Saturday, March 7, 2009
Funeral for a Friend
Place: Chattanooga, TN
For two weeks, everybody in my family was out of town, except for my sister Freda and me. Nobody in my family can remember now where they went, or why we decided to stay behind. More important nobody can remember why my parents trusted Freda and me not to have drunken orgies or burn the house down while they were away.
I was happy about not going because it meant I got to drive the family station wagon to school every day. I was feeling pretty cool about being mobile until the morning I was backing out of the garage and managed to take out the right side of the garage wall. After that, I parked the car in the driveway.
Freda had skipped her senior year of high school by taking her last credit courses during the summer. She was only enrolled in a couple of courses at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and had plenty of free time to hang out.
I was in one of my last classes, an Algebra class, when the principal’s secretary poked her head in the door to tell me that my sister had called. Freda had told the school to tell me that I had to go home right away because the dog was sick and had to be taken to the vet. I gathered my books, and the principal’s secretary escorted me to the parking lot.
“Is taking the dog to the vet really considered a family emergency?” the principal’s secretary asked.
“He’s a part of the family,” I explained.
I should have given my sister’s message more thought. If something really serious had happened, like if Prince had been hit by a car again, that would have been a real emergency. But if he was just sick, why hadn’t Freda just taken him to the vet, then called to tell me what was wrong with him? I didn’t stop to think. Freda said Prince was sick and that she needed my help. I went home to help.
As I pulled into our driveway, Freda and her best friend, Trudy, came out to greet me. Freda was crying. Prince wasn’t sick. Prince was dead. Freda had found him under her car. She thought he was sleeping, since he liked to nap under our cars, and she had tried to wake him up.
“Where is he now?” I asked.
“He’s still under my car,” she said, “I couldn’t bring myself to move him.”
I squatted down and pulled Prince out. Without life inside, his body felt hollow. I could tell from the way his legs were stretched out and his eyes were half-opened that he had been in the middle of an after nap stretch when he died. Death must have been instantaneous. What a great way to go.
Dying peacefully was an unlikely death for Prince. He had lived a hard life. He was an incurable car chaser. He wandered neighborhoods to pick fights with other dogs. In eleven years, he survived three car accidents and countless injuries from dog fights.
The first time he was hit by a car was the worst. His back leg was ripped open, most of the skin ground away, exposing muscle and bones. While I held on to my whimpering dog on the examination table, the vet cheerfully explained to my mother how he was sure he could save the leg. As he talked, he tapped a pencil on Prince’s foot, which barely clung to his leg by a mangled tendon, causing the foot to bounce up and down. The vet did save the leg, though Prince limped on cold days.
Prince came home once with half an ear missing, and another time he trotted up to me with a huge gash down the front of his face. I lost count of the times he came home with teeth marks on his back flanks. Despite the injuries, he always came home happy after a fight. Once he came home covered in blood and fur. After looking him over, I discovered that neither belonged to him.
Dad always said Prince would probably “die with his boots on.” Mom prayed that if he got injured again, he would die then just so she wouldn’t have to rush him to the vet one more time. She said she was tired of paying to have him stitched back together. I think she was more tired of the emotional turmoil we all went through whenever Prince was hurt.
I sent Freda to find an old bed sheet we could wrap Prince in before we buried him. While she was inside the house, I ran my hand through Prince’s fur for the last time. It still felt the same, but already I could tell this wasn’t my dog anymore. It was just the body he left behind. I unhooked his collar, a worn brown leather strap with a double row of silver studs, many of them missing. His rabies tags hung from a metal bar next to the buckle.
“You don’t have to wear this anymore,” I said. “It’s my turn now.”
I wasn’t sure why I said it or why I felt compelled to put the collar around my own neck. It fit and I buckled it on. When I moved I the rabies tags jingled the same way they did when he wore it.
Freda came outside with an old white sheet and I wrapped it around Prince’s body. I carried his body to an empty lot behind our house that was overrun with weeds and tangled vines. Freda and Trudy followed. Trudy carried the shovel.
Rigor mortis had already set in by the time I pulled Prince out from under the car. I had to dig the hole extra long because of his outstretched legs. I probably didn’t dig the grave deep enough. I wasn’t sure. This was the first time I had buried a pet.
After I covered Prince with dirt, I pounded the grave flat with the shovel. We placed a brick-sized rock at the foot of the grave to serve as a headstone. I stammered through the Mourner’s Kaddish as best I could remember. Yeetgadal v’ yeetkadash sh’mey rabbah. That part I know I got right. The rest I wasn’t so sure.
To make Freda and me feel better, Trudy took us out drinking that night. I kept Prince’s collar on until Freda insisted I take it off.
“Every time I hear the tags jingling,” she said, “I think its Prince. It’s really freaking me out.”
I took it off and stuffed it in my jeans pocket. When I got home, I put the collar in an old Hav-A-Tampa cigar box I found in the basement.