How To Dig A Grave

“I want the sides… and the bottom…,” said Mr. Daniel, indicating plumb and level right-angles with his hands. “Twelve inches by a foot. Follow the string. See you at lunch.” Then, with no further instruction or explanation, he handed me a worn spade, turned, walked back to his air conditioned Buick and drove away.

I was eighteen and every bit as ignorant as that age would suggest. But even I could see, as he maneuvered his big sedan past his silent backhoe, that Mr. Daniel had no need of my labor whatsoever. He’d hired me for the summer as a favor to my father. Digging tie-line ditches for his next warehouse, he figured, was as good a way as any to keep me busy and out from underfoot. For my part, I was so broke that I couldn’t even pay attention, much less my fly shop tab. I needed the work in more ways than one. So before he’d made it to the edge of the clearing, I made sure he could see me shoveling in his rear-view.

I stayed bent over that shovel from eight until noon, stabbing and scraping my way through the rocky red clay, alone but for the drone of cicadas and the building heat. When the black Park Avