I am eleven years old. It is late for me to be out; but here I am, just leaving the local movie after three hours of horror films. Dr. Cyclops, The Werewolf? I can’t remember the exact films because the experience isn’t isolated; yet the feeling, the events are as regular as the passing of the weeks into Summer.
Ahead of me is the long walk home. Behind me are the grotesque, grey creatures of night-time movie world. Between the two I move on legs that seem to be controlled by something outside of me — a spirit in the old, abandoned house that I must pass beneath before I reach the streetlight by the railroad track, and the last, dark stretch of tree-shaded street that I must go down to make it home.
The horrors multiply as I go. All the stores I pass are haunted, of course. People have passed their lives within them, discontented and disappointed by life. They linger on in the places they still hate in death as they did in life because now as then they do not know what else to do. The laundry, the clothing store, the sudden alley to the shoe-shine shop, the dentist office — I pass each as quickly as I can without running. To run would be to admit I am afraid. That has caused me trouble in the past. Being afraid has kept me home when my brother went to see Frankenstein or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has cost me my masks which my mother has either hidden or destroyed because I sleep some nights with the light on, or don’t sleep at all. It has brought forth derisive laughter from friends when I hesitate before certain places in the night.
The night! How could a God of love and mercy create such a place? I leave the stores and the invisible widow’s house behind. Ahead, though I cannot see it, I know there is an old abandoned house. Used for a while as a semi-hotel for transients, it has quickly gone grey and rotten in the last year. The early Spring wind hustles through the huge trees around the place. That’s all the noise is, that steady thud from a form light won’t acknowledge.
Once the fine home of a mill owner who people in the town won’t talk about now, I know there is discontent brooding within those walls too. I have been inside the place in the daylight. With two older girls I explored its dilapidated elegance, laughing and mocking the fear I knew then it could generate. Then my mind had not been on fear, but on the nicely developed hips and breasts of the two girls. “They heard my thoughts, I know. The ghosts heard me thinking as I watched the girls move through the tiny rooms and narrow halls. Now they have their chance, now they are rushing down those same halls, down the collapsing stairs.” I pass into the twisting, huge shadow of the house. My mouth is cold, my hands are cold, my stomach is an abyss full of devils and man-faced reptiles with dog feet. My heart! Is it there?
Before I can scream or run, I am suddenly out of the shadow and gradually entering the glow of the streetlight. Fear flows out of me like stagnant water from an overturned bucket. I am proud of the unfearing me as I cross the railroad track and the highway. Down the tunnel of trees above the street, I see the light of my house. My parents are there, and food, and warmth, and the TV light. But then I remember there’s also the house where the man came home one snowy afternoon and dropped dead with a bag of groceries in his arms. Poor man, laid out dead among eggs and cereal boxes, bills unpaid, son growing up wrong, wife gone Catholic.
Now I am running. If only I can make it to our door, at least they’ll know I’m there and they can help me live to do it all again next Friday.
David C. Childers
Realize: the sheer recollection of these childhood fears taxes my cerebral stability. Your readers may think I’m joking. I’m not.
After ten years of self-therapy, I can nearly apprehend those three great fears which plagued me in my youth. These were: the fear of mirrors, the fear of doing nothing, and the fear of large vegetables.
When I was about six, my mother told me that the boy I saw in the mirror was me. And I said, “How can he be me?” And she said, “Believe me: it is.” When she left, I tried fishing myself out of the mirror, but I met only glass. I removed it from the wall, and went around the back to see if I was there. Nothing. I panicked. Tilting the glass beneath me, I saw myself off-balance. I hit the mirror. There were lines in my face. I ran, screaming, to another mirror. I was whole again. But, I thought there was one me, and now, I saw a third. And whatever he did, who was supposed to be me, I did.
And, if I could talk, he should certainly talk. I yelled; his mouth opened, but was silent. Then he looked afraid, and I wanted to pet his arm. But I couldn’t touch him. His fingers were cold. They, alone, were accessible. From then on, I turned my head when passing mirrors. Once or twice I peeked nervously, and all I saw was a bizarre grin.
