The Hole in My Back Yard
Kenneth R. Lewis
There is a hole in my back yard at one corner of our house that I have watched for almost a year now as if it were some living thing. At one time, it was all fertilized, lush grass, until Sally, for some inexplicable reason, took a liking to it last summer—the last summer of her life—and made it her special place, wearing the grass away to an elongated oval of stunted green roots and slick mud.
In the last autumn of Sally’s life, I would sometimes let her out the dining room slider in the morning before I went to work and she would refuse to come back inside, and when I would come home for lunch I would find her curled into a ball on the grass at that corner of the house in our back yard. Unwilling to try and stand any longer with dysplastic hips that had finally crumbled away to nothing despite nearly five thousand dollars worth of surgeries, or to drag herself with her two front paws across the patio bricks to the slider where I would try and lift her from behind, and she would sometimes cry out in pain. When my wife was at home, she was the lifter, and I was the procrastinator, the shirker, the stubborn doubter that Sally was ever going to die, and that there would ever come a day when she would no longer be with us in our house, and in our lives. So instead, I would sit down beside Sally in the grass and stroke her broad black head, ruffling the loose folds of fur around her neck until dust rose from the coarse hairs, and was carried away in the warmth of the waning autumn sun. When I came home from work at five she would still be there, in that exact same spot, and so would my guilt.
Sally was four when we got her, and twelve when she died, so we only had her for eight years, even though we had unknowingly lived in the same small Oregon coastal town for two years that she did before my wife and I left that town (the same difficult community that inspired Little Blue Whales) and moved inland, across the mountains. Two years later, in February, we had returned to the coast so I could attend a writer’s conference at Gold Beach, OR where I had won an award for the work‑in‑progress manuscript of Little Blue Whales, and where Sally was also in residence—at the local county animal shelter, up for adoption. She had been there since December after her family had left here there, bound for new jobs in Texas. During a lull in the conference activities, we went to the animal shelter to “just look around,” and somehow walked back out to our car in the parking lot with an underweight female black Labrador Retriever named Sally who smelled horrible, and who had a bad case of kennel cough.
We snuck Sally into our “no pets” motel room for the night, and after we ran a shower, and pushed and pulled her under the stream of warm water, lathering her up with bottle after tiny bottle of motel shampoo, torrents of rusty-red water ran from her coat like blood. When most of the kennel filth had been washed away, and she began to smell a whole lot better, my wife announced that she would now be named “Nikki.” I took a long look into the dog’s soulful brown eyes, and I could see that she had already had quite a life, that she was established, and possibly very set in her ways. “No,” I told my wife. “Her name is Sally. She’s no Nikki.” It was probably the only time I was ever singly right about Sally, because everything that happened after that point with her defied, and exceeded, both of our expectations and imagination. Sally turned out to be a very special dog.
The first night we brought her home to our four-bedroom “no pets” duplex rental, Sally awoke in the middle of the night, went downstairs to the kitchen, and snatched a loaf of banana bread wrapped in aluminum foil that was on the kitchen counter. The next morning when we got up, the kitchen, and part of the living room, looked like it had been the scene of a rocket attack, with tiny bits of aluminum foil shrapnel everywhere. We took her to the vet, got her shots and her dog license, and treated her kennel cough. In a year, she went from being a 67-pound weakling to a strapping, 109 pound Lab that resembled a small black bear when my wife took her on their nightly walks, and which probably accounted for their lack of ever being accosted on the street during all those years. Sally just looked dangerous, and I have no doubt in my mind that if someone or something had ever attacked my wife, Sally would have put a quick end to it, or died trying. However, other than hating (and chronically chasing) cats, and not being particularly fond of other dogs, either, Sally was a sweetheart who loved all people, and everyone who met Sally loved her right back.
I know it is a cliché to say things like “she was a part of the family,” or, “she was like our child,” so let me unequivocally state right here, and right now, that I am not going to use any clichés like that. Not at all. Instead, I will just write the truth: Sally was a part of our family. Sally was our child. My wife, who never had children, raised Sally like a daughter, and I raised her like the firm, but caring father of five sons that I was, and still am. When she died, it really was as if we had lost our child, and the grief was so powerful, so seemingly insurmountable, it came dangerously close to ending our marriage.
I can admit that now, just like I can finally look at that hole in my back yard, and understand its true meaning now. But I couldn’t last autumn, or over the winter, or even by the time spring came. On any particular day, in any one of those seasons, I could not have given you odds, good or bad, on whether or not we would make it and stay married. And what was even worse, for the longest time, I really didn’t give a damn. You see, I believe there are two basic types of people when it comes to experiencing the loss of a loved one and how they are able to process their grief. There are those whose hurt and pain flows outward like a river for all the world to see, and for others to recognize and reach out and embrace them with healing compassion, and then there are those who direct their hurt and pain inward in a highly volatile, concentrated emotional energy, a shaped charge set to detonate at ground zero in the center of their heart and designed to obliterate everything around it. From what I have written so far, you can probably guess which type of person I am.
