrong. I could have saved him--but I kept my mouth shut. I have never seen Thomas in such a state. But I wasn't surprised. Twelve is a hard age to lose your dog. He was beyond hysterical, howling like a dog himself. But it was a busy night at the ER and there was nothing more to be done and soon it was time to say our goodbyes.

Thomas mastered himself, wiped his eyes on his sleeve, put a hand on Blaze’s cold head. “Sorry I lost my shit, Blaze,” he said, a little breathless. Then he drew a deep breath and took his hand away, some kind of realization dawning. “He’s not there anymore, is he, Dad?” he asked. “The real Blaze is somewhere better, right?”

I was stunned to discover that I couldn’t speak. I had no words. All I could do was nod. And then I lost my shit. I cried for Blaze harder than I have cried for any pet, harder than I have cried for quite a few humans, to be honest. I don’t know what that says about me. A good thing, I hope. When a dog loves you, he loves you entirely, nothing is withheld. His love is undaunted by pettiness, by emotional baggage, by anything. So I guess it’s only right to repay that love with copious, uncontrollable grief, nothing held back.

And still I have no words, none that seem remotely adequate to express our sorrow. And stark surprise. Blaze didn’t die as I sometimes imagined he might--he didn’t fall defending his children from a mean dog, or protecting us from a home invader. He didn’t die chasing a rabbit into the street, or in any one of a number of moments of foolishness of which he was all too capable.

In the end, he went quietly, asleep on his bed, not in a sterile office after a long decline, but in a place of warmth and good smells and family and love. And if anyone deserved what grace or peace such an end might give you, Blaze surely did.

But he left too suddenly for me to say a proper goodbye. And to thank him.

For his unflagging enthusiasm in everything but baths and shots. For his rock-steadiness in what has been too many years of upheaval and change. For his unceasing devotion and attention to my children. And not least for his ever-ready willingness to go along with me in indulging whatever stupid idea I ever got into my head.

He was my companion, good and true, through many adventures--and many more misadventures. And he was that very best kind of friend, the kind who stands by you even when he knows you’re wrong. Sometimes even when he was the one you wronged.

Hopefully, though, we gave Blaze more rights than wrongs. In 2003, he was an abandoned stray doomed to a slow death, staked out in an empty yard. We lifted him out of that bad story, and wrote him a new one, one where he was the hero, valiant and loyal and smart and even a little handsome. For eight years, we loved him as well as we knew how, and counted ourselves lucky to have him. He was ours. And we were his, utterly and completely. I hope he knew that. I think he did.

Goodbye, Blaze. You were, first, last, always, a good dog.


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