I was digging up our dead dog from the lawn. Winter was on us, so the ground was hard and cold. I really had to whack at the dirt to get anywhere.
Across the street in Pennypack Park, kids were running, fooling around. The Catholic school down the street had just let out, and the kids were in no rush to go home. Leaning against the shovel, I took a break from the digging and watched as they yelled and laughed and flew about in their plaid uniforms.
My wife told me to dig up the dog, which was funny, given that she and I were never dog people. We only got the dog because our daughter, God bless her, was the one who wanted a puppy, absolutely had to have one. She begged and begged until we finally gave in. She named her Diana, after Princess Diana. “She’s a real live princess,” our daughter would say, “just like in storybooks.”
Years passed, and despite all that happened, we could never bring ourselves to get rid of the dog. Even when she died, we still couldn’t part from her. So we cremated Diana, put what was left in an old coffee can, and buried her in the lawn.
Now we were moving, leaving our empty house for a new condo downtown. We needed a change of scenery. It would do us good.
Like I said, it was my wife’s idea to dig up the dog. “I hate to leave her,” she said to me earlier in the day, when we were packing in the basement. Stacks of cardboard boxes, full of things forgotten but too precious to throw away, surrounded us.
“You want me to dig her up?” I asked. “We don’t have a lawn in the new place. Where will we bury her?”
“Maybe we’ll put her on the mantel,” she said.
“The mantel? Will we still keep her in the coffee can?”
A distracted look covered my wife’s face as she stared at me but didn’t say anything. I waited. She had a youthful appearance, my wife, and when you looked at her from a certain angle, you could almost make out the young woman she was when we first met, or even the little girl who liked horses, dolls and fairies so long ago.
Waiting, I leaned against some random boxes and fought the temptation to look inside them. Finally, my wife said, I just don’t want to leave her.”
“But after I dig her up, what should I do? Where should I put her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should put the can in the fridge, maybe even the freezer.”
“I don’t know. Will the ashes smell?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should put the can in the fridge, maybe even the freezer, until we figure out what to do with her.”
The whole thing was crazy. I wanted to let the dog be, but if taking her with us meant my wife would feel better, so be it.
That was how I came to be on the lawn, whacking away at the ground. Across the street, in Pennypack Park, the kids were still fooling around. They were 8 or 9, which was a wonderful age. It was a time of imagination, of playing and pretending. They probably no longer believed in Santa Claus, but they were still young enough to believe in things magic and make believe.
Eventually, the kids went further into the park. At first, I could still see them because the leaves had fallen, but as they went deeper down the path, deeper into the trees and branches, the kids vanished, the park swallowing them up.
I used to take Diana for walks through the park. Our house was so empty sometimes. It was a relief to get away from that.
The park was like another world. It was big enough that, in some parts, you couldn’t hear any cars or noise. It was like you were in the middle of a gigantic forest, far from houses, far from everything. Old timers fished in its creek. Kids swung on a tire hung from a tree. You saw deer all the time, and in the early mornings, fog hugged the ground and the world was quiet.
Diana and I did our walks for years, until she got sick. Near the end, we snuck the dog into church, sprinkled her with holy water, hoping for a miracle, for some magic to make it better. I wanted to believe in that kind of thing. Just once, just fucking once, I’d like to see God or an angel or whatever work some magic.
There was no miracle. There never is. We gave the dog a last meal of hamburger and took her to the vet. Then we brought her home and buried her.
After a few more whacks at the ground, I finally found the can. I pulled it out of the dirt with my hands and wiped it off. I found my wife in the basement. “I got the dog,” I said.
My wife paused her packing, looking distracted again. “Just put her right in the fridge,” she said. “She’ll be fine in there.”
My wife went back to the old things scattered around her. I stood there, holding the can, watching. I wanted to meet her eyes, but she was lost in the boxes.
Upstairs, I looked at the fridge, where report cards and crayon drawings once hung from magnets. I put the coffee can down gently on the kitchen table and opened the door. Cold air drifting over me, I cleared a space. I moved bottles, jars and containers of leftovers to make a special spot for the can.
Then I stopped. The door was open, cold leaking out, but I stood there, not moving. I thought about my wife. I thought about the dog. I thought about lots of things, things that had been buried with Diana in the ground.
This wasn’t right. She wasn’t going in the fridge. She didn’t belong there. Leaving the house, I carried the can tight under my arm, like a football. I walked across the street into the park, finding the path, the same path where Diana and I once walked together. Rocks crunched under my feet. The path twisted around a bend, rising slowly, then falling, then rising again. The last of the winter sun cut through the trees.
I came to the creek and a small bridge that kids always played on. Boys would guard it like soldiers, shooting imagery guns at those who tried to cross. I once saw a bunch of girls sitting on the bridge holding candles, reading out of books, like they were witches casting a spell.
No kids were around now. They had disappeared into the trees and bushes, so I stood alone on the bridge. Opening the coffee can, I let the ashes drip out. Some were carried on the wind. Others floated into the creek’s muddy water. So long Diana, I said.
It was time to let go. It was time to let it all go.
We never had another dog. We were never dog people anyway. Our daughter, God bless her, had wanted one, not us.
We never had another kid either. It was too much. After our daughter passed, we boxed up her toys and clothes and shoved them in the basement. But we couldn’t get rid of the dog. She wasn’t ours. She belonged to our daughter.
John Crawford was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, where this story is set. John Crawford now lives in Waltham, Mass., with his wife and daughter. He is the senior editor of the Babson Magazine, the alumni publication of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. He still visits Philly often and jogs around Pennypack Park whenever he can.