DUMPING A DOG IN A HOLE
by Charles Schwenk
Because you have died forever, Like all the dead of the Earth, Like all the dead who are forgotten, In a heap of lifeless dogs.
Frederico Garcia Lorca,
"Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias"
July 8, 1977
His face had a look of perfect composure that made me appreciate the mortician's skill. His hair was trimmed and combed but it looked natural. Hair spray had been used. His eyebrows, which had joined above his nose, were now separated. I assume they had been shaved apart by the same person who shaved his face. I couldn't get rid of the feeling that he might open his eyes. I had seen dead people do this in certain of my recent dreams.
The attendant noticed my careful scrutiny of the body. She must have assumed I was looking for evidence of carelessness on the part of the mortician. She affirmed that he had done a
good job and actually touched the corpse's face before she replaced the plain gray cover of the coffin.
He had said he didn't want a coffin. He just wanted to be wrapped in a clean white sheet and thrown in a hole. However that is illegal. What I have done is the minimum the law allows. I followed the attendant back to the dimly-lit office to sign the Veteran's Administration burial forms. I have listed the final expenses for the funeral:
Preparation of the remains $215.00
Transportation to the cemetery $ 32.00
Cemetery plot and costs of
interring the body
(arranged by the V.A.) $0
Total costs $247.00
Contribution from V.A. $250.00
My asking to see the body had probably been an unusual request. It was not one of her regular duties to show the bodies of deceased parents to surviving children. That explained her indecision when I asked "to view the remains." Perhaps she touched the body to demonstrate her familiarity with the dead and her ability to judge the quality of the mortician's work. Maybe she felt it would reassure me and keep me from making trouble if I found some fault. I'll bet customers who arrange expensive funerals are more likely to make trouble. Those who order the "dumpster-bin" funeral probably feel they have no right to complain if something is left undone. I signed the forms but received no copy of my own. It's between the funeral home and the V.A. now. What an odd and interesting business this is.
July 5, 1977
I displayed excessive anger in an argument I just had with my family. They insist on having a funeral. They know that's not what Dad wanted. He told everyone he wanted a simple burial. Now that is what I'm going to do! I don't care what they say! I'm afraid I lost my temper when they produced arguments to make me bend to their will:
MY MOM: Chas. He professed his faith before he died. You know he should have a Christian burial. I just can't BELIEVE that YOU would do a thing like this. It's just like dumping a dog in a hole. It's just like what we did to poor old Lloyd.
MOM’S SECOND HUSBAND: You can't just throw him in the trash to be hauled away. I almost think you want to save the funeral money for yourself.
When he said that, I yelled a bit and offered to bust his head with a ball-peen hammer. This stopped the conversation, for which I was grateful. Mom was right though. Dad had said he believed in Christ before he died. Still, for most of his life he took pride in his atheism and felt that Christianity was a crutch for the weak and lame. He used to say,
"What kind of a God would send two she-bears to kill 42 kids just because they threw rocks at one of His prophets? You'd have to be feeble in the head to believe in a God like that."
One day a few weeks ago I entered his hospital room and saw him talking to a tall, thin, very old man in dark clothing. The old man spoke softly to Dad, saying,
“Remember, Paul said that if any man doesn't love the Lord, let him be Anathema Maranatha. That means accursed on the day of the Lord comes." Then he smiled, showing his sharp teeth. He turned and walked silently out of the room, as though he was unaware I was there. I looked back at Dad and saw that he was smiling too.
July 4, 1977
Dad's finally dead. I thought it would never happen. I wish cancer was quicker. It happened while I was at home. They called me and I told them to go ahead and call the funeral home. No reason for me to go see him.
I stayed at home today because of what happened yesterday. on the last day of his life he was unconscious; comatose and flushed; breathing through his open mouth very rapidly; staring at the ceiling with sightless eyes. I was sitting by the bed waiting for him to die. I was listening to his rattling gasps and then I heard them stop all of a sudden and I felt dizzy and then they started again and stopped again and finally started up. I sat staring at him for fifteen minutes before I went to get the nurse. There was nothing she needed to do.
A month ago, soon after he could no longer stand up unassisted, he joked about his own stubborn atheism when telling me the shocking news of his conversion to Seventh Day Adventist. He seemed three-quarters dead one day when he suddenly sat up and said, "The one thing that bothers me above all else is that I can't have a woman before I die." Then he slowly sank back into the bed like a new corpse. A day or so before he passed on he said, "I'm not even a man any more. I'm just an old human being waiting to die."
I tried to keep his mental state from infecting me. When I wasn't at the hospital watching him rot away, I took long hikes through the misty woods along the Columbia River Gorge, thinking only occasionally of him while I sat on top of a cliff and watched Eagle Creek sparkle 200 feet below me. While he was sleeping, I took canoe trips on the Willamette River through downtown Portland with ribbons of light from the windows of office buildings fluttering on the water. I stood on the top of Cape Kiwanda in a rainstorm watching the waves beat nearby cliffs into sand.
I would sometimes tell him about my trips to The Gorge and he would start talking about the first time he had seen it, 43 years ago. He said he just drifted out to Oregon and got work with some government youth agency clearing brush and making trails. He used to wake up to the sound of a small creek which was like dozens of whispering voices. Once he nearly drowned a fellow laborer in this creek after the guy jumped him from behind. occasionally he would drift off to sleep as he talked.
