This Week’s Challenge:
Using prose or poetry, write a story, true or fictional, about something that happened in your childhood that might have had some influence on what you do or how you think today.
I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, that I wouldn’t write about Bert’s death anymore. A friend of mine had a dog that died and he wrote about it every other day and even though I felt his pain, or I thought I did, I also thought mourning publically for so long created a lingering effect. There is something about writing something that makes anything more real, more permanent, and I understand the more I relive any part of my past, distant or recent, the fresher the pain will feel, and eventually it will become something it was never meant to be. We cannot become slaves to the past or to the pain, and we were never meant to live in the past or the pain. Yet two dogs link my present and my past together with death and with pain, and I cannot seem to shake it. The death of one occurred during the very darkest times of my life.
In 1971 divorce in small town South Georgia was unheard of. I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced. Step children were the end result of a death of a spouse, not the function of a lawyer. There were some people who had been married before they had kids, and even that was treated as some sort of dark secret. But our parents, the mother and father to my two sisters and myself, did not have a happy marriage. They argued behind closed doors and told us everything was perfectly fine. This was at the point in South Georgia history of Adult Infallibility, where everything was true if an adult told you it was. Santa Claus existed because they said so. God existed because they said do. Everything we believed was because they said so. Things were because they said so. There was an aura of divine power behind the voice of an adult, and even more so behind that of a parent. We were told everything was okay. But then again, we remembered them telling us our grandfather would be better, that he was in the hospital to get better, but he had died there instead. Death is one of the Great Truths. Death cannot be lied about or denied but for only so long. Dying can be dressed in a fine suit but Death is naked. Death leaves a grave in the soul that never gets filled. Our parents lied to us. They told us all was well: All was well. All was well. All was well. Then Death. This “everything is okay” felt to me very much the same species of lie but we were not allowed to question the wisdom or the truth of adults.
Just like my grandfather going to the hospital to get better, one day my mother packed her things to go. She was “going on vacation” and we three kids were all happy and excited about our mother going somewhere on vacation because that seemed fun. The stress level in that house was so thick we could have cut it into chunks and sold it for igloo siding, but remember… we had always been told that our parents never lied to us. Things happened very fast and suddenly we were moving across town, and we were told that our mother would move back in with us when we were settled into our new house which was a larger but much older house.
I knew Spike was going to be killed when I saw the house. There was a busy highway near the front yard and Spike had never been near a busy road. His life was of the tilled fields of our semi rural neighborhood not of an old established part of town with small side streets everywhere. My father build a pen for Spike but I knew it wouldn’t hold him. I knew if he ran free he would eventually get hit by a car, but I didn’t have a say in the matter. Spike refused to be caged, and eventually my father gave up trying to keep him in. In the meantime, my mother had not returned, and one day my father announced that my grandmother, his mother, would be coming to live with us. Already in her seventies, she was in no real shape to help raise three children, but there was no other answer. My father still maintained the lie of the return of my mother and she supported it. A month went by, and then another. Slowly but surely word was getting out that my mother wasn’t living with us, and the longer time went on the worse things seem to get.
At that time, my sisters and I had an unspoken agreement not to say the word. Others might bring it up, but there in the new house with our grandmother there and us still trying to get used to the creaks and crackings of the house, we never spoke the word aloud. The house was, and still is, a cold house to me. It was older than our old house and it was drafty. My father embarked upon a series of nighttime drives with one of us kids in the car with him each night. He would drive around Blakely Georgia asking questions, giving lectures on adulthood, and all the while we would be just driving around the little town of Blakely aimlessly. For hours and hours he would just drive and talk and it seemed like there was no end to either. My father was the master of asking a question and if he didn’t get the answer he wanted he would rephrase it, or he would couch the question within some other context like, “Your mother wouldn’t be happy if she moved in with us and you want your mother to be happy don’t you?” Of course, no kid is going to sit there and tell his father on a torturous ride any such thing and the night was filled with such questions. By the end of the ride he had gotten all the answers he wanted to all the questions he asked. No amount of pleading or begging would reduce the ride by one minute or one mile. If he thought I was getting antsy about going back to that house he would head in that direction only to ride by slowly.
He asked me about the divorce one night as the ride was about to begin. I demanded that he tell me what he wanted to talk to be about before the ride and he refused, of course, and became angry that I had demanded anything at all. One of the high points of the ride was the tour of the poorer sections of town where he would slowly down nearly to a stop in front of some run down shack. “You think the little boys and little girls in that house wouldn’t trade places with you?” he would say, “you think they wouldn’t like to live in the house I just bought for you?” “You think they wouldn’t like to ride around in a car? There isn’t a car in that driveway and here you are complaining about having to ride around.” And there was always the offer to trade with those people, to let me live in their place, and them in mine, and I never said what I wanted to say, that they might be happier than I was, that they might be move loved than I, and they might actually have a family. But I knew my role and I knew the answers. I had been well trained to say either “yes sir” or “no sir” and I knew when he asked a question what the answer was supposed to be. But that night, before we left, when I demanded he tell me what he wanted to talk about before we left, he came right out and asked me, “What do you think of your mother and I getting a divorce?” In an odd moment of truth, I blurted out, “You two won’t ever be happy together so it doesn’t matter” and it didn’t. Later I found out he and my older sister had already talked about it. He took my younger sister on the ride instead of me that night and I have never been so happy to see a car pull out of sight in my life.
When I was a little kid my father’s return from work was a joyous occasion. I counted the minutes until he got home. I fretted when he was late. He was happy to see me as well, and I remember when he was the one person on earth I wanted to see and be with. We went hunting and fishing and we played in the yard with the dogs and we walked in the woods. But my grades in school changed all that. They were not good enough for his son, and so I was no longer his son. Bu the time we moved into the new house I had already lost him. There was never a time in that house I was happy to hear him pull up and there was never a time I was not happy when he left. He adopted my younger sister as his new sidekick and from that point on the pictures of he and I ceased to exist, and the photos of my sister increased.
Spike learned to dodge traffic for three years, but it caught up with him in 1975. I was outside and Spike ran up to me crying, blood pouring from his nose and mouth. I tried to comfort him, tried to think of what to do but Spike died with me holding him, his blood slowing then stopping. My grandmother had called the vet but it was far too late. Like Bert, I put Spike in a wheelbarrow, and carried him away. I dug a hole in the cold earth and put my brother, my best friend, my companion, in a grave. I was just fourteen and I cried like a child for the last time. I promised myself I would never cry again, that I would not give my father an excuse to criticize me for not being a man, for not being strong, for not being good enough, ever again. But for the moment, I let my emotions run while, and I cried like a child with a broken heart.
I am not a person who visits graves, or believes in monuments, and I would not go back to Bert’s grave except to assure it remains undisturbed. I never went back to Spike’s grave. I do not know what it means that Bert’s death allowed me to cry again. But in this time of my life is a time of loss, and Bert dying as I held him reminded me of Spike’s head in my lap as his life seeped away on me. Spike’s death sealed my life in darkness. Bert’s death, however, just might mean something else. I know now the honesty of Death, of the lightness of shedding Life. Bert lived a good life, and he was loved, and loved fiercely. The path my life takes is now in my hands, as his life was and Bert trusted me. I should too. I cannot help but feeling Bert left not only because it was his time to end, but it was also time for something else to begin.