Where do the souls go when the dogs and cats are laid to rest? I wondered as I sat in the Memory Garden for Pets next to Toby’s grave.
Sounds of cars and birds and limbs falling. In the past several years, I have sat by this gravestone many times. My hand softly sweeping back and forth over the granite headstone, fingering the letters in his name, I’ve looked out at the field – at the myriad bouquets of flowers, marking other graves, at the statues and the headstones, some upright, some flat.
Yet, today was the first time, in 7 1/2 years of visits to Toby’s grave, that it occurred to me: I am surrounded by souls of all the dogs and cats buried here.
Shortly after Toby passed away at home, on the same dog bed that Reggie died upon last month, I saw Toby – walking in the bedroom – I swear – I did, or at least, I saw his ghostly spirit, but it was him. I have not seen Reggie’s spirit, here in the house, and because I saw Toby, when he died at home, I hoped I would also see Reggie’s ghost – but it has been 5 weeks today since Reggie died, and no signs yet. No ghosts walking in the hall, just his brown coat on my pillow – and his scent is beginning to fade, which pains my soul.
It is early, and maybe, I will still see Reggie’s ghost, some time – I know his soul is in the house, I can feel him, and Lizzie, but lately, mostly Reggie, as if his spirit follows me from room to room, much like he did when his body was here with me.
Saint Francis Assisi, the patron saint of animals, watches over the garden – his statue stands in the back, with dogs and cats around him, watching over all the gravestones, all the souls of dogs and cats long past, guarding them, like an angel.
Last December, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I bought a new bouquet of flowers in soft fall colors for Toby – it was long overdue. There used to be a bouquet of pink spring flowers, already torn and weather worn after 5 years of exposure to rain, wind and sleet.
I hear another storm is coming tomorrow – and there have been many other heavy rains since December – it is miraculous that this bouquet still remains untattered, the colors still as brilliant as they were the day I bought them at the 75% off clearance sale at Michael’s. Now that winter is almost over, there will surely be thunderstorms – as there are every spring and summer in Georgia, but hopefully, Toby’s new faux flowers will hold their own against the elements.
The first time I came here, to the Memory Garden, was October 24, 2011. I said goodbye to Toby that day – he’d made a long journey from California to Georgia, to what was meant to be his final resting place, or so I thought. I did not see him again until months later, in 2012, long after he was interred.
On that first visit in 2012, a butterfly landed on the granite stone. In that moment, I was certain the butterfly was Toby reincarnated – it comforted me to believe his soul had traveled into another creature’s body and followed me from San Diego to Athens. I didn’t tell many people this, but the hardest part about leaving San Diego, was not leaving my family and friends, as hard as that was, for I knew I’d see them again.
But, leaving that condo, where Toby had died, where I’d seen his spirit walk the floor of the bedroom into his closet hideaway, I was scared that I was leaving Toby’s spirit behind, and that I’d never see him again. I feared his soul would be abandoned there, in the condo, trapped, unable to follow me, as he always had, close behind, or beside, his human companion.
That was actually the one, inconsolable thing – the thing that gave me the most angst about leaving for Georgia – that I worried I could not fix.
My counselor, Alicia, told me to do something that may or may not have worked, if such things are even true. She said to go to the closet, where Toby used to hide when he was alive, and where he passed away, on the day before I left, and tell Toby to come with me. To follow me, out the door, into the car, and all the way to Athens.
She said if his spirit, if his soul, was still in the condo, that he would heed my call and follow me to wherever I went from there.
When I sit by Toby, I do feel his spirit there, in the grave, under the earth, and I am certain, in my mind, that his soul did follow me, that he is not trapped with strangers in my old home.
Was he the butterfly? I don’t know, I will never know, but…since that first day, I’ve never seen a butterfly again, just the ants crawling up my leg, and around the edges of the granite – and inside the crevices of the letters and numerals carved into the stone.
Time stands still when I’m with Toby. Usually I talk to him, but having just retrieved Reggie’s urn and plaster paw print and pieces of his brindle fur, sealed in plastic, I am speechless.
The need for silence overcame me, as if I were at Reggie’s funeral, or maybe, I just had nothing to say.
Before I came to sit by Toby’s grave, I met with Mr. Myers in his office. After he greeted me and expressed his condolences in the compassionate way only he can, he handed me the black and white bag with black paw prints. Inside it there was a large package, the urn, a smaller package, the paw print, and a large envelope with paper certificates commemorating Reggie’s passing, including one with a golden tag, signifying that Reggie had been cremated and ensuring his cremains were being returned to me.
