Emptying The Boxes

Bodhi and Luna

The two small boxes could not have been more different. One was a neat, glossy, rectangular wooden box. Simple, but nicely made. The other was tin metal with a paisley flower pattern on the outside. In another life, it would have made a good tea container. Since January 2112, they had sat together, first on a shelf in our kitchen, then on a shelf in the basement above the dog’s kennel area. Sally had moved them. I don’t know when. But it was Sally who finally said it was time to scatter the ashes of our much-loved dogs on Mt. Tabor. I agreed.

I devoted a tear-soaked chapter to the passing of Bodhi and Luna in my memoir. It was there that I thought I had worked this all out, the sudden death of our dogs in the same week. When Sally brought the boxes up from the basement and put them on the dining room table, I mused on how strange it was we hadn’t done this sooner. How had we lived with the ashes for so long? Part of me thought it unkind to have not completed this circle. It turned out the act of omission was a conspiracy between the two of us.

Sunday morning, I took the wooden box down to my workbench to remove the screws that held it together. When I turned it over, I saw the printed label. Whoever did the label had misspelled Bodhi into Budhi. That evoked a flash of anger. Not annoyance. It pissed me off. Had I not seen this error before? Inside the opened box was a compressed grey cube of remains in a plastic bag. I had an odd thought. Do bigger dogs get bigger boxes or is this one size fits all? I put the Bodhi cube and the Luna tin in a Walgreens paper bag, and we got in my car to go up to a spot of Sally’s choosing.

Sally is the morning dog walker, has been since our first to dog Ziggy, whose ashes we spread on the little cinder cone hill a long time ago. I have never seen the morning dog walk. I hear about it. It’s an almost sacred time for Sally and the dogs. They roam the park in all weather. During winter, it is still dark when they get up there. The meticulous “doggie mama” puts blinking lights on the dog’s collars so that even off leash in the fog and growing light she can track them. I have heard tales of remarkable sunrise moments on bitter frosty mornings, just Sal and her dogs. So, naturally, Sally chose the ultimate resting place for Bo and Lu on the south side of the hill, facing the sun, just outside the large dog park. She told it was there she sometimes let them off leash to sniff and play.

Sal was emotional all morning. I was not. We walked up, and I pointed out a small tree that seemed the right place. There was a breeze. I reminded Sal to stay upwind lest we become a scene from the Big Lebowski and coat ourselves in the dogs. I took Bodhi, who was my constant companion. Sally removed Luna, the dog that stole her heart. Sally, in tears, said we should each spread half the ashes. Sal is wise like that. Ignoring my Lebowski caution, Sal began pouring the ashes standing in the wind. I eased her to turn as the first grey puff was already on her shoes. We both said how we liked that the inseparable pair of girls were mingling on the ground. It troubled me that the swath of remains seemed so large. Grey dust, speckled with shiny white bits of crushed bone, extended out from the tree trunk in the wind’s direction. I put the empty plastic bags into the paper sack, and we embraced. We said words over the grey swath, reminisced a bit. Then, as we departed, I became uncomfortable about how visible the ashes were. I am not sure why, but I kicked over some covering leaves. The futility of effort was immediately clear, and I returned to walking out with Sal.

Still near the tree, I looked over and emotion hit me like a thunderclap. You see, I made a mistake the day we lost my big dog Bo. I’ll not retell the entire story here, as I did it better in my book, but there was a point when it was clear she was dying and I decided we needed to go home to get Luna, so Bodhi’s companion knew what happened. I should have stayed with Bo while Sally got Luna. I didn’t. That regret washed over me as I looked at the grey line in the bright sunshine. We both walked in tears back to the car.

Blackwood men talk most freely while sitting in their cars. It turned out so do Blackwood women. Sally and I both had secrets we had held from each other for almost 10 years. Sally was alone when the cancer burst in Bodhi’s gut, causing her to bleed out internally. Sal called me away from an evening event I was at with the commissioner. I rushed to the emergency veterinarian. I always thought Bo’s crash had been fast. What Sally had spared me was how it was slow. That night, she had called the vet twice for advice and given her pain medication. Bodhi, the athlete, was always spraining something so that what we did all the time. But Sally had believed the drugs were the problem. Sally had spent hours watching and panicking over Bodhi’s decline. She never told me to spare me that pain, that image. She also said she should have forced me to stay with Bo while she got Luna.

While I had written in the past that I should have stayed that night, sitting in the car, I finally revealed the lingering depth of my shame. That awful night, I was having panic attacks and getting away from that pet hospital was, insanely, a relief, a chance to collect myself. My longtime mental health issue, not my love of my big dog, was calling the shots. And there was one more secret I kept. Luna had mouth cancer, but it was slow illness. A few days after Bodhi died, I woke to find Luna alone upstairs, in the middle of the floor, panting. We went to the same emergency clinic, same damn vet, and she coldly said Luna was dying. Sally and Luna shared a heart. What I didn’t tell Sally was that I never believed it was the cancer. I was sure that Luna died of a broken heart. Without her rambunctious mate, she just gave up. I never wanted to burden my wife with that thought.

Now, parked in the garage, Sally and I unburdened ourselves. She said she always thought it was best for Luna to be with her sister. Her immediate passing had given Sally comfort. I told Sally that it was all my decision not to stay with Bodhi. I was too deep in shock, and more afraid of Sally not being there with me. I told her she did her best that night. She told me the same. And then we looked at each other and knew. We finally understood why those two boxes had sat on shelves for so long. We both had secrets and lovingly avoided what would surely come if we opened those two boxes and set our dogs free. When we had exhausted the life of our secrets, we had another realization. Those boxes, symbols of pain and love, had become a silent anchor, holding us in this house and this place. Now, Bodhi and Luna are where they should have been all the time, and we, well, we are now also free to leave this place and make something new.

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