Not Enough Whiskey. Funeral Pyre.
July 4th, 2016.
4 AM two days ago, Winter, my dog, died.
After coming home and passing out for a few hours, Jennifer and I sat in the living room. Simultaneously, we look at each other and say, “I can’t be here.”
I call our favorite cabins on the Oregon coast, cabins we have been visiting with Winter for eight years. They tell us that a reservation had just canceled—cabin 19, our favorite. We take it.
“We are lucky to have Sunshine,” Jen says later that day, in a moment between sadness and numbness. Sunshine, also a brindle, chases seagulls as we wander the beach. “She brings joy and keeps the mood light.”
Midnight. The beach is empty. The people celebrating Independence gone, tomorrow a workday, a Monday. Not for us.
The surf crashes, getting louder with each step. Starlight and porch light reflect off the spring, enough for me to tell rock from water as I pick my way through the access trail and to the sand. I stop for a moment, listening to the surf, watching the glowing red pockets of celebration, dying fires, wounding the beach. Bright and loud, dark and quiet, the surf and the water, the wet sand and dry sand, driftwood and bush, headland of dirt and rock.
I want to crawl into the white sand, drift into the crash-roar of the surf, float with the green-blue smell of decay and salt. Between fits of crying all weekend is the numbness, an emptiness, the absence of Winter.
Despite sipping on whiskey all weekend, I don’t want to hide from the pain. The pain is born from gratitude and joy, and a new way to live. I walk toward the darkness, then seek out the first dying fire. Like the glowing spots lay out along the beach, like Winter’s lessons dotting the timeline of my life.
Sunshine and I scout several fire sites, most still glowing, until we find a ring, eight-ten feet wide, a pile of smoldering wood, and a bed of hot coals. We will start here.
Three coals, covered in sand, but I feel the heat from six feet away. Using a stick of driftwood, I dig the fire pit about two feet down, finding more coals and half-burnt logs. Next, I move a couple of big driftwood logs, still with glowing sides, around the center of the pit. Then, leaning smaller sticks in the coals and against the log, I stack driftwood chunks, some still glowing. Finally, after blowing on the coals for a moment the fire climbs, sparking and twisting into the dark and the surf.
As the fire climbs, I rebuild the fire ring, pulling rocks out of the sand and stacking them high on the lee side of the ring, blocking the wind and reflecting the heat. For the last step, I shape the sand against a giant piece of driftwood, maybe Redwood or a Western Cedar, making an ergonomic place to lounge.
Three feet tall. The fire throws good heat and light, but will not last long, so Sunshine and I head back down the beach, searching other dying fires scrounging for more wood. Some of it charred or still glowing, we make several trips back and forth. I also find several timbers, ancient life from a distant shore, and drag them one at a time down the beach to my pyre.
Nine feet tall. I finish the whiskey, and crack my fifth beer. Even though it is a good thing, I am disappointed the whiskey is gone. The surf crashes, individual wave rising above the white noise. I start crying.
Twenty feet tall. “I love you, Winter! Thank you, Winter!” This feels good but terrible. I cry harder, I yell louder, sobbing and wailing. Over and over I yell, the wind and surf reaching up with me.
I remember the moment life left her body. She was still warm.
I remember her eyes before a hike.
I remember taking her presence for granted, forgetting Dog was there, at my feet sleeping.
I remember her, tail between her legs, getting chased by some cranky, big-ass tom cat.
I remember, during the end-of-season party, her getting kicked out of the Mangy Moose several times.
“I love you, Winter! Thank you, Winter!” Over and over, sobbing and screaming, over and over, into the wind and the surf.
I remember bringing Dog home, small and scared, shivering and whining.
I can’t understand this loss. How can Dog be gone? I remember how she gave me a purpose when I had none, when the world pressed down. I remember Winter, next to me, every day for thirteen and a half years.
Eventually, my sorrow and tears dry. I add more giant chunks of driftwood to the fire.
Whispers of red and orange around the eastern stars. Dawn.
The sun will rise soon and it is warmth and calm, especially by a fire. Sunshine and I walk up to the cabin and sneak into the bedroom. I gently touch Jennifer.
“Hey,” she says.
“Want to come down to the bonfire with me and watch the sunrise? It’s warm out and you can still sleep.”
“Yes” she says.
I grab more water and two fleece blankets. We head down to the beach. I arrange more wood on the fire.
Jennifer curls up in the sand, back against the log, head on my lap. I pull Sunshine into our laps.
The fire behind us climbs high.