The fear of doing nothing devoured me more than mirrors. Whenever I caught myself about to do nothing, I did something. The type of something varied from thing to thing, and was often determined by the degree of the oncoming nothing. If I had to do a thing, it had to be a thing. It could not be no thing, unless the thing’s not being a thing made it a thing. I developed this fear myself, with no outside abetment. Sometimes, I had to do nothing to do something about doing nothing. The circularity of the nothing notion lent itself to doing something, because even though it went back to go — and, in fact, according to physics, did no work — at least I labored under the illusion of doing work. So, I convinced myself that my fear of doing nothing was necessary and sufficient to stop, but I didn’t stop, because stopping would be ceasing to do something, in other words, doing nothing.
The large vegetable fear was not a fear arising in waking life, like the “doing nothing” fear. It arose in dreams, and tainted my relationship to smaller, real-life-size vegetables. The first dream I had was this: a bevy of conspiratorial cabbages rolled over, and robbed me, leaving me only three pennies and a marble, which were too little to buy Cracker Jacks.
The second dream: enormous peapods split open, spewing green spheres at me. Freud would have interpreted this as a phobia of vaginal envelopment. I personally relate the image to Atlantis and cosmic consciousness.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Some things I once feared as a child I’ve come to take pleasure in. As if you were afraid of water or heights and now enjoy immensely swimming and snorkeling or flying and climbing. The fear turns inward and blooms out, becomes friend, boon. Mine is lightning and thunderstorms. I used to run home as quickly as my wild legs could get me there. Even if it was on TV, on “Lassie” or “The Wizard of Oz,” when storms came and blew confusion and fury, I was off to the den or the kitchen, a quieter, safer room. That was one of the primal fears. Fear of basic elements — of fire and air.
I feared that if I touched the dead man — my father had asked me did I want to — somehow the death in this man would be transferred to me, as if death were contagious and anyone could catch it. I said no. No one else was touching him.
Fear of food, especially (canned) spinach (which I feared until I had it fresh when I was 22). I actually made myself so afraid of it — it was a do-or-die, eat-the-rest-of-your-dinner situation — that I, to my own surprise, threw up my whole dinner.
My father and grandfather both wore their hair lightly Brylcreemed, straight back, which was excellent for wearing hats since the hair didn’t get messed up much. Well, the deal was to train my hair to stay back, like theirs, when I was 7 or 8. My mom and dad, before putting me to bed, would comb my hair back and neatly place a stocking on my head which I knew, as it was pressing in on my flattened head, would suffocate me in my sleep.
Any kid would have loved the chance to put his foot- and hand-prints, complete with date, in fresh cement. I refused. I could see myself stuck in cement for the rest of my life, by a hand and a foot, imagining that as I put my prints in it the cement would simultaneously harden. I think my grandfather (his new house, his idea) thought there was something wrong with me when that happened. I refused unconditionally.
Fear of being lost, near Mt. Rushmore. Fear of driving forever around in a circle because at the end of every tunnel we went through that night was Mt. Rushmore, all lit up, like in some repetitious funhouse you keep trying to get out of. I cried myself to sleep, missed herds of deer (what I really wanted to see) and missed discovering how we escaped the “Road of Endless Tunnels.”
W. D. Timmerman
Sitting by the living room window, 6:30 exactly, it was dinner time. Upstairs and downstairs the house smelled of roast beef. The all-news radio station, always too loud, kept my mother company in the kitchen.
The minutes passed. It was a quarter to seven. I continued to look out the window. Eventually I could hear my mother’s voice slowly rise above the radio.
“Where is that man? Dinner’s ready and it’s getting colder by the minute. Why didn’t that slob call? This is the third time in two weeks he’s done this to me. Damn him.”
I held my breath and hoped she wouldn’t come out and start talking to me. She had a way of talking sweetly, with a sneer, that I didn’t like, even then.