June 30, 1977
This morning I made the funeral arrangements for Dad. As soon as he dies, these people from the funeral home will come out and take his body away. He has been in a coma for the last few days. It is hard to believe what he looks like, even though I am right here looking at him. His cheeks are really sunken and his face is a strange mottled red. His breathing is really rapid like he has been exercising hard and there is a lot of mucus in his throat so that he breathes with a gurgling sound. I read somewhere that the sound is called the death rattle. I can't remember where I read that. His eyes are also strange. They are almost shut but it doesn't look at all like he is asleep.
When I started taking care of him, I had hoped that we might get to know each other. All I know about his life comes from the few dozen fragmentary stories he told me. His mother died when he was twelve. She was taken to the cemetery in a huge hearse. He ran away from home at seventeen in 1932. His father chased him from the house with a shotgun after they had had a fistfight.
During the Depression, he lived as a hobo, which is different from a bum. A hobo will work, whereas a bum will not. A hobo is basically an honest guy who is just down on his luck. Furthermore, a bum is dirty and makes no attempt to stay clean. Dad was always exceptionally clean, especially when he cooked food.
He served two years in prison for a burglary which he admits he committed. He was released early so that he could serve as cannon fodder in the U.S. Army in World War II. Before he left for North Africa, he dreamed he was walking through a scorched landscape filled with geysers spouting blood. His medical discharge from the army indicates that he received shrapnel wounds in Italy. He spent a year recovering in a V.A. hospital. The only thing Mom ever told me was that he had "battle fatigue." She said that after the war he just lay around and ate and would not work for several years. Periodically, he would leave Mom and be gone for a week at a time. He never talked about where he went, just as he never talked about the War. After I was born settled down and took up the house painter's trade. When I was twelve, he and Mom were divorced. He never mentioned her second husband's name, referring to him only as "that thing your mother married."
March 27, 1977
Just returned from seeing Dad. His face is already grayer, his eyes are bright, and his cheeks seem deflated. His hands appear to be too large because his arms have become quite wasted. He still moves around reasonably well with a metal walker but he won't for very long. His voice sounds as if his vocal cords have become more brittle. His hair came out all over the pillow and bed. He looks like he has aged two years since I last saw him.
Looking down at him sitting hunched in a chair, it is hard to believe this is the same person who once weighed 300 lbs. and wrestled professionally during the Depression; who taught me the switch and the fireman's carry and who never in his life lost an arm wrestling match with me.
When I was an 18-year old high-school wrestler, he would often catch me unawares in a headlock and shake me like a terrier shakes a rat, tossing me like a pile of clothes onto the floor and then snorting in feigned contempt as I lay in a giggling heap.
"And you call yourself a wrestler!" he would say, as he shook his head in exaggerated despair. Still, he came to my matches and roared out his approval when I won. Once he was the only spectator sitting on the worn wooden benches above us while I engaged in a grim, lonely, and finally disastrous single combat with a creature from a rival high-school known simply as "the Ape."
Yesterday I got a surprise phone call from Mom. Dad passed out at work and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. This was unexpected because he never complained of dizziness, pain, or any other symptoms. Apparently he had chest pains for a month or so. The doctors are pretty sure he has cancer but they won't be completely sure until the results of some tests come back.
Felt an odd anger when talking about it. For some reason I wanted to hit this ferret of a doctor who told me about Dad's chances for recovery (essentially zero). A childish reaction, I admit.
The frustration and anger is understandable but there is little point indulging these feelings. I will have to take care of him. Mom and her new husband can't be expected to. I will do a better job of it if I keep my feelings tamed. I'm sure I will behave better than I did when Lloyd died.
November 12, 1964:
This morning I waved goodbye to Lloyd. He stood in the bed of the pickup and twitched his stubby tail. He was really excited. Daddy took him to an animal doctor to be "put down" (murdered).
He had cancer of the eyes and pretty soon he would die anyway. His eyes drooped like a bloodhound's. They were blood red around the rims. He was always rubbing them with his paw and yelping.
I cried like a girl after he left. I just couldn't help it. Why didn't Daddy cry? Lloyd was his dog and hiked and hunted with him. He even took him in the canoe. He talked to Lloyd all the time:
"Lloyd, fix me a whisky and soda ... God damn it Lloyd, do what I tell You! Who's the dog here, you or me?"
He gave Lloyd a T-bone steak when he won the field trial championship. But he was real calm when he talked about killing him. You would think Lloyd was a bush or tree that had to be cut down. He called the doctor and then just said, "I'll be over there in about an hour and you can take care of him."
After awhile he brought Lloyd's body back and he never said anything to any of us. He laid Lloyd out on his work bench and combed out his fur. It took a long time cause he did it so slow.
Then he dug a hole in the backyard and laid Lloyd beside it. Lloyd looked asleep. Daddy sat on the ground and looked at him for a really, really long time. I waited awhile and then went in the house to get a sandwich. When I came back out he was still staring at Lloyd. He looked up at me. Then he got up, put Lloyd in the hole, and covered him up. He didn't even put a marker on the grave. He sprinkled grass seed on the new dirt.
I was crying and I said we should put up a marker. My little sister and Mom thought so too. He looked at us and his face got kind of mean. He never said anything. He just went into his workshop and shut the door. He didn't come out till dinner time and then he didn't eat much.