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Empty Space

We moved into our current house in April and in early June our dog, Woody, died after a short illness. Steve, our veterinarian, was stumped. He didn’t know what caused Woody to collapse and be unable to get up or why his efforts to revive him were so short-lived. One evening, Woody laid on the kitchen floor unable to get up and unwilling to eat or drink. I was up with him several times during the night, but he remained unresponsive until around 4 am when he roused himself and asked to go out.

The alarm went off an hour later and we prepared to make yet another visit to Dr. Steve. Robert brought the car around and I took a blanket out to the patio to use as a sling to lift him in. He was lying on his side, and I knew immediately he was dead. Kneeling beside him I stroked his fur, but the dog I knew was gone; his presence having left his body sometime in the last hour.

Back in the house, Robert called Dr. Steve and I called the woman who arranged substitute teachers at my school.

“Cindy, my dog died,” I said sobbing. “I can’t come into work today.”

“Of course you can’t,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get someone to cover your class. You just do what you have to do.”

By the time we finished breakfast, the rain was falling hard and fast. We donned our foul weather gear, took up shovels, and headed out to dig a grave. The vet had said to make it deep and deep it was. We took turns shoveling, lifting the wet soil up and over the side of the hole, sweating under our rain jackets with the exertion. Finally, we wrapped him lovingly in the blanket and lowered the body into the hole. Then we tucked in his favorite toys and a couple of treats for the journey and completed the burial. Robert hung prayer flags across the mound and we said our thanks and good-byes.

Inside, we stripped off our mud-soaked clothes and dried our tears. Without exchanging a word, we sat on the couch struck dumb by our loss. Blown open by grief, my mind was quiet, the incessant stream of thoughts halted. In this empty space, I was unaware of my surroundings. I didn’t notice the dripping windows or the lush green meadow beyond. Didn’t hear the clock tick or sense the passage of time. Until the phone rang.

It was our elderly friend, Helen, from whom we hadn’t heard since we’d moved. She’d often provided Woody a home-away-from-home when we were on vacation and was calling to see how we were all doing. While Robert told Helen the news, I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed unnoticed by either of us; twenty minutes of emptiness that we’d experienced simultaneously.

What prompted Helen to call us on a work morning in the middle of the week when we were unlikely to be home? And what had happened to us during the twenty minutes that slipped away between settling on the couch and the ringing of the phone?

In the two decades that have elapsed since Woody died, I have witnessed the passing of other loved ones. Each time, I’ve had the profound sense that the body had been emptied of its life force and that its spirit had moved on. To where?

Perhaps it is that unanswerable question that blew open our minds on that rainy June morning.

1 Comment

Ellen Sholk
Ellen Sholk
Jun 16, 2021

Thank you for sharing your grief with us, Justine. When we are in our cocoons of loss, we are seeking answers to the unanswerable questions that make us human. We are vulnerable and afraid in those moments, acutely aware of the fragility of life.

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