It was 7 o’clock and my father’s brown Buick still hadn’t pulled up in the driveway. “Children, hurry in,” my mother called. We’re going to have to eat without that father of yours. Again.”
I ran into the kitchen and took my seat without saying a word. My older sister came down from her bedroom where she was watching television. The three of us sat and began eating.
First apple juice. Then salad. My mother muttered under her breath about nothing in particular. My sister chattered about television shows. Meanwhile I ate very fast because I was always scared my father had been killed in a crash.
The fear of doing nothing devoured me. . . . Whenever I caught myself about to do nothing, I did something.
Childhood fears? — there was the darkness. I agonized through parts of many nights, listening to the sounds of the house settling or the wind rattling the window panes, knowing that “the man with the knife” was going to suddenly loom up in the doorway. I don’t know where I got that horrible image of “a man with a knife.” TV, perhaps, or one of those haunting Classics Illustrated comics.
But my fear of darkness is less immediate than one other, for which I have no specific name. But it has pervasively influenced my life.
When I was eight, I lived in a neighborhood teeming with kids. It seemed that out of every house there issued forth at least two and sometimes as many as six. They had a clubhouse and I knew, by general inference, hints and the grapevine, that I was not welcome there. No particular reason. I was Stephen’s little sister and he certainly was accepted; however, he wasn’t around much. His grass-cutting business kept him busy.
One day the kid next door wheedled me into going inside the forbidden clubhouse, “to have a look while no one is around,” he said. I knew it was a ruse then; I knew it in my bones and in my heart.
No sooner had I poked my head inside than eight or ten other kids, some younger than I, some older, came running out of the garage in which they had been hiding and chased me away, yelling insults. I can still recall the peculiar look in an older girl’s eyes, a strange mixture of disbelief that this was taking place and a reluctant sympathy for me. She just stood and watched as the other kids taunted.
Of course I was hurt. I used the hurt to keep myself separate, or at least to perpetually think of myself as different, “above the crowd.”
So what is that fear called? I think, as a child, I felt it as a fear of not being special if I hung out with one group, so I rejected them all. Perhaps it was a rejection of someone else’s set of standards being imposed on me and a fear of my inability to meet them?
It wasn’t until a year ago that I realized how much I regarded all people as those children, that a great deal of my interactions with people was a way of getting back, of getting revenge. The incident had become a myth around which I had built my life.
My revenge consisted of being able to do anything anyone else could do and doing it better — hit a baseball farther, make better grades, be better looking, dance better. But it was inevitably a revenge that was consuming me; I was overwhelmed if ever I tried something and wasn’t the best at it.
I’ve since accepted the truth that “special” isn’t necessarily defined by being the best. One more childhood fear bites the dust.
Remember “Psycho”? The wheelchair scene? What about the old goose-bumper, the shower scene? Perhaps on a dare, or maybe because the Walt Disney film next door was sold out, I ended up clutching the seat, the popcorn, my eyes frozen open, watching “Psycho” as a little child. How young I don’t know — maybe I was even a teenager(!) — but my memory scan shows this short kid leaving the theatre, scared for his clean-living life, avoiding showers (thank God it wasn’t bathrooms!) for months to come.
Well, being afraid of showers is pretty wimpy. Even I knew that then. So I never told anyone, just avoided the darned things. I sure didn’t want to see my blood twirling down some drain!
I took lots of baths, checked out friends’ houses first before saying yes to overnight visits, and always was early to my next class after PE in school. No need to worry people in the shower room. But then summer arrived and the Rocky Hill neighborhood swimming pool required showers before getting in the water. Catch 22, or what?
The decision was, as we say, “forced choice.” Be scared to death, jump in the water in a state of shock and drown or jump in the water, get yelled at by the lifeguard who says you have to get your shower first, kid.
I lasted about a week in this insane situation. Soon swimming wasn’t such a big deal (I told myself). You know, you tell your friends things like, “Well, I’m reading this great book” or “Gee, the lawn sure needs mowing.” That summer I started playing tennis. There were no curtains!
