The freshly sharpened and oiled spade hesitated on the surface of the frosted ground. Then with a little more of my winter weight behind it, the point broke through and offered light resistance. My sigh of relief was out loud although no one was around to hear it.
As morbid as it seemed last autumn, there was wisdom in covering the grave site with black plastic, straw, and leaves. Gunner was on his way down; I knew it. When the time came, I wanted him to have a special place close to home.
It was a relatively warm February morning for the North Country. The clouds were thick and heavy. Something between sleet and snow was collecting on my wool cap. The digging became rhythmic. In the cadence of the methodical toil, I drifted to another sad day, many years ago.
When the school bus doors opened, my brother and I burst through them and, despite several inches of fresh snow, ran full tilt for the house like we did every night. It was funny, though; the driveway wasn’t plowed. Dad was always home about an hour before the bus dropped us, and his first chore on snow days was to coax the old International Farm-All Tractor to start and then plow the long driveway.
Tonight, fresh snow all but filled the tracks the pickup left when Dad came home from work. And there was a single set of shuffling foot tracks leading from the house to the shed. Then from the shed to the barn and the barn off down the lane, the tracks were framed by the parallel marks of the runners on my sled.
I quit running halfway to the house because something just wasn’t right. I walked and thought the rest of the way, trying to figure out what it was.
Inside the door, the book bag went on the bench, boots sailed in separate directions, and the coat fell to the floor where I shrugged it off. Mom was at the stove making supper like every night. As I scooted through the kitchen on the way to the bedroom to change into chore clothes, Mom put out her arms to halt me.
“Get changed, and then take care of all the barn chores tonight,” she said. My look in reply told her I didn’t understand what was going on. “Bingo died this morning,” she added. “Your dad’s out burying him in the pines on the hill.”
Then it all added up. Bingo was Dad’s 14-year-old springer spaniel who had been playing touch and go with pneumonia in recent days. The end had come.
It was always quiet in the barn after a snowfall, but that night it was especially so. I didn’t turn on the radio when I cleaned the stalls and fed and watered the horses. Without thinking about it, I gave the other dogs a few extra minutes of exercise and more scratches behind the ears than usual. Dad still wasn’t back from the hill.
When I went back to the house, I was hungry and the food smelled great, but before the top buckle on one galosh was undone, Mom asked me to go out to the hill and tell Dad dinner was ready. I snapped the buckle closed again and went out the door. I followed the tracks down the lane and across the small hayfield toward the top of a low knoll where we’d planted pine and spruce trees as part of a 4-H forestry project. On our little farm, this spot was simply known as “The Pines.”
As I approached the hill, I looked up. Against the murky skyline I could see the dark silhouette of my dad leaning on his shovel. His head was down, rested on his folded hands atop the shovel handle. The pickaxe was propped against one of the small spruces.
I was within a few feet before Pa realized I was there. When he looked up, I noticed that some of the sparsely falling snowflakes had landed on his cheeks, then melted and trickled through his salt and pepper whiskers. That’s what it had to be; I’d never seen my dad cry. And, as an early-teen, I never figured I would.