Shovelfuls of dirt


Odin and Fenris (1909) by Dorothy Hardy

Every shovelful of dirt is laden with rocks when you’re burying a pet.

Crunch, followed by the scraping noise of my shovel edge on stone.

“Give me a break,” I whispered as the sweat dripped off my arms, flying off my upper lip with each heavy breath. I looked at the pile of rocks already dug up, sprinkled with a few handfuls of dirt here and there.

I didn’t help that our air conditioning was out. I was unable to even hop inside for a glass of tea and cool air.

Crunch. Another shovel of fist-sized rocks.

I sighed, thinking it’s a pretty fitting end for the cat. He was a scrapper from the hot afternoon I found him, just a tiny sack of bones under my car.

“He’ll probably never grow to his full size,” said the vet, holding the gaunt kitten delicately. “Usually when they’re this malnourished at this young of an age it stunts their growth; however, he seems well enough for now.”

And so he got his name: Fenris. It was a joke because the Fenris of mythology was a monstrous wolf and a son of Loki. As my grown cat was named Loki, I thought it would be a little tongue-in-cheek to name a diminutive cat after this enormous beast.

And small and scrawny as he was, he already defended his food bowl from Loki. As he grew, he became considerably larger than Loki and packed a mean pop when he thwacked another animal on the head or snout.

This time it’s not a crunch. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say, staring in disbelief at the cable line I’ve come close to severing with the tip of my shovel.

I’ve never been a cat person, but in my college days I kept cat owner hours. Often I worked two – sometimes three – jobs while carrying a full-time class load. Though I would have preferred a dog, it would have been neglectful.

Fenris and I would grow into a love/hate relationship for nearly 2 decades. Whether it was the rough petting he preferred over gentle pets or chasing him across the house until he was under the bed hissing at me, refusing to let go of the steak he snatched from my plate when I let my guard down for a moment, his life wasn’t that of the stereotypical aloof cat.

Crunch. My sweaty hands are slick on the shovel handle.

Even his high-pitched, soft meow seemed to be at odds with this blocky body and take-no-prisoners disposition. He would bend the will of our dogs and use them as a bed, ignoring their disgruntled growls of protest.

“Screw this,” I said. I went to get my pick from the garage, hoping it would have more success with the rocky ground.

In mythology there are many great and awe-inspiring Fenris is foretold to accomplish, the killing of Odin among them, but in reality he went out like most other creatures, subdued, weak, possibly unaware of what’s happening.

I don’t occupy my thoughts about whether pets are in Heaven. It’s difficult enough for me to decide who I think is in Heaven and whether I believe anyone is going there. The Bible makes far more references to a Heaven-like state on Earth than any talk of people going to Heaven when they die.

Crack. The point of the pick sparks as it scratches along the rocky sides of the hole.

I believe people neither go to Heaven nor to Hell when they die, so to picture my ornery cat frolicking in Heaven, perhaps stealing the steak from some saint’s plate, is pointless. I get a lot of odd looks when this comes up in conversation, but N.T. Wright does a better job of explaining it than I could hope to articulate in his book “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.”

“Here you go daddy,” says my daughter bringing me a glass of iced tea.

“Thank you honey,” I say.

I begin wondering how deep I really need to dig before it’s deep enough. The air is humid and every rock withers my motivation.

I see death for what it is: an unstoppable force of nature. We can no more resist the waves on the ocean or the house-shaking thunder of a storm. But to contemplate death isn’t merely a philosophical stance or idle pondering. I feel giving it thought grows our compassion, heightens our waking moments and gives us time to pause among our jam-packed lives.

My daughter’s seen a few of our pets go over the years. She asks the kinds of questions all kids do. Part of me feels guilty about not making her feel warm and fuzzy with rainbow bridge talk, but I prefer she come to her own conclusions.

“Do you think dogs are in Heaven?” I say.

“Well, God made everything, so why wouldn’t he take it back when they die?”

That’s my girl, I think. Leave it to the logic of a child to cut through the clutter.

I hope she’s going to live her life as a scrapper, like Fenris. Not wiling to yield, not willing to let inevitability keep her from taking great strides forward.

After all, no matter what energy we give to the afterlife, I can’t find a way that makes it more relevant than being in the present.

Fenris is little more than a sack of bones as I lay him in the hole, curling his body in the position he would take on cold nights.

Covering him is easy but I know he’ll continue to agitate me. Making me reconsider my stance on pets, heaven and steak robbery.

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