For the first six years that we had Sally, and while she could still walk and run reasonably well, we lived in that “no pets” duplex rental, a modern day canine version of The Diary of Anne Frank, with my wife and I constantly on the lookout for a surprise visit by the Property Management Gestapo. It was a frustrating time, badly wanting our own house, and having the money to buy one, but being prevented from doing so by corrupt politicians who had hyper-inflated the housing prices by forcing banks to lend money to people who had no means to ever buy a home, and which in turn had driven up the costs of new homes by a hundred thousand dollars or more in our own town. In some cases, virtually overnight. So we dug in, hunkered down, and continued to save our money, and when the Property Management Gestapo did pre-announce a visit as required by the Landlord-Tenant Law to do a routine inspection, or repair a failing major kitchen appliance, they never knew that on the other side of the blacked out windows of my 1999 Ford Explorer hunting rig they walked past in the driveway time and time again, was Sally, and all of her doggy beds, water bowls, and even her huge forty pound bags of dry dog food.
That duplex, and the years we spent living there, hold my fondest memories of Sally. The two years of nights writing Little Blue Whales in my den with Sally curled up at my feet. Listening to Sally excitedly popping and snapping her jaws like a grizzly bear, and then howling like a wolf when my wife would get her leash ready to take her on their nightly walk. Dressing her up in different costumes at Halloween so she could greet the kids coming to our door trick or treating. Celebrating her birthday every year on Super Bowl Sunday, with cake and ice cream—an easily remembered date we had chosen at random because we never knew her real birthday. The night Sally and I cornered three raccoons on the top rail of the wood fence in our front driveway, and battled them with a broomstick, knocking each one off of the top and over into the next door neighbor’s yard like pins being felled in a bowling alley. That awesome time when I sat in my recliner chair one winter evening with a beer, and a bowl of Planter’s Dry Roasted Peanuts, and Sally caught 104 consecutively tossed peanuts—snatching them in mid-air and swallowing them whole—until tragically, she finally had a miss on peanut number 105. The thing is, we were a family then. Sally was of us, around us, inside of us. She was always there when I went away, and she was always there when I returned home, and that was the way I always wanted things to be.
But of course, “things” would not—could not—always stay the same. Eventually, the housing bubble burst, home prices started to drop, and we bought a beautiful new home high on a hill overlooking the city below, and the neighborhood where we had once lived. Sally liked the new house, and she loved her huge back yard—something she had never had at the old place—but her health began to fail rapidly. She suffered from dementia, and would get up in the middle of the night and roam around the house, bumping into walls and then just standing there, head down, her nose against the wall, and panting rapidly as if she were waiting for the wall to hurry up and get out of her way. Her two past operations for hip dysplasia had now left her bereft of their previous benefits, her hip bones sunken, and concave, her gait, when she was able to walk at all, a swaying, crab-like progression which never took her anywhere in a straight line, but an ambling, arcing curve, final destination unknown.
The last six months of her life were the worst. Watching Sally crawl across the living room carpet by her two front legs, the back half of her body dragging along behind like the mostly dead weight that it was. I see, clearly now, why we should not have let it go on—why I should not have let it go on. My wife wanted mercy for Sally, to take away her suffering, and pain, while I, on the other hand, only wanted mercy for myself. As long as Sally lived, I could mercifully avoid my own suffering and pain, because the truth was that I could not bear the thought of losing that dog.
In the end, the decision was not mine, but my wife’s. I was away on a hunting trip to Idaho last October when Sally died, peacefully, in her own back yard on October 17 after my wife called our local vet and tearfully asked him to come to our house. A thousand miles away, sitting around my campfire on the night before Sally died, I suddenly had the strongest premonition wash over me that I was never going to see her again; that she was going to die while I was away on my trip. I shrugged it off, stirred the coals of my campfire for the last bit of heat I could coax from them against the chill mountain air, and then went into my tent and went to bed. Five nights later, I stood in front of my open garage door at home, looking for Sally, waiting for her to come out of the house and greet me like she always did, but instead my wife came out, alone. She told me that Sally was gone, and then she collapsed onto the concrete floor of the garage, sobbing.
I cannot tell you what happened next, in the days and weeks that followed. I won’t tell you, because it is too personal, and because I am really not sure what happened myself, other than I started visiting that hole in my back yard. It was the last place I had seen Sally before I left, the last place we were alone together when I had stroked her fur and patted her head, telling her what a good girl she was, and at the same time feeling filled with guilt that I would just leave her there, helpless in the grass, because hearing her cry when I tried to move her was going to be more painful to me, than it was to her.
After Sally died, I watched as that hole was buried in a soft carpet of falling autumn leaves, watched as it resurrected itself one dark winter day, the depression where Sally had lain black and soupy with moldering leaves and rimmed with an outline of jagged ice. When spring finally came, I saw new grass starting to grow inward in the hole, closing itself up like a wound scab in an attempt to heal. By the middle of this summer, the healing of the hole in my back yard was nearly complete, and my own healing, at last, had finally begun.
The last time I sat down next to the hole, only a few days ago, and ran my hand across the top of the now almost invisible, shallow depression in the grass, I finally understood that this had not been just a hole in my back yard at one corner of our house. It had also been a hole in my heart, healing on its own time schedule, slowly and painfully, but inevitably, as the seasons passed. A few days after the pet crematorium had delivered Sally’s ashes to us last year in a big red plastic container with “Forever In My Heart” printed on it, my wife had said to me, “You should write something about Sally.” I told her that I wasn’t ready to do that. That I probably would, someday, but not right then. Well, it looks like someday, is today.