The little voice piped up from the back seat, a slight tremor between the two syllables, a telltale of what was to come. Her next question was bound to elicit discomfort, but she was unable to suppress the urge to speak it.
“When are we getting Gracie’s box?”
So there it was. Gracie, our ancient little retriever, had passed away 9 days before, and my 10-year-old daughter knew that the little wood box containing her remains was overdue coming home. The folks from the crematory had told us to expect a call from the vet’s office in a week or so to say we could come to pick it up, and so Kate had been quietly marking the days until the box came home. So being one to hold grown-ups to their word, and the week has expired 48 hours ago, I can imagine that the missing casket had occupied her thoughts far more prominently than I would have liked. I know this because it had occupied mine, as well.
“I picked it up this morning, honey. It’s at home on the mantle with Nick and Sonja.” I paused a moment and waited for her reaction. She always asked to come along on these errands, and I preferred not to take her because she made it impossible for me to fall apart the way I needed to. I couldn’t take care of a grieving 10-year-old while I was in pieces myself. When our oversized lovebug of a boy was dying of cancer last year, she had asked to attend the euthanasia. Not wanting her to remember him that way, Wayne and I had to sneak the ailing dog out of the house when she was otherwise occupied, no mean feat when you’re talking about an 80-pound dog too weak to stand on his own.
“Whew!”, she said. “I was starting to worry they’d lost her or something.” Me, too, I thought. This crematory offered exceptional customer service, so when they said a week, a week it was. But on the morning of the ninth day, when I called to inquire, I was told that Grace’s casket had been returned to the vet two days earlier.
So next time, I thought, I’ll just have them drop it at the house, instead of bringing it to the vet. That will save me a trip. But the thought of a white cover-all’d driver appearing at our door at some odd hour with a box of ashes when I was completely unprepared to receive it could be as awful as breaking down in the animal hospital lobby. What if I went to the door prepared to drive off the solar panel salesman, or the roving religious offering me some insight into a better way, but was greeted instead by a grave-faced stranger bearing the remains of my beloved pooch? Too much left for chance, too many opportunities for a future amusing anecdote (“Did I tell you about the time I mistook the pet cemetery guy for a holy roller?”) We’ll just keep things the way they are.
“Can I see it?”, she asked, closing the garage door behind her and dropping her backpack on the family room floor.
“Of course, it’s right there on the mantle alongside Nick and Sonja’s”.
“No. I mean, can I HOLD it?”
My mind jumped to a place that it goes to when it’s trying to keep me from breaking down and making a wreck of myself, a weird place where it stores hysterical absurdities. I immediately conjured the scene from “Meet The Parents” (remember, Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro?), when mama’s ceramic urn is knocked from its perch on the mantle and shatters dramatically on the hearth. The shot ends with the cremains serving as a novel litter box alternative for the family cat. Horrifically hysterical; I am overwhelmed by the urge to giggle, but struggle to choke it back.
“OK, but you have to be sitting down”.
So she arranges herself on Grace’s favorite chair, a big brown leather clubby thing, and I place the ridiculously heavy little cedar box carefully on her lap so that the gold-tone clasp with the red dog tag engraved “Gracie” is facing her. She placed one hand lightly on each end of the box and closed her eyes, as though she was channeling some energy it contained.
After a moment, she bent at the waist, her forehead touching her knees, completely enveloping the little treasure in her lap. Her shoulders heaved quietly a few times, and I struggled with whether to go hug her or let her have her moment alone, but before I could make up my mind, she sat up suddenly, her cheeks shiny from moisture and her eyes a bit pink and swollen.
“It’s good to have her home”, she said quietly.
“She’s not really in there, you know”, I told her. “That’s just what’s left when all the important parts have flown away.”
“I know that”, she smiled. “But it’s still nice to have what’s left. A little bit of Grace.”
We were silent for a few minutes, and Kate said “I have the best parts in my heart. And the pictures in my camera. And all the stories of her adventures. And how she thought we are all ridiculous.” She smiled a bit more broadly. “Don’t you think, Mom?”