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May 26, 2015

In Memorium Canum

Last month, my brother and I were able to work on a project together, which is always a pleasure. What's even better, it was a concrete, physical, tangible project that we made with our own hands. I had been craving manual labor for a worthwhile cause, and this one was the perfect chance.

Actually, this project started two years ago. Or two and a half years ago, if you count the idea's conception. Our family dog of 103 dog-years, Luke, was barely holding himself together. His skin was riddled with skin growths and warts, his legs wobbled with arthritis and infected sores, and his once soft black fur was matted and tangled. He couldn't balance very well, and his breathing always seemed to be heavy and laboring. At last, my family agreed that it was time to end Luke's suffering. I remember on the days prior we had discussed the things we could do to make his last day special—give him canned dog food for once in his life, or a bunch of hot dogs—but the time came too quickly, and on October 8, 2012, he was put to sleep. We had a ceremony out by the raspberry bushes. I was there via FaceTime, since my wife and I had just moved to Utah, and the occasion was solemn. My brother and father lowered his still body, wrapped in a plastic bag, slowly into a hand-dug grave. Our family sang "All Creatures of Our God and King" in his honor, and my dad told us with a broken voice of an LDS quote that revealed that animals were able to remain with us in the afterlife, so we would see Luke again. I don't cry much, but I wept freely that solemn night when the dog we had raised from a puppy we got from a Walmart puppy litter was laid in his final resting place.

My brother had the idea to make him a nice varnished wooden grave that we could remember him by, but it was a year before we even started the project. My dad got a big chunk of wood, one side of it flat and perfect for etching, the other side rough with bark and natural-looking. I designed the inscription on my computer, and with the help of a projector, my brother and I traced it with pencil and then with dremel tools. After the letters were etched into its surface, we used a blowtorch to burn the edges around them, making the words stand out starkly from the wood.

We weren't able to finish the grave during that vacation at my parent's house, and what with one thing and another, we left the tombstone in the garage for two years before we finally picked it up again to finish it. The varnishing didn't take as long as we thought, and before we knew it, the headstone was ready to be placed near the spot where Luke's body was buried. We took it to the quiet corner of the yard. The raspberries weren't even there anymore, and the garden shed he had been buried next to was replaced by a patch of weedy earth. It was hard to believe he had already been gone for two years, but thinking of all the changes that had taken place in our lives since then, the reality of the speediness of time was daunting. Mortality seemed more real than ever then.

We dug a hole as deeply as we could for the grave, and packed dirt around it as firmly as we could. It was then that we got some extra ideas, which often happens between my brother and me on projects. "It would be nice if there were some flowers in front of the grave," I said. Before long, we had formed a small indentation in front of the grave where we could plant some flowers. My brother retrieved a couple dozen smooth, round stones from the canal in front of our yard. I wished that we could have gotten some rocks from our old house where Luke had been brought up. We tried to think of ways we could honor him with this monument, which was actually turning into more of a shrine.

We planted some flowers (I wish I could tell you what kind they are, but oh well) in the little ring, along with some potting soil. It made the place look so serene and peaceful. The corner of the yard where he was buried was already a peaceful one. Standing there, by the fence and ditch, you can mostly just hear birds and the wind blowing. My brother and I made a point of it to make the place as natural as possible. It just didn't seem right to have anything but natural stones ringing the flowers. Sawed boards or cement curbing just would not have sufficed. Lastly, I placed a ceramic bowl of my own making in high school next to the grave, where we placed a few small candles. We were excited to be able to start a new tradition of making a pilgrimage to Luke each time that we visited my parents' house. We're planning on replacing the ceramic bowl with something even more natural, such as a varnished tree cookie.

I'm definitely not a "dog person" like most dog owners are, but to me, Luke was more than a dog. He was a close friend and family member. He was so loyal, gentle, and friendly, even when we neglected his attention at times. I miss his wheezy bark, the way his fur felt, and the way he would nuzzle my brother and me when he was a puppy. I remember the time I was in a rotten mood and stormed outside eating a piece of toast. He sat and begged for the food, and each time I would huffingly turn my body away from him, he would follow me relentlessly until I couldn't help but giggle. I can still vividly see in my mind the time that my brother was on a swing, and Luke came over to him, made him fall backwards till he was dangling, and then pulled his shirt over his head. My brother and I endearingly referred to him as the Black Lion because of his appearance when his hair hadn't been cut for months.

I'm glad that this project in particular was done late rather than never. I'm excited to visit the grave in coming years whenever I go to Idaho. I'm not sure if the flowers will live very long, or if lighting the candles will be practical in the long run, but I will always look with pride at the Latin inscription on the grave, 'omnes canes ad cælum eunt'—"all dogs go to heaven."