Succulents

Spice died on February 27, just before our normal started to die.

We took her to the vet in the morning. I sat on the floor, on the blanket they had spread in the small exam room, the one at the end of the corridor right next to the toilet-and-sink room. Spice sat next to me, on alert. She, with her half nose and leaking bladder, wouldn’t lie down though sitting hurt her. We were at the vet, so she expected poking and probing, she expected shots. My dogs are country dogs at heart. Country dogs who live in the large back yard of our city house. They see the vet once a year, every year for twelve years. So Spice, tired and ailing, knew what to expect. So she thought. So she sat, alert and wary.

Eventually the vet came in and gave her a sedative. Then she laid down with her head in my lap, as she absolutely never did at home. Her sister and life companion, Sugar, is as big as Spice – 60 pounds of Heinz 57 rescue. But Sugar is a lap dog at heart. When I am sitting in a chair on our porch or deck, Sugar will be there, sitting next to me, head in my lap. Spice will circle in for the occasional behind the ear or belly rub but she always holds her head high and is soon on her way. We have to be careful about the gates to the yard because Spice is an escape artist. She loves nothing better than to sneak out a gate and run and run and run around our neighborhood. She always comes back, eventually.

Was…would…held…had to be…loved…ran…came back: it all needs to be past tense now.

Sometimes now the gates are unlatched. Sugar does go out occasionally, looks around the front yard, up and down the street – is she still searching for Spice? – then simply sighs and comes back to her bed on the porch.

About 10 or 15 minutes after giving Spice the sedative, the vet came back into the room, with an assistant. They shaved a spot on one of Spice’s hind legs, and gave her an injection. Just seconds later Spice gave two slow sighs and was gone. I wondered why, if we were determined to keep the death penalty (which is, in essence, as inhuman in purpose as the cross) why it could not at least be done this simply, this quietly. If a dog deserves this, doesn’t a human, no matter what?

I said yes, I wanted a paw print and Spice’s ashes. The vet used the blanket to wrap Spice. I fled to the small necessaries room next door, washed my hands and face, leaned against the sink looking in the mirror, wondering why I felt gutted when really my dogs lived pretty much independently of me.

Later that afternoon, I was rear ended by a young driver who was on her cellphone. No one was hurt, there wasn’t even any significant damage to either car. It was a bump really, nothing more. But I was breathless and scared and couldn’t stop crying.

Two days later I left for France and then, soon after, the world started to fall apart in the blazing heat of a corona. Sunspots gone crazy. If I had rescued three dogs instead of two, perhaps the third would have been named Sunspot. Sugar, Spice and Sunspot. Nice and hot. But there were only two puppies wandering that town dump in North Carolina twelve years ago. Just Sugar, looking like a yellow lab, and Spice, with her incredible cinnamon coat that got inches and inches thick every winter, like a Chow.

Spice died and I went to France to join a friend whose brother had died. I had to come back a week early when too many people started dying in too short a time all over the world. Death had become contagious.

Sugar was waiting for me when I returned. She was no longer crying, moaning sort of, occasionally throughout the day, as she did in the two days after Spice died, before I left. But when the gate is left open, Sugar now goes into the front yard to look up and down the street; she never sees Spice, so she comes back into the familiar safety of the enclosed yard.

She does, however, unknowingly, sometimes walk over Spice on her way to the front yard. By the time I came back from France my husband had picked up the plaster paw print and an elaborately carved small wooden box containing Spice’s ashes. I recoiled when he tried to hand it to me. The thought of any remnant of free-ranging Spice in that ridiculous box repulsed me.

While I was in France, Woody, my landscaping husband, started making a pathway from the side gate to the front yard. He had planned to finish it before I got back, but death not only sent me away but also brought me back early.

On one side of the new path he created a sloping garden for succulents because I love succulents. That part of the property faces south, protected between two houses, never getting very cold in winter and often very hot in summer. So Woody dug sand into the rich Virginia soil to make a good bed for succulents. I asked him to dig Spice’s ashes into that new garden that was outside our fenced yard but still on our property, close.

So sometimes, when Sugar runs out the gate to check for Spice in front of the house, she may run over Spice. And as I dig to plant my thick-leaved succulents, as I dig, I dig through Spice. As a sentence it is weird, even as a thought it sounds unappealing. But when I am kneeling beside the garden, troweling a hole for a new small plant, when I take off my garden gloves and press the plant into the hole, snuggling the gritty dirt close around it, when I sit back on my heels and admire the new plant and imagine how it will spread, well then it doesn’t feel anything but good and right. Even though there still is too much death happening too fast.

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