“When I have fears that I may cease to be” — Keats
Death often colors our childhood far too subtly to understand at the time. When I was seven, my grandfather died in our house. I can still recall my father’s slow, heavy tread on the stairs, and the growing fascination with which I watched him carefully count out a handful of coins, medals, and rosary beads — the contents of my grandfather’s pockets. Even as a child I was shocked to think that this was all my grandfather had to show for his seventy years — that the dead had only this parting gift to bestow on the living. I clutched those few coins and cried fiercely before venturing downstairs. I can remember brushing against the soft folds of a black cassock and smelling the wax and incense I even then associated with death, standing and staring at my grandfather, his face already strangely unfamiliar and growing more distant.
My Catholic upbringing made death my constant, unwelcome companion. In school it was driven into us that we might die at any moment and be called to account for our life. Every day we listened to gruesome stories of unsuspecting, proud sinners cut down by a speeding car or crushed under a pile of storm-loosened slates. Where life to some children is an unbroken expanse dotted with minor setbacks, mine, because of these insistent stories, was pockmarked by gaping holes in its very fabric. I don’t exaggerate when I say that my life seemed a moment by moment affair. The ground might open at any time and swallow us whole; the play might suddenly halt and the backdrop fall away to reveal a crowd of grinning faces of our own death-masks. Our greatest fear was that, just before this happened, we might be tricked into some sin that would make us forfeit eternal life for the pains of everlasting damnation. Yet even at that time, we had figured out that there was such a thing as being too good. It seemed obvious that the devil would find such goodness irritating and irresistible and that God would probably let him torment us with terrible diseases, family deaths, and bitter disappointments — confident that the results would only redound to his greater glory. Knowing this, we felt like marked men tempting the fates by our excesses. Sinning a little seemed the best way to assure our anonymity.
This emphasis on last things took its toll. I can remember spending nights huddled in bed, afraid that the last judgment might catch me unaware. I would pull my sheets as tightly to my chin as I could and lie there shivering in those early summer evenings, afraid that the faint glow at twilight might really be the false dawn supposed to herald the second coming. It seemed unfair that the world should come to an end before I had had a chance to test my dreams. Nonetheless, such thoughts made me extremely sensitive to how fragile and tenuous life seemed to be. One example stands out in my memory. I had heard on the news of a mid-air collision in which all had died. That night, I replayed the tragedy in my mind dozens of times. Each time I could see the planes on their collision course. Each time I would brace myself for the sickening shudder as they touched and I would imagine that I could feel the intense heat from the mounting fireball. But worst of all, I would thrill to the horror of that final second when, suspended thousands of feet above the earth, each person might have realized how utterly helpless he was to avert his sudden and horrible end. I listened to my heart racing, after that, morbidly fascinated by the thought that God might choose this moment to end my existence and so make me a spectator at my own death. Only my mother’s arms could shut out the cold and darkness which seemed to be lying in wait for me.
From that time on I used to have a recurring dream. I would be lying in a field looking up through the waving grass. Next to me would be a small ditch. The ditch would quickly swell, becoming darker and deeper, until suddenly I would find the ground slipping from under me and myself falling, falling — while all the time I could see in the distance my house, which I feared I would never again enter.
University Park, Pennsylvania
I’ve spent the last several years engaged in an intense voyage of personal growth. I didn’t take a guru, or join an ashram or community, or attach to a therapy or discipline. My seeking has consisted simply of examining my own experience as I live day to day.
I’ve primalled, prayed and meditated. I’ve kept journals, written poems, taken workshops. Not so much out of anxiety, or deep need, or existential longing, but simply because these things work. When something stops working for me, I stop doing it.
With every breakthrough, every release and realization, would come a sense of another layer being unwrapped, another step taken toward — what?
This past year was especially intense. It was as though I’d subconsciously chosen to engage in a crash course of “Getting Through It.” But again, getting through what? And to what?
