Death, to a child, is incomprehensible. By the time my father died, when I was six, my maternal grandfather and a sister had already died during my lifetime. So I had known death and had many questions about it. My family was of little help. The standard answer when I showed interest in the topic was that the dead are sleeping. I knew that sleeping people wake up. But I could not keep anyone focused on that fact long enough to get an explanation.
So it was that when I was ten, and my dog was killed, I was determined to experience his death as first hand as I could. Bing was hit by a car in front of our neighbour’s house about a quarter mile from ours. Our farmer neighbour came to our house to tell us. I insisted on retrieving the body myself.
It was midsummer in central Michigan and very hot and dry. We lived on an old corduroy road that was treated with gravel occasionally. Over time the gravel was ground to a fine dust that migrated to the edges of the road, leaving, in the center of the road, gray dust and sometimes exposed logs as a road bed. In a dry summer, such as that one was, each car that used the road was trailed with a rooster tail of dust that hung in the air minutes after the car had passed. The gray dust settled back onto the road and on the vegetation along the side of the road.
I fetched my Radio Flyer wagon that had been fitted with side racks and began trudging down that dusty road to bring Bing’s body home. Country boys seldom wore shirts in the summer and each car that went by increased the thickness of the layer of gray dust accumulating on my bare torso.
The anticipation of what I would find when I found Bing’s body filled me with dread that piled itself upon the dread I already felt about Bing being dead. I wanted there to be some mistaken identity. Maybe it was not Bing, even though Mr Johnson knew my dog well. Maybe he was not dead but just unconscious, even though I knew Mr Johnson would not have said he was dead if he were not. Each reluctant step increased my misery and fear.
Upon arriving in front of the neighbour’s house Mr Johnson came out to meet me. He asked me if he could hitch his trailer to his tractor and take Bing to our house. I told him no, that I would take him. He told me Bing was in the dry ditch beside the road and he offered to lift Bing into my wagon for me. Again I refused. To this point I had kept from crying.
I approached the place where Bing lay, out of sight, in the ditch. The fear of what I might find made me nauseous, but I controlled it, barely. I saw the white short fur and the large light brown patches but it took time to figure out the position in which he laid. My first impression was that he looked so very unnatural. I involuntarily spoke his name, louder than I would have liked to admit. Perhaps I hoped he would respond, and I was embarrassed because it meant that I doubted Mr Johnson’s appraisal that Bing was dead. Mr Johnson said nothing until he again offered to help me lift the body out of the ditch and into the wagon. Again I refused. By this time I could not hold back the sobs. I lowered myself into the ditch and stood beside Bing’s body. I looked up at Mr Johnson through the tears and he slowly nodded his head. I did not know what he meant, but my embarrassment for crying began to dissipate. I wanted to cry and I did. Mr Johnson turned around and walked into the house, as if he read my mind that I just wanted to be alone with Bing. I kneeled by his body. His face lay on its side. His tongue lolled out of his half open mouth. I did not like it that way. I picked up a small stick and tried to put his tongue back into his mouth but the stick broke and I stabbed his lip. A wave of revulsion came over me. I started to stand but half way up I stopped. Slowly I sat down on the side of the ditch and decided to take everything more slowly so I could regain control over my emotions. I looked at him all over, noting again the unnaturalness of his position. Death was unnatural for the living and confusing for a child. But Bing was dead. Natural was different for him now. He did not care. He could not care. He had nothing with which to care. He did not care about me. Somehow that comforted me. He was not sad. Maybe he was somewhere and sad that I was not there, but he was not here and sad in this body. He was not in this body anymore. I tried to comfort myself but my brain still buzzed with anxiety and confusion. So I just sat and tried to let everything settle down and sink in. I had wanted to know what death was about. Seeing and handling the body was part of that understanding. But it was almost unbearably painful to see this vacant body.
I could touch him now, without revulsion. I could pet him, for my own comfort. My heart grew quieter until I was finally ready to get him out of the ditch and into the wagon. I knew it would be difficult to put my arms around him and move him. His stocky build always made him heavier that it seemed like he should be for a medium sized dog. And yet, his weight did not surprise me as much as his lack of balance. In life he could always get away if he did not want to be picked up and make it easy to pick him up when he wanted it. But now it was like trying to pick up a huge balloon full of water. His balance shifted, fluid-like, from one side to the other with the slightest movement. I wished I’d had a shirt that I could wrap around him so I could control his weight better. I decided it would be easier to drag him up out of the ditch but I hated the way his body was so limp and it always felt like I was going to hurt him, no matter how I dragged him. It was hard to get used to the idea that he could not feel pain. . . . that he could not care. His body was irrelevant.
With his body beside the wagon at the edge of the road, the task of getting him into the wagon was daunting. After trying to lift him in a couple of times I concluded that that was not going to work. I worried about the possibility that a car would come by and offer to help me and I would have to argue them away. I did not want to talk to anyone. This very private matter, being played out in a very public place, filled me with anxiety.
I had to load him quickly into the wagon. It came to me to tip over the wagon onto its side so that the side rack was right next to Bing. Then I could roll him onto the side rack and tip the wagon back upright so Bing would roll into the wagon as I righted it. It took a couple tries but that eventually worked. I arranged his body onto its side so he looked natural and comfortable. I wished I had a shirt to put under his head. I could not help wanting to “comfort” him, although it embarrassed me to know that I was only comforting myself.
