by John Carter
A friend of mine just sent me this old photo from a camping trip, circa 1989. It’s Bo, the Labrador retriever who shared my life at the time. Typically, she is curled up in my lap, this time in the middle of a field. Bo, the eternal puppy who nobody could resist. It may sound grandiose, but the flood of emotions and memories this image evoked reminded me of Proust and the madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past:
An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself …
Any glimpse of this memory requires an understanding of the way Bo affected people. My parents were raised on farms during the Great Depression – not an upbringing that makes you overly sentimental about animals, but Bo was the exception to every rule. My mom would cook meals for Bo – grits for breakfast, broccoli (which she loved!) for dinner. My father, who might normally have been the first person to say that anyone who cooked for a dog was crazy, seemed to think it was all fine. It was for Bo.
My father, my mother, and Bo have all been gone for many years now. When Bo died, my dad helped me bury her out on the farm. We picked a spot for her grave overlooking the pond and the pastures that she loved. It was rough, hard Georgia clay, full of tree roots and rocks – tough digging. We didn’t get any gloves, even though I know he had some. Those bloody blisters on our hands were the only way we had left to show Bo how much we loved her. We both understood that without saying it.
And we didn’t share that kind of connection as often as we’d have liked. I loved my dad, fiercely. Still do. But it was rare for us to find the right words for each other. So we dug that awful hole without words, just the thunk and slice and tearing of our shovels and mattock as we fought the earth. Until we put Bo in.
Before we started covering her, I asked him to stop, and I walked over to the cabin – less than a hundred yards, but it seemed like it took me hours to walk over and back. I had to look for a few minutes, but I found Bo’s favorite ball under the porch steps. I walked back over to her grave, got down on my knees, and put that old chewed up ball in beside her. For a minute, I didn’t have the strength to stand, so I just hung my head, there on my knees. And I heard my father start to cry.
I stood up. One shovelful at a time, we said that last goodbye. I don’t remember saying a prayer … or even a word. When we finished, we lingered there for a minute or two, holding the bloodied handles of our shovels and watching the bats swoop after mosquitos as dusk took over the pond. I imagine both of us were picturing Bo racing down that hill and jumping into the pond. Race on, good girl.
We walked back to the barn to put the shovels away. He was wearing his old dirty blue coveralls and a hat with the name of a feed store on it – too dirty to read. When we started to walk down the hill towards the cabin, he put his arm around my shoulders.