It seemed the perfect day for it. Dark, stormy and windy. Gus was coming home.
The ground has thawed in the past week, and we said several times over the weekend that we wanted Gus home. Since he died, he’s been in a plastic bag inside of a box in the freezer of the Cambridge Valley Vets.
In the country we, freeze the people and animals we love who have died in the winter. The ground is too hard for burial, so we wait and we dig holes in the Spring. I called the vet and said it was time to come home.
I had mentioned burying Gus online and several people wrote to ask me to photograph the burial or take photos of Gus before he went into the ground.
Maria and I were of the same mind about that, neither of had any desire to take a photo of Gus being buried. I have plenty of photos of Gus, and the sight of a puppy twisted into a frozen position with a bag of frozen fluid on his head and wrapped in a plastic bag is not something we wish to keep or share.
That’s not the final memory of Gus I want to have.
In America, we are used to dead bodies getting a makeover to look restful and at their best. We hide from death every chance we can. Death is inevitable, but it isn’t pretty.
Dogs don’t get that cosmetic treatment, at least not yet.
Maria and I took turns digging a hole in the Dahlia garden, and then she dug while I went to pick Gus up. Nicole brought him out in a large cardboard box, and I gulped. It was a lot bigger than Gus or our hole for him.
When I got home, I opened the box and Gus was wrapped in a thick bright yellow plastic bag with a name tag on it that said “Gus Katz.” The box was heavy, I knew he had been frozen.
Most people up here just dig a hole with a tractor and put the whole cardboard box in. The farmers dig a hole with their tractors and put the dog in the hole.
We couldn’t abide Gus going into the ground in a plastic bag, so we pulled him out of the box, cut open the bag and wrapped him in a linen blanket. He was frozen in an upright position, we couldn’t see his face. We would have to do some maneuvering to get him into the hole we had dug.
He would thaw in a few days underground, it was a good spot for him, at the edge of the Dahlia garden with a sweet view of the Vermont hills. The wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping.
Maria placed Gus deep into the ground, we put in a favorite bone and his favorite toy, a brown bear. We covered him in dirt and stones to keep him safe from foraging animals. He is way down.
The worms and bugs are welcome to him, he is a gift to the soil and the earth. We each spoke a few words and held hands a cried a bit. We had already said goodbye, I saw this as a chance to say hello.
I thanked Gus for his life with us and welcomed him home. We are glad to have you back here with us, I said, this is a lovely spot. You can mind everybody’s business from here and jump out and scare the hell out of Fate once in a while, maybe chase a rabbit again for a few feet, or grab one of her treats and hide it in the ground.
I told Gus that we missed him and that he was nothing but a gift to us. I apologized for not being able to save him. I know there was nothing else I could have done, but I did feel I let him down.
I told him we hoped to get the dog from Robin and her son Brian, he loved them and they loved him.
I told him I would rather celebrate a life than mourn it. We choked up once or twice, we did not cry.
And then, we tidied up the ground and said goodbye for now. The good thing is that he is here, and that feels better.
I went out a few minutes later and read this passage from Mary Oliver’s book:
“Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of grief… It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old, or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.”
There are other gifts we can’t give.
To keep them healthy, to keep them from dying so young.
In my mind, Gus is jumping up on my chest while I am asleep, dispensing licks fast and furiously, like a lawn mower growling up and down over the grass. He will bring me his pony, and dare me to throw it, and throw, and throw it again. He will growl and then look at me intently, as if to make sure this is okay to do.
Then, and quite suddenly, he will jump back up, spin turn on my chest and go to sleep along with me. When I wake up, he is curled against my chin, making his strange breathing noises, more like a snort than a sigh. I looked forward to taking naps with Gus, Maria always told me if he was a bother me I could put him in his crate.
But I could never say that I didn’t want to put him in his crate, I never could do it.
Dogs die too soon, all of them.
And to honor Gus, I will go and look for another dog to love just as much. The final gift of a dog, I suppose, if that we get to do it again. And again. Gus is not about sadness for me, he is about love and joy and that it is where I want to keep it.
Godspeed, our Little King. You were nothing but a strange and wonderful pleasure. You looked small, but thought big. I am grateful for every minute of it, good and bad, from beginning to end.
In Gus’s memory, we’ve established The Gus Fund, formerly the Children’s Refugee Fund. If you wish to contribute – I am receiving donations from all over the country every day – you can sent your donation to The Gus Fund, c/o. Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via Paypal, firstname.lastname@example.org.