His weight pulled easily with the wagon as I began the wretched walk home. By now I was sweating profusely and the rivulets of sweat traced through the dust on my body and probably my face. I wished there was a less public path through the swampy woods that separated Mr Johnson’s house from ours. In winter I could have put Bing on a sled and made a path over the frozen Earth but not in summer. So I hoped for few cars and that no one would figure out what I was doing. As I walked I looked for some branches from bushes along the roadside that I could easily break off and lay on top of Bing, so people in the cars could not see him.
My luck regarding traffic held out until I was more than half way home, then I heard a car approaching behind me. I did not look back. I got a little closer to the side of the road to let the car pass. To my horror I could hear it slowing down. I kept walking and still kept looking forward until the car pulled up close behind me and I heard a familiar voice that called, “Hey¸ Tom”. It was my brother, Robert. I stopped and turned around, knowing he would see that I had been crying, wounding my “big boy” pride.
“What’s the matter, Tom?”
I pointed to the wagon and said, “It’s Bing. He’s dead. Hit by a car.”
“In front of Ron Johnson’s place.”
“You wanna put him in the trunk?
“No, it’s OK. I want to take care of him?”
“Whatta ya gonna do?”
“Dig a grave for him.”
“I’ll help you.”
“I can do it. I want to do it myself. He is my Dog.”
“OK. I’m sorry, Tommy.”
Robert was fifteen years older than I was, and I admired him a lot, but I was on the verge of crying again and I wished he would leave. Thankfully, he drove slowly past me. I turned again to my task of bringing Bing home.
Our house sat quite a distance from the road, built into the side of a hill. The driveway went all the way around the house and came around the other side. The driveway then continued back to the road on the other side of a large front yard containing several beautiful Elm trees. We were not farmers but we had some chickens in a coop and a fenced in chicken yard. A small barn sometimes housed a beef steer that we would buy as a calf and raise for a year, then butcher.
I knew that, as I cleared the edge of the woods, I would have to pass our large garden before coming to the driveway. Once by the garden I knew my family could see me approaching the driveway, but I hoped that Robert would have told them that I wanted to take care of Bing’s burial myself and they would honour my wishes.
The driveway was steeper than the road and bumpy so I went a little slower and avoided as many ruts as I could, so as not to bump Bing around too much. The feeling that he deserved gentle treatment even though he could feel nothing seems to stem from a primal respect for the dead. I could not help feeling that way. Everything that happened and everything I thought about Bing had to be translated to everything I felt about my father’s and sister’s deaths. There was no one here to tell me lies about how the dead were sleeping. The state Bing was in was different from sleeping. Death was different from everything I had ever known, everything I had ever understood. I began to realize that Bing was gone forever. The next time I wanted to take a long walk he would not be there, with his nose to the ground, smelling for rabbit scent and running off into the woods or fields to follow the scent of any track that he found, returning to check on me when he lost interest. He would not be there to wrestle with when we both felt playful. He would not lie behind the wood stove and play out with feet and whines his dream of chasing a small, wild animal. He simply would never be there again, like my father, my sister and my grandfather. That is what death means, that big hole, that loss of part of my own life.
When my father died I was six and my chief reaction was that I wanted to be with him. Wherever he was I wanted to be in the safety of his presence. I dreamed of approaching him and he would tell me to stay away and I could not understand why. I felt a great betrayal. How could he do this? How could he leave me here, unprotected and empty?
Of course, there was a question of where was he now? And where is Bing now? Heaven? All the explanations I had ever heard of heaven seemed made up for human comfort and short on real possibilities, and they never answered the question of where we were before we were born? Yet the human need to complete the picture of our existence was strong in me and it included solving the mystery of “not life”, both before and after life. But nobody ever cared about “before life.” It begged the question, “Were we concerned with the “after life” only because we still had to face it?” Will “not life” remain forever a mystery because it is a frontier we cannot breach? We can treat it as a mental exercise, but not with the certainty of a science.
At the top of the hill, beside the house, I began to think about where to bury Bing. I really wanted him to be protected by a tree but it would be difficult to dig a hole through the roots of a tree. So I decided on a spot on the other side of the hill near the edge of the woods. I brought Bing to the spot and fetched a shovel and began to dig. The ground was dry and hard and the hole had to be much bigger than I thought. At one point in the digging I fetched a pail of water and dumped it in the hole, hoping to soften the ground. It worked pretty well but I did not want to have water standing in the hole when I placed Bing in it, so I did not get any more water.
I rested now and then. I had taken the bush branches off Bing so I could see him. I dreaded finishing the hole because I knew I would have to give up Bing’s body, the last vestige of his earthly presence. I cried as I dug knowing that every shovelful brought me closer to that miserable moment. I schemed occasionally to keep his body somewhere so I could visit it until I got used to the idea that he was dead. But I knew several reasons why that was a terrible idea that would not work as I envisioned it.
I had to finish burying him through the pain. Then would begin a different kind of pain, that horrible grief I had felt after other deaths. But it would be different this time. I had seen the dead one. I had touched him, carried him, hauled his body, dug his grave; I had shovelled the dirt over his body. I had looked into his meaningless eyes and had seen nothing of the personality I had known. I had felt the hellish feelings that accompany all these acts. I had known death first hand and I wanted to hate it. But there was nothing to hate. I could hate God but that would be a waste of my life. God was a mystery much like life and death, never to be solved.
Life, death and God will remain forever unsolved. Those who spend their whole lives constructing systems of belief about the topics have a useful place in our society, because they bring us comfort, they offer ways of looking at the problem. But they never solve it to my satisfaction. It always remains that we are destined to the never understanding of life, death and God. That was Bing’s final lesson to me.