Viewpoint: An old dog, a box of ashes and a long goodbye

Posted at 3:35 PM on Jul 9, 2017

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BY MIKE FUHRMAN

I was sitting on the front porch with my mom's old Plott Hound the other day, sharing a bag of pistachios after doing a little yard work, when I noticed a small SUV drive slowly past the house. Iggy didn’t look up, but the red Ford caught my attention because our street often resembles the zMAX Dragway as folks speed down the hill to the end of the block and then roll through the stop sign toward Center Street.

When the SUV stopped at our corner and then turned around, I fought off the urge to grab Iggy and head inside. By the time the driver stopped in front of the house and started up the sidewalk, I couldn't move.

"Does he bite?" she asked while stepping around the old dog, who was incessantly licking at the pink spot on his leg that's been worrying him for the past year. The vet gave us one of those ridiculous cones to rid him of the habit, but Iggy is clearly embarrassed by the plastic monstrosity, and I think it adds to his anxiety.

"No," I said, taking the small white package from the woman's hand. She wasn't wearing a uniform so I assumed she was a supervisor or, more likely, a contractor. I looked at the words on the side of the box – "Cremated Remains" were printed in bold blue letters – and signed for it.

I knew what was in the box – an administrative assistant at the Virginia State Anatomical Program had left a voicemail message informing me that my mom’s remains had been shipped and when to expect them. But, more than a year after her death, I somehow still wasn’t ready for this moment.

The postal worker dove off and I shelled a handful of nuts for Iggy. The box was on my lap. It seemed so small. How could that be all that was left?

Iggy gave a long sniff, finally bored of the licking, and we went inside. He's been like my shadow since we lost his adopted brother Bear in January. We take regular walks at night after the temperature drops, and we often doze off on the couch while watching ballgames – Mom was a Nationals fan, but Iggy doesn't seem to mind the Braves. He also likes to hang out by my feet when I'm working on the computer and is happy eating grass under one of our walnut trees while I mow the yard.

Although I was less than excited when my wife Amy promised Mom we would take care of her boys – Iggy, Bear and Tiggy the cat, I have relished the time with these guys. At age 14, Iggy has an assortment of fatty tumors and a gimpy backside. He takes trazodone for his anxiety twice daily and we give him omeprazole occasionally for indigestion. I realize he's probably living on borrowed time, but aren't we all?

In many ways, this dog is my last link to my mom. Many of my best memories of her are tied to her pets. Twenty-five years later I can hear her calling them her "good boys" and feeding them bacon in the morning during my too-infrequent visits after I left home for college. I can vividly picture her snuggling with Iggy and Bear on the couch in her final days after summoning the energy to get out of bed. Remembering the joy those few minutes brought her have helped me through some tough times since June 8, 2016.

During the past year, I've often reflected on Mom's life and wondered what her legacy would be beyond two sons and four grandchildren. She owned her own flower shop and was a free spirit in many ways. The diverse group of friends who attended her memorial service is a testament to her character. But she was also stubborn, and she struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her adult life. She often worried that other people, including those closest to her, didn't like her. As a result, many of her relationships were strained and she was often alone and, I think, somewhat lonely.

For the past 50 years, she found comfort and happiness in the unconditional love that her pets gave and received from her. And there were quite a few:
Poker and Skunkle, cats from my early childhood. Poker was a huge tomcat, who often slept in my crib, followed me around on Halloween and regularly left dead snakes, squirrels and other presents on the front door.
Buttons, our first and only beagle, was a rascal, often running away for weeks at a time and returning when he needed a bath.
Alexander the Great, another cat we took in when I was a young boy.
Fezziwigg, a hyper mixed-breed pup, was mom's gardening companion. His time overlapped Buttons' life and they were great buddies who had the run of a large farm when I was in middle school. I remember Mom calling when I was in college and telling me he'd died, and how we both cried.
Winston, Michael and three other kittens we named after a group of Nigerian-born soccer players who my stepfather played with on Sundays.
Sunshine, Mom's golden retriever and swimming buddy.
Mercury, her little shop cat.
Princess Fairy Tutu, another kitty that lived to almost 20 years of age.
And Iggy, Bear and Tiggy, Mom's last three boys.

Mom would have turned 71 on Monday, July 10. While her physical body may have been reduced to a small box of ashes, her life was much bigger and more complex. Her enduring legacy will be the example she set by the kindness she demonstrated toward all of God's creatures.

Mike Fuhrman is editor of svlfreenews.com.

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