I’m a spiritual atheist. Maybe that’s an oxymoron for ‘pseudo-Buddhist’. I do not believe in any god or higher power, but I do believe that we are all connected. However our body disintegrates—earth, water, or fire—our physical self is reduced to molecules that become something else. And if you can’t destroy energy, where does it go after death? I don’t believe in an afterlife per se (at least, not in the heavenly sense), but my experience of bleeding out on an operating table made me aware of a life force separate from my physical or mental self. In those long moments, my body was the weakest it’s ever been and my mind was on high alert, but my life force was strong and I knew I wasn’t going to die. At the time, I couldn’t explain my conviction to my husband whose tear-filled eyes betrayed his fear that he was kissing me goodbye for the last time. And I still can’t explain it. The only thing I might add is that to me, my intuition and my life force are the same energy.
Over the first week of life without Banjo, some spooky things happened. The night of his death, I checked on V before I went to bed, like I always do. As usual, I didn’t shut the door behind me, just pushed it against the jamb to block the hall light. As I bent over the side of the crib, the room lit up—her bedroom door had opened, like Banjo has nosed the door open and followed me, as he was wont to do.
The next day, the rains turned to a hailstorm. Pea-sized ice rattled and bounced off the windows, with a deafening plink-plink-plink. San Diego hadn’t seen hail for 10 years, a period of time that spanned my dog’s life and death. The day before, I’d “fancied the sky crying” for my dog, so the 10-year-hail-itch was a nice coincidence.
The following night, my brooch somehow unpinned itself from my jacket and attached itself to V’s sleepsack. Even if her fingers were nimble enough to unpin a brooch, gravity doesn’t explain how it got fixed to her fleecy sleepsack without being pinned.
Christmas morning, the face of a dog with an ear cocked just like Banjo’s appeared in the condensation of my window.
His ghost? His presence in an alternate universe or parallel dimension? Or cruel coincidence? And why do these things always happen to me when I am unbuttoning my grief?
Christmas Eve was the first time the three of us had been out together and returned home to silence. The sound of the garage door opening to the absence of frenzied barking was deafening. DH, my sister, and I sat in the car for a few discomforting moments. Our silence was broken by a wail from V.
“No-no-no-no-no-no-NO BANJO!” she screeched.
I fought back the urge to cry. I was thinking what I could say to acknowledge and explain our dog’s death to a two-year-old, but was left speechless. Until V broke the silence with a simple, “I miss him.”
“I miss him too, baby.”
“But where is he?”
I took a deep breath. The few resources I’ve found on talking to your kids about the death of a pet are for children 3 and up. There’s nothing for someone who is very bright and speaks in full sentences, but who only just turned two. I avoided platitudes like “he’s in a better place” and stuck with the language for three-year-olds.
“Banjo died. That means he doesn’t run anymore. He doesn’t eat anymore. He doesn’t bark anymore.”
“Nooooo…” said a little voice, mournfully. Then she repeated, “Banjo died. He doesn’t run anymore. He doesn’t eat anymore. He doesn’t bark anymore.”
At that, my heart broke a little.
“But where IS he?” she persisted.
How could I explain that our dog was in a veterinary deep freezer awaiting collection from someone who would burn his body? The truth would be wildly inappropriate, but so too would be ignoring her question.
“He’s gone, baby. He’s not coming back.”
Two days later, my sensitive little girl burst into tears in her daddy’s arms when I said I’d be right back. I had ducked into 7-11 for all of two minutes and came back to a toddler who wept in my arms with anger that I’d left her and relief that I had returned. I murmured her name in her ear as I hold her. “You are safe… You are safe… Mama is here.”
But I don’t know how to answer her question: where did our dog go? This is the really hard shit in parenthood that no one can possibly warn you about.
Early in the new year, I collected Banjo’s cremains from the vet. (I decided it would be best not to go to the crematorium and see his body.) My dog was returned to me in a cedar box with a red heart engraved with his name. The box was larger than I expected—the circumference of a box that would fit a bottle of wine, but a bit shorter. The crematorium had taken a paw print and a clipping of his fur, which I recognised as snipped from his neck. I sat in the car with the box on my lap. I took a deep breath and opened the box. Inside, a plastic bag containing white ash, chips, and small pieces of bone. It was both searing and soothing. I took off Banjo’s collar that I’d worn wrapped twice around my wrist some days and every night. I placed it in the cedar box, closed the lid, and drove home with it on my lap.
At home, I placed the box under my side of the bed. There also lie the clothes I was wearing, his leash, and his first tiny toys atop the smaller of the two of his dog beds. Miss Haversham I ain’t, but I acknowledge how hard it is for me to let go.
Four weeks ago tonight Banjo died. I haven’t cried in several days, but there is a heaviness in my soul. I find myself looking forward to a glass of something to unwind in the evening. I am sleeping more. I am quick to anger. Underneath it all there is a slow-burning despair.
I look at pictures of my dog. I’ll never touch that beautiful furry face again, nor will I see it resting hopefully on the edge of the bed. There is no one to clean up the toddler mess under the high chair. No one to ward off would-be burglars, only the sign in the window that says BEWARE OF DOG. Outside, the grass in the backyard is the greenest I’ve ever seen it, thanks to the torrential rains, and there is no poop to dodge. A red ball rests against a Buddha head and pots of succulents.
I need to get rid of Banjo’s things, donate them to a greyhound rescue. I think I can finally bring myself to dump out bowl of half-eaten food, but I’m not ready to bundle up his dog bed with his lovely smell. Sometimes I curl up on it and cry, and I whisper how sorry I am. Putting down my pain-riddled dog to spare my child was a very straightforward decision, but it’s the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. Maybe I will never forgive myself.