Of Dogs and Death
Yesterday morning, I sat on a hillside with the soft spring breeze on my back and watched my 15-year-old son dig a grave for his dog.
When I had seen him throw the pick and shovel over his shoulder and trudge towards the woods, I had begged him to let me come and help. “No, I want to do this alone,” he had said, and set his shoulders as only a teenager can do. “Then let me just keep you company so you won’t be alone,” I had insisted. So there I sat, a few meters away, and watched him wrestle with buried field stones and tree roots as he hacked at the hard earth beneath a towering oak, pausing occasionally to wipe at his eyes until, finally, he let the tears run in two steady streams down his cheeks and drip onto the newly-turned soil.
I waited in silence on the slope above, just far enough to respect his heartbreak and just close enough to share it. The sun rose directly above as a trio of yellow ladybugs made their way onto my knee. I carefully rounded them up in my palm to make a wish: “Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain.” They scattered into the wind, their magical powers no match for the weight of my son’s grief.
I remember the day I watched my sons die. How I stood rooted to the ground as their bodies were thrown high into the air, two ragdoll shapes silhouetted against the sun, and swore I would never let them suffer again.
“Please!” they had begged me that hot August afternoon in Puglia. We had spent the day at a zoo-slash-amusement park, an ethically questionable form of outdoor entertainment that my sons had loved with an enthusiasm only ethically questionable entertainment seems to evoke in pre-teen boys. “Please let us ride the ‘Jet Figther’!” I was skeptical, pausing in the shadow of this hulking beast of loop-the-loop coaster. How rigorous could the safety standards possibly be when they hadn’t even managed to spell the name of the ride right? And, in all honesty, my younger son met the minimum height requirement only because he was badly in need of a haircut.
But I relented, and they ran off merrily with ticket money clutched tight in their fists. I watched from below as their car ran back and forth along the track, circling higher and higher, until it finally made the entire loop and shot off the rails at the other end, throwing passengers helter-skelter into the sky. The riders’ screams filled the air and I screwed my eyes shut, amazed at how casually I had sent my sons to their death. Me, who had spent their entire lives shielding them from pain. Me, who had slept on the couch for five years to delay the inevitable breakup of our family. Me, who had forced their father to drag our resident badger from his final resting place in the middle of our country highway and hide him in the tall weeds so they would never know about his sad end. Me, who had made sure that despite an economic crisis and failed business, music lessons and sports teams and pizza nights continued as if the world was and would always be a secure and predictable place.
My reverie was interrupted by the sound of thundering footsteps, as my sons ran to me, breathless with excitement and pride. “Did you see us, Mamma?” they asked, “Did you see how brave we were? We didn’t scream even once. The grown-ups all screamed and screamed, but we weren’t scared at all!” They jumped up and down and threw their arms around my waist, surprised and emboldened by their own courage. “Can we go again, Mamma, please?” I looked down at the tiny half-moon marks my nails had left in my palms from having clenched my fists so tightly in fear during their ride. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
And that’s what it is, this beautiful and terrifying adventure of parenting. That’s the choice we have to make, every single day. We can send our children out into the dangerous world, letting them risk body and heart and mind, and find that they are stronger and bolder than we – and even they – ever expected. Or, we can distract them with cotton candy and merry-go-rounds, and never know what people they could have been or what lives they could have led.
We buried him that afternoon, my sons and I. We stood by his grave piled high with unearthed fieldstones and cried, my sons for the dog they had loved and lost and I for all the loving and losing I knew they would encounter over the course of their lives. All the risk and disappointment. All the sorrow. I cried because I knew I had to send them there, to that dangerous roller coaster that could derail in an instant, and let them sail up into the sky, two bold and fearless shapes silhouetted against the sun. Not to fall, but to fly.
This post is a late addition to the Italy Blogging Roundtable, which focused on pets this month. It was just too soon to post before today. It may still be too soon, but these are my thoughts. Take a look at posts by Georgette Jupe, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.)
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
Your gift of being able to stir deep emotions with your writing never, ever ceases to amaze me. This is a beautiful piece, perhaps in part because it’s not so long, yet stunningly human in its construction. Thank you.
This lovely piece left me in tears, first because I still mourn the death of our beloved black Lab, Carina, whom we lost to lymphoma four years ago and second, because the family of a high school classmate of my son David buried their 20-year-old daughter yesterday. Olivia, who was a scholar-athlete and a beautiful person both inside and out, had been in remission after a rare form of cancer, then developed an even rarer, and untreatable, complication. Our community is mourning this tragic and unfair loss.
Sad and beautiful