One morning I “Got It.” For the past several weeks I’d been noticing a lot of self-righteousness in me. At the same time I was experiencing an intense insecurity causing me to agonize over every decision. And I noticed that I was hiding both my self-righteousness and my insecurity under my normal “act” of being together — friendly, assured, sincere, humble.
On this particular morning I decided to look at what I was experiencing. And it gradually dawned on me that this has been the underlying pattern of my life. Feeling that I know some things, that I have certain understandings about life, which I hide, or don’t share, or wonder if I should share myself with others in particular ways and not doing so. There was always the hesitation. Why? Lots of reasons, most of them extremely reasonable. The usual — repressed childhood, strict religious upbringing (ho hum). But never any answers, and never any real release.
I decided to go into the feelings. So I closed my eyes and looked. A lot of fear. Some crying. And (most curious) the urge to shake. So I got up and shook, all over, and felt the energy loosening, becoming unblocked. I shook until I couldn’t stand any longer. And then it came up. The fear. Of not understanding, and not knowing what to do. A fear of others. Fear of being misunderstood, or laughed at. Fear of being seen as an ego tripper. Fear of expressing love because of fear of rejection.
Scene after scene from my past came up along with the fear. All those times I’d held back, hesitated, remained silent, and at a distance. The experience was intense but it was pure. A cleansing.
And then I remembered. I was very intelligent when I was young, so smart that I was put into a class for gifted children. I’ve known this, and yet I had a real difficulty in grade school and high school. I’ve often wondered what caused the shift. Now I know. My intelligence, my brains (I was nicknamed “The Brain”) came between me and my having friends. I realized that if I wanted to have friends I was going to have to tone down the smarts.
And so I made a decision. To deny my self. To hide, in order to be liked. Very simple. No horrendous trauma. Nothing to do with my parents. In Primal Therapy they call it the Primal Scene. That point in time when I stopped being me.
The realization struck me with an intense, indescribable feeling. I realized that all my insecurities, the fear, hesitation, all the years of anxiety and trying to get myself together, had that one moment as its source. I fell on my knees crying, and began praying for God to release me from these chains, saying again and again, “God release me.” And then “a still, small voice” whispered, “What makes you think you’re not free?”
And the light broke through. Intense. Ecstatic. It was Divine Madness. I laughed and cried and “got it.” I realized that I was free. And that I had always been free.
(Maurice directs the New Age Community Center in Portland, Maine.)
Even at that time we had figured out that there was such a thing as being too good. . . . Sinning a little seemed the best way to assure our anonymity.
I remember a moment of childhood revelation, when I learned something about parents.
There was a nature film on TV. It was about the spawning of salmon. The mama fish, knowing that their time is near, swim through the ocean to the mouth of the river of their birth, then upstream in a struggle so arduous that they die of uselessness right after laying their eggs.
The film made a big deal about the salmon’s amazing ability to locate a river from an enormity of ocean. I was much more impressed by what the poor fish went through just to keep the species going. Theirs, I could see, was an extreme form of parenting.
I realized, then and there, that becoming a parent is, next to being born and dying, the most important change in a creature’s life. I knew my parents were different before I was born (I was the first). It wasn’t just their talks about Alaska, where they met, or about The War, which dominated life before my time. It was a feeling I had. They were different before.
They gained something. But they also gave something up.
Now, as a parent myself, I see what salmon represented. It was sacrifice. Becoming a parent is the sacrifice of self-interest as the top priority. It’s the exchange of self-interest for the interest of offspring and species. All your better vertebrates do it.
I though about this when I read Sy’s Issue 55 editorial. There he spoke of a dream that told him THE SUN would be a better magazine if he didn’t have kids. I was reminded of a question somebody once asked Paul Krassner. It was, “What means more to you — starting the Yippies or doing The Realist?” His reply was, “You mean which of my children do I love best?”
This brings me to the subject of all this: childhood fear. Mine was losing one or both parents, or worse, being given a choice.
