I never dreamed it would be so hard to go back.
Last week I returned to Cape Cod to take care of some personal business, pick up the dog’s ashes and briefly visit with friends, one night here, the next somewhere else, taking the gypsy tour for several days.
The midweek morning I left to make the short drive down two states to where I used to live, I was tired enough to cancel everything and spend my time on the little piece of the shore of Casco Bay that will always epitomize Maine to me. I hadn’t had much time this summer to spend there — what with the dog’s health crises and, finally, her death — and I had been feeling an almost physical hunger for the rocky shore, for the seascape of the Gulf and the vast Atlantic, for the colder, wilder waters here.
But I had a few matters that had to be dealt with in the Commonwealth, and I had made promises — and exacted them — about scheduling and time to be spent on-Cape, so I resolved not to bail out at the last moment.
I shifted my weary mood to automatic, stuffed a bag with clothes and beach attire, loaded up on sunscreen and insect repellent, and packed the car. There was a whole subset of packing — dog food, chew toys, tennis balls, rawhide, stuffed animals — that didn’t have to be done now that I am living alone.
When I pulled out of the tree-darkened drive, the dappled sunlight sifting through the oaks, the feathered lumination of the conifers softening the clear bright morning, it hit me: No golden retriever was sprawled on the back seat, ensconced like a billionaire, napping while I, the designated driver, did the work of transport.
A maw of emptiness seemed to lie at my back during the four-hour drive — the vacancy of the big red dog. I did what I could to fill the silence of the car by sliding an audio-book disk into the CD player and trying to take my mind off the grief that has seemed to make tatters of the edges of every day since my golden succumbed to epilepsy and old age.
The closer I got to the Cape, wending my way through the heavy traffic just south of the Tobin, a small tightening, the size of a cherrystone, seemed to gain substance in my chest, a hard pit of longing for her presence, a pit of sadness that would not dissipate or be driven away.
It came on as the landscape changed, and the light — the muslin-like ivory shimmer of the Cape predominating as the miles from Maine slipped away under the tires’ spin. It thundered in as I passed the Sagamore Bridge and the canal walks where the dog had padded alongside me as I biked along the waterway. Then, like a pulse or sudden palpitations of heartbeat, the loss of her — and remembrance — beat against my rib cage, because everywhere I looked was a place we had been together, every site exuding memories.
I stopped first at the vet, where one of the assistants was already prepared to offer condolences and hand me a paper bag full of gifts and the other items — the dog’s ashes, contained in what looked like a large, locked, cedar pencil box; a clay cast of her paw print, done by the vet on the day of her death; and a piece of black obsidian, a stone Apache Indians, it is said, believed could draw out, like poison, the tears of mourners.
She came out from the reception desk bag in hand, hugged me, handed me the heavy package and said simply, “Kodi.”
We stayed suspended there for a split second, till both of us could see in the other’s eyes tears forming like the first signs of a storm cloud on the far horizon. Then we turned away and began chattering about tangential things.
Finally, in the middle of our meandering conversation, she looked up from her paperwork and gazed at me intently, and said, “She was a very special dog, very special.”
This is how my days have gone for almost a month, with me moth-like, fluttering around the flame of the low burn of my grief. I draw close to it and flit away, keeping myself busy, going for a short walk, doing what the dog would have done: taking a nap.
I have not opened the pencil box. There will be time and ritual enough for that, and I am not steeled yet against the sight and texture of dust-to-dust mortality.
Although it shouldn’t — since I know how inseparable my dog and I were — it has surprised me to find the specter of her everywhere, in bogs, on beaches, along walking paths, overlooking Nantucket Sound. I am awed by how vivid the recollection of ordinary experience can be, and for how long.
It comforts me, this territory of the mind and heart that is partly characterized by a quality of persistence over time, if not permanence. I already knew that, with will and devotion, I could fan the ember of memory for a long time. But this internal landscape is different, and in a certain way, better, because it is animal memory, blood memory, the imprinting of sight, smell, sound and touch — the habit of air at the shore, the humidity, the sound of waves under certain conditions of wind, the clang of rigging against masts boat slips, the feel of sand on paws and bare feet.
Now that the dog has been taken back into the elements of earth that she spent a lifetime rolling in and racing through, now that she prances in the ground of being, I am moved to find that dogs, like others of our own species, are place and landscape and seashore — just as we are and all the creatures we discover there.
We all get back home, drifting from the near shore to the far horizon we can barely envision.
Thank God for the mooring of memory, the vessel of the senses, how we stay afloat after the final hours — and are anchored by love.
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