This past Thursday I dug a grave for my seventeen year old dog. When I started she had not yet passed but an angelic vet was in route to our home so that our dog’s final goodbye would
be enveloped in relative comfort; surrounded by the souls she most trusted on her favorite matted bed. The bed used to be swathed in opulent gold and fluff but as with everything, it had faded with time. My dog’s name was Leah and after her tenth seizure in less than a week, we made the very difficult decision to let her final exit be somewhat more graceful. It was one of the hardest moments of my life.
At the tender age of fourteen, my Grandfather was a grave digger. He found himself orphaned with two younger brothers in his charge and his options were limited. It was back breaking work that no one wanted to do. I learned about his first foray into the job market when I was twenty through hushed whispers when the family would dissipate into cliques after a large shared meal. As my shovel bit and tore into the hard Earth, I wondered about my Grandfather. I felt like I was completing something started long ago. It was something that I needed to finish.
We live on two acres in the county and our property provides brief respite for a striking myriad of desert existence. Most notably, our pond serves as the siren call to quench the sweltering desert thirst. We have seen mountain lions, road runners, javelins, and coyotes scamper about trying to find relief. An escaped peahen even claimed our yard as her own. Leah loved to frolic about exploring and ultimately digging as new smells tickled her perceptions of experiences other than her own. It felt right her body should lie among the many adventures passed and yet to come.
My husband started the hole and then chose to spend the final moments before the vet came, to be with Leah. I couldn’t bear it. I could not see her on the porch one last time or panting over the space in our room where our son’s crib used to be. Leah was our son’s first word. Before Mama or Dada was “Yaya” his pet name for her. Our son said goodbye in his own way that day. He did not want to be with her in those final moments. I could understand. I don’t think I could have faced the mortality of a lifelong companion at the age of twelve.
So I dug. I dug and dug. I dug through tears, through memories and shame. I dug through doubt and hesitation. My cracked fingers were bleeding and dirt caked my skin. We had a rare snowfall the night before. I had dressed warmly but quickly shed my heavy sweater and jacket and dug. The dirt changed from brown to red as the sweat pooled with my thoughts. I thought about my father in-law who had died the year before, I thought about how a stroke immobilized my mother in-law, I thought about how the years chewed through my assumptions and plans. I thought about friends who had hurt me and institutional betrayal. I thought about relatives who could not love me the way that I needed to be loved and I felt overwhelmed. My tears mixed with my sweat and I couldn’t see past my circumstances.
Then I remembered something. I remembered what I TEACH. I remembered what I have told clients and students overwhelmed by their particular set of circumstances. I became the OBSERVER and decided to bury something else.
I buried a chunk of ego.
I saw that this experience was intrinsically not about me. It was not about my expectations and assumptions. It was even beyond my grief and joy. This moment, this jewel of time served as a connection beyond self. Life and death affects us all. I took a handful of Earth and called it Ego and threw it back into the ground. I watched and listened as the familiar cacophony of blame rung through my head. But then, I let it float back into the ground.
I buried a helping of guilt.
Despite a preponderance of evidence showing that our dog was not living her best life, I still wondered if we were doing the right thing. This is to be expected but sometimes I let my guilt run the whole show. Guilt has permeated its way into many reactions. My guilt leads to ignoring my instincts, ravaging indecision, and leaves the door wide open for fear to seep into everything I am not absolutely sure about. Guilt can leave me ruminating about moments for years. I took another handful and dubbed it guilt. I could not carry it with me.
I buried expectations that no longer served me.
I have so many expectations: I thought Leah would live forever, I thought my newborn son would sleep through the night, I thought everyone would remember my birthday. I had concrete ideas of how time should be managed and controlled. When life uniquely unfolds, I felt that I was cheated of the lush experience carefully crafted in my head. My final handful of dirt was for these kinds of expectations I let go of those confrontations or situations that are solely imaginative; the dreamed of scenarios that perpetuate ignorance and ignite fear.
When the hole was big enough to hold my favorite teacher and her favorite dog pillow, I stopped. Without looking at my watch, I knew it was time. The vet had recently arrived and I made my way back into our home to find who and what I loved in front of our lit Christmas tree. I held my husband’s hand. We loved on Leah as she drifted into the next life. We loved on Leah as we lay her small body into the hole and covered it up. We whispered our goodbyes staring at the ground turned inside out. What was once buried was seen, what was once seen was underground.
Life goes on and I recognize the zombie nature of the ego, guilt and expectations. If they come up, I will observe them as passing experiences. I will remember their sacred burial and strive to live in the now. Looking back, I am profoundly grateful to the entire experience. I will forever remember what is buried among the creosote and what I will carry into tomorrow.