Ashes aren’t really ash. They look different than I imagined, not black and fine but grey and stoney, dusty.
I brought the cremated remains of Belle, my English Springer Spaniel, to Texas this weekend, so I could spread them in her favorite swimming hole.
Here’s a moment: Town Lake alive on Easter Sunday. Your ashes are in a tin can tucked under my arm like a lap puppy in a pink purse. I walk down the sandy hill toward the water. This is the place you ran, when your legs still worked and you could fly down that hill, squealing with happiness, so eager to enter the water and fetch a stick. Today, there is a German Shepard retrieving. I remember the purr of your breath as you swam, the calmness, the perfect strokes of your tiny paws. I sit on the edge of the water on a log, your ashes pebble-like, not as I imagined. The water is cool but not cold, brown before it turns green, I let you go, there in the air that I breath, there in the air and then a splash as you hit the water, a sound I did not expect, a sound that makes it seems as if you are still here, you are matter. You still exist in those stones, in that dust, in the cloud of dust now in the river, dusty until settled on the sandy floor and then you are there with the rocks and shells and twigs.
When I moved to Texas in August of 2005 to attend graduate school, I brought Belle with me. Belle was my parents’ dog, but she had grown attached to me in recent years, sleeping in bed with me when I’d go home to visit, crying by my car when I’d leave. Belle became my baby, someone who loved me unconditionally, tail wagging to greet me at the door — always. She was my companion when no one else was, when I was homesick for Chicago, and felt lost in a small house in a small town in Texas. I lived in Kyle — 20 miles south of Austin and 10 miles north of San Marcos, where I went to school. The house was on an acre of land, where Belle would run and chase squirrels and eat pecans that had fall from the trees. Occasionally, there were run-ins with larger animals — raccoons, foxes, opossums.
I took her swimming a lot. Because I could. Because Texas was so hot it took your breath away. Because water (rivers and lakes) was everywhere. Because she was so happy when she was swimming. After Mike moved to Texas and we got married, all of us moved to Austin. It was here where I would take her swimming in Town Lake, after a walk around it.
Today, as I take the path we always took, your red leash in my hand as you tugged at me, always racing to get there, I spot an English Springer Spaniel, liver and white like you. I ask its owner, “May I pet your Springer Spaniel.” I pet Elliot, thinking it’s fitting that the first dog I see is your breed, a sign that this is right, that this is the right place to put you to rest, the happiness Texas brought you, how Texas brought you to me.
The day before I put Belle down, Noah and I drove her to Lake Michigan for a final swim. “Born to Run” was on the radio, and I thought this is the reason we are putting you down — because you were Born to Run and now you can’t, because your legs won’t let you.
We chose to have Belle put down at home instead of taking her to the vet. An amazing traveling vet, who a friend recommended, came to our house on September 23, 2011.
Belle is lying in her bed in our sun room; I am lying next to her, stroking her soft, soft ears. The vet gives one shot to calm her down, then the shot to stop her heart, she is breathing and then she takes one last breath and she is gone. Not breathing. She is still, she is Belle but she is not Belle. She will not move again.
Then I’m not breathing, my tears so hard I can’t. I’m in my car, driving to daycare to pick up Noah. How do you explain death to the 2 year old? I don’t. I say we had to say “good-bye.” She was old and sick. Say goodbye Belle, I said earlier that morning, Noah in his moose pajamas. “Bye,” he says and hugs her. I’m thinking of this moment, as I stop at a red light, eyes blurry with hot tears. To be strong for Noah.
I can’t go home after. I can’t face the silence in that house. Without her. I can’t look at the place she once was breathing then not breathing. I can’t watch Noah play with his dinosaurs in that room, sunlight through the window. We go to my sister’s house to avoid the silence. To distract us from what we soon must face.
Mike isn’t home yet. He will come home to a home with her. He will open the door and her tail won’t wag. I will open the door to silence. We will eat dinner without barking. We will put food on the counter without jumping, without stealing. We will drop crumbs on the floor without picking up. We will sleep without snoring and shoving and waking up.
These are the moments you realize your dog is gone. All the things she did to annoy you are not there to be annoyed by. All the greetings, so excited to have you home. They love us more than we love ourselves. Our dogs. Our babies before babies. Our loves.
To spread her ashes in the place that she loved was important to me. I want to imagine her there forever — brown water before it becomes green, part of this place where other dogs fetch sticks, where she can rest and find peace.