And as a parent I have a reciprocal fear: losing my children.
They’re afraid of losing their mother and me, too. I can feel it in their hugs when we say goodnight. It may be a bigger fear for them than it was for me, because my parents weren’t divorced. My children’s mother and I share custody. Half their week they live with one parent and half with the other. It’s a nice arrangement.
But I cringed when my mother said something to me recently. She said, “You know, I sometimes feel sad that your children don’t have exactly the kind of home that we had when you were growing up. You never doubted that your father and I loved each other. If divorce does nothing else, it supplies evidence that love can be lost.”
That put a name on my oldest fear — fear of loss. It’s the biggest fear in the world, and the most well-founded.
Nearby, as I write, my two kids play with a girlfriend on a rug. I bang on the typewriter, parental noise in the background, punctuated occasionally by parental words: “Okay, cut the yelling! It’s only a game, guys!” and so on.
I look at them — giggling, pushing, ordering each other around, winning, losing, learning, growing, being kids while I’m being me. A kid not so long ago myself.
And I’ll repeat the last line, for folks who missed Sy’s editorial.
“When you have children, you’ll understand.”
I’ve heard it said that to fear something sets up a tremendous inclination for it to happen. When I was a child, being convinced that to do anything was to dare reprisal, to stand still was to be run over by some violent event, to make a move to assert my self was to be in the wrong, just living was something of an adventure. This makes no sense to me as I think of how things work, how the paycheck comes to be, how things get done. I feel this is true, however, when I look and see what’s inside me.
So last week I played softball for the first time in this life. It was just a practice scrimmage; I won’t be called on to fight the symbolic battle every week on the team from work. I ran from home plate to first base after hitting the ball. It was the first time I’ve run since I lost my leg. It didn’t hurt very much. I expect to play softball again. I liked it. It wasn’t a tremendous high. It seems to have been no milestone in my life. It just felt good. The vast world of things I cannot do because of this evil-smelling stench I project ahead of my inquiring, tentatively exploring mind and experience is somewhat smaller. The fear of being my self is something I see through just a bit more for the foolishness it is. I can laugh with myself a bit more, feel a bit more with people I see playing ball, people I see being so violent, scared, provisionally with each other.
The next time I feel I am going to lose it all, or have lost it all, when this crazy world thumps me really hard, or just grinds me down to the shakes (whether it shows or not), maybe then I’ll let all the tension go, pick myself up, and go find someone who wants to play for fun. (I wonder if there’s anyone like that out there anywhere.) It isn’t easy. When it works it’s quite delightful.
Childhood fear. Mine was losing one or both parents. . . . And as a parent I have a reciprocal fear: losing my children.
Except for snakes and rabid dogs, I don’t remember being afraid of anything as a child except the death of an animal. In particular, one of my own.
This fear was bound up with two things. One was an invisible horse who visited me every night and whose Greek-sounding name I long to remember (Eucharus? Eucharius? Euchia?) who left me high and dry before I was five. No matter how hard I pretended, I was unable to reconstruct this friendly force, and so came to the conclusion that he had died.
The other reason I was afraid was that too many people obviously didn’t care about animals. They hunted them, killed them, tortured them. In Sunday School, I learned that animals have souls, sort of, and there probably was an animal heaven, but no one knew for certain.
The only evidence I found for an animal heaven was my father’s reverence for their remains. We’d find a dead animal, and he’d call for a funeral. Into the garden we’d go, Daddy leading, with shovel and Bible, neighborhood children trailing behind. He taught us how it was done. The ritual relieved the tension, quieted questions he couldn’t answer.
It was while they were still alive that the animals had so much power over me. I let them be my children, locked into an eternal state of vulnerability, innocent angels ignorant of evils only I could ward off.
Blackie was the first. A small black pup left crying by the front stoop, whom I begged to keep. One of my clearest memories is of the morning Daddy found her in the pump house with her own litter of puppies, two of whom were pure white except for a black ring around one eye and no tails. At all. We named those two Jenny and Joe.
