Looking back, it’s hard to remember the day of the week, the temperature, whether or not I had on my Adidas tennis shoes and camouflage cap, or even what month it was, or if it was 1981. Most storytellers include all those details, and I understand why. They authenticate what happens to the characters; they lend believability to the story. But my memory here centers around the feel of my dog’s warm body, and the feel of heat rising from the highway asphalt in front of Bohannon’s Builders Supply, and of sliding my hands under Buffy’s lifeless body after she’d been struck by a vehicle.
But I hope you will read on, and forgive me if I don’t remember if all this occurred in May or August, or even whether it all happened at ten a.m. on a Saturday. It was from my boyhood. The thing is, you see, it was terrible. This terrible thing is not really novel, nothing special. It’s a simple sad story about how my dog, a Chihuahua named Buffy, was killed on Highway 23 in Cochran, GA, and of how that memory speaks still. There may be some other ideas in all this, too, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Lots of kids lose their pets, I suppose. So my experience was not in any way unique or more powerful than yours. Anyway, my mom and I were dog lovers. My stepdad was, too. He was a great stepdad, but he was not as affectionate by nature as Mom and I were. Mom and I loved our animals completely. We doted on them. We spoke to them like they were children. They came to be family, you see. And Buffy was our family’s Chihuahua.
Chihuahuas are not particularly beautiful dogs to look at, I admit, but when you’re a boy, and you cannot remember your life without dogs, well, it does not occur to you to evaluate the aesthetics of your dogs. You just love them, and you believe they love you back.
Anyway, here’s what I remember. Sunshine. Lots of it. I remember how bright and sunny it was. I cannot be sure if it was May’s sunshine or September’s. I just remember it was an extraordinarily sunny day. And for middle GA, where I was raised, it gets real hot in the summers, and the humidity clings to you like you’re wearing a sweater. But I don’t recall humidity that day, so it may not have been during those long, slow, hot, humid days characteristic of late Georgia summers.
And I remember a breeze–you know, the kind that makes the pond’s surface ripple, as if a chill raked across it. I always loved the way wind would sweep across the ponds in our little area, when I would watch the ripples start on one end of the ponds, and the water’s face would obey the wind, as if God were conducting visible music on the surface of water.
And I remember Mom’s mascara, and the way it ran down her cheeks when we accepted Buffy had been killed. I suppose most of us know the facial features of our own moms. We know how their lips reveal emotion; the way their eyes sparkle when they’re happy or excited; the way their chins quiver when tears are nearing. But on this day, it was Mom’s mascara I remember. Well, it was not the mascara exactly; it was the way it made crooked black streaks down her cheeks when she and I cried over Buffy.
I don’t remember exactly where I was in our neighborhood. I can’t recall if I was fishing in one of the ponds, or picking up pinecones in our yard (Mom was avid about keeping our yard up), or whether I was riding my Go-kart. Memory is a strange thing.
The next thing I remember is being told, “Buffy’s in front of Bohannon’s. Go get her.” But I don’t remember who told me. It could’ve been Mom, my stepdad, a neighbor; I really have no idea.
And I remember my heavy feet. What do I mean? Simply that when you get news like this, your feet can turn into cement blocks, and your stomach can go all green and sour inside, and your words won’t come the way they normally do. It’s like your universe suddenly shrinks and expands simultaneously. It shrinks in the way your world is drawn to a single point of pain and loss and experience, where you feel like no one else ever has felt pain like this. And your world expands in the sense of sensations. You feel the warmth of your dog’s body; you remember the way the sheets floated on the summer breeze on the clothesline behind the house; you remember the heat and the blackness of the pavement in front of Bohannon’s Builder’s Supply on Highway 23, and so on. These were all things I’d seen and felt countless times, but in memory, they expand. They grow in import.
The next thing I remember is Buffy’s weight. I’d heard the expression “dead weight” before, but when you hold your dog on your forearms, and her brown head hangs limp, and she’s still warm, and your mind is racing, and your heart is breaking, and you suddenly hate the fact that cars and trucks are zooming down Highway 23 still, and the people inside them don’t know or care that something outside you and inside you has died.
And the last thing I remember is the rocks. We buried Buffy in the backyard. We wrapped her up, and after we’d dug a shallow grave between some pines in the backyard, we buried her, and placed rocks we had from our hunting club over her, to keep, I suppose, predators from destroying her lifeless body. The rocks were the color of chestnut and had splotches of white on them. I can still see those rocks in my mind’s eye today.
Sunshine, the breeze, Mom’s mascara on her cheeks, my heavy feet, the weight of Buffy in my arms, the way the universe seemed to shrink and expand at the same time, the feel of the heat from the asphalt in front of Bohannon’s, and those chestnut-colored rocks under the pine trees that marked Buffy’s grave. That’s it. What does it all mean? I don’t know exactly. Maybe something about the power of love and loss. Maybe something about the reality of acknowledging death in life. Maybe something about how sights, sounds, smells, and feels of our lives we tend to underappreciate until, well, they’re taken, and you feel their removal still.