I did not read the documents until I got home, later, after I placed Reggie’s urn and plaster paw print by his framed photo, a gift from Suzanne, and the clay paw print Dr. Stoppe and Tristan made shortly before they put him to sleep. When I sat by the memory table, as I now call it, I took out the certificates and read them. Mr. Myers had accidentally used my last name, Hartmann, instead of Roberts, for Reggie, but no matter. Hopefully on Audie’s certificates, the name, Reggie Roberts, was listed correctly.
Either way, the sadness of losing him came down to pieces of paper, an urn, two paw prints, a photo, and a vacancy no other dog can fill.
Before I left Mr. Myers’s office to visit Toby in the garden, he and I had an awkward, albeit, brief, conversation I’d been putting off for a long time, since last August, but now that I was here, for Reggie, I knew it was time to ask him what I’d been needing to ask.
I asked Mr. Myers (stumbling through the words): was there a way for me to take Toby with me? I told him that I had never expected I would leave, or at least, I never thought about leaving when I first came here, and now here I was, faced with the possibility of leaving later this year, or perhaps in a year, or two, who knows, but nevertheless, most likely, sometime not too far in the future.
As the years have passed, since I came to Georgia, I hoped I would not leave, and that Toby also could stay, here, in Athens, but now that I know that dream has died, I cannot bear to leave Toby here when I go…and that was what I told Mr. Myers, that I could not bear to leave Toby behind, because, I was not sure if I would ever come back, and to leave Toby forever…was unthinkable (that last part, I did not say out loud).
Mr. Myers listened, quietly, and then he said, “Let me see if I can rephrase your question.”
He said, in his own words, that I was wanting to know if I would be able to take what was left of Toby with me when I leave, was that something he could do, and he said the answer was, “Yes, that is something I can do.”
Relief – I did not ask about the expense, I was too afraid to find out right then, but at least, I knew it could be done.
He said that Toby could be sent to me, but when I asked about the stone, he said if it was mine I could have it, but that it would be very expensive to ship. I told him I had bought the stone, but could I just take it with me, and not ship it? His answer to my original question slightly changed. He told me to give him two weeks’ notice, when I was ready, and I could take Toby and the stone with me, as I requested. He said he needed two weeks because of the weather, which is often wet and exhuming a grave in the mud was not something they wanted to do.
Holding onto Reggie, what was left of him (divided by two), was all my heart could take that afternoon, and yet, I still had to ask: what about the shirt and blanket I’d buried with Toby? Mr. Myers said I would not be able to take those with me, too (I could tell he was hesitant to tell me for a moment, but then he came out, and finished my sentence). “Because they would be too icky…” I said, and he added, “Yes, they would be icky.”
I get so busy with the business of life, I don’t come to visit the Memory Garden as often as I planned, or have wanted to. But when I am there, and time stands still, I feel closer to God, and to Toby, as I lay my hand on the stone, the protector of the sanctuary that shields what remains of the body of my beloved, my first dog.
Losing Lizzie and Reggie so recently, and so close together, has made the memory of Toby’s loss, however vivid, seem so much farther back in time than it did for these last several years. Somehow, now, after losing Lizzie and Reggie, it is easier to sit in the field of souls than it is to kneel in front of the two urns and framed photos and paw prints spread in a row along the wooden table.
I feel their souls, all the time, and I miss them, all the time. Sometimes, it is so intense, the reality that both of them are gone, that all of a sudden, I simply can’t breathe.
I am tired. I am tired of grief. I have had enough of grief. I am beginning to forget what it felt like, what life felt like – before the grief – life is divided into the time before, and the time after – the former being the time when all three of them were still alive.
The clouds are gathering now, the sun is hidden behind the trees, the light is dwindling – time to go. If the souls should follow me out of the garden, over the footbridge, into the car and out the open gate onto the highway, all the better. I’d be happy to take the souls of the dogs and cats laid to rest in this beautiful garden with me wherever I go.
Either way, they will be waiting for me next time I come to visit Toby.
When I got home, I carefully took Reggie’s urn out of the package and set it on the table beside his picture. I removed the paper protecting the plaster paw print and gently set it on the picture stand beside the urn.
And then, I sat, for a long time, staring. Just staring. At Lizzie. At Reggie.
Reggie has come home, home to rest beside his Lizzie…home to stay.