My duck was my second child. She came from Roses Five and Ten, where Mama bought two ducklings dyed a deep pink for my sister Kack and me as an Easter morning surprise. Kack sat on hers by mistake and killed it, a source of shame and embarrassment for her for years afterwards. Mine lived, flourished, and was christened Weedle Weedle by my father, who talked to her as if she were listening. She, in turn, quacked busily back at him, followed him around all day, if allowed to.
Weedle never wandered, but the dogs did, and Kack and I developed a high-pitched call to reel them in: “HeeerrreeeeePUPUPUPUPUPUPUP!” I took all of my worry — are they down at the highway? has one of them been hit? — and poured it into that call. Invariably, they came back. But that wasn’t enough. I took to shutting them up on the back porch when I was planning on leaving the yard. I had done just that on a cold Saturday afternoon in mid-December, 1960 when I was eight years old. I was four houses down, playing under a cardtable with a blanket over it, when I looked up, glanced towards home, and saw fire whipping about in the wind off the backporch.
By the time I got there, the entire porch was ablaze. It was the greatest spectacle I had ever seen, an adventure, except for the knowledge of the dogs on the back porch. It was too horrible to be true. My babies were burning alive because of my fears.
That night, after the sightseers had gone, and only a few firemen remained to tend the blaze as the last support structures of the house crashed down, Daddy and I walked into the backyard, the fire roaring in our ears, the heat forcing us to make a wide circle. I remember seeing my rope swing hanging from the weeping willow tree, like a sage survivor, winking at me. Then the heavy hedge between the garden and the lawn. And in the light of the fire, we saw four pairs of eyes glinting in the bushes. My puppies.
That night, our family of four, nine counting the four dogs and Weedle Weedle, moved into my grandparents’ large, rambling old house, with the clothes on our backs and not much else.
In 1974, fourteen years after the night of the fire, the only animal left from my first brood was Jenny, with her bottom teeth jutting out over her top ones, her long dachshund-like body which twisted prissily back and forth when she walked, her tailless rear comically complete, and her one black eye, dominating the white of her. She was fifteen years old. In perfect health. She’d outlived Walker, my Daddy, who picked Jenny from Blackie’s litter, and said, “The runt’s the smartest. Let’s keep this one for good.”
It was Christmas Eve morning when I found Jenny collapsed in the rose bed, her eyes glazed, her strength almost gone. She’d pull herself together only to stand up and vomit. The other two dogs were vomiting, too, so it was obvious they had all eaten something that had poisoned them.
When I got to the vet, he wasn’t there, and wouldn’t be for an hour or more. I bargained with God to save Jenny as he’d saved my pups from the fire long ago. Why should a fifteen-year-old dog die of poisoning? She started to convulse, and my helplessness was terrifying. I called my mother, asked her to come sit with Jenny until the vet arrived. As soon as she got there, the dam broke, the tears started, I took a last look at Jen, jumped into the Vega, jammed it into reverse, smashed the Vega into my mother’s Pontiac (damaging both), and drove home. The tears were from a place of grief I’d never let myself feel before. Integrating the death of my father had been unavoidable; I could not protect him from death and had not wanted to. Jenny was still my baby. I had never let her grow up. And I did not want her to die without my permission.
Christmas morning, the vet called. She’d lived through the night and died early that morning.
Because Daddy wasn’t there to do it, I spent the afternoon preparing her grave. I painted a gravestone for her, with a picture of her done in acrylics on the front, her birthdate, the date of her death. My sister’s boyfriend dropped her into the hole out of a white plastic bag. I didn’t look. Jenny was my childhood; her paw print was next to my footprint in the basement cement of our new house.
All my life I’d secretly dug up dead animals after the funeral, at intervals, a week after, two weeks after, a month. How long would it take for the cardboard box to fall apart? How long for the worms to come? Where did they come from? How long for the familiar fur to empty itself of form? It calmed me, made it more real.
I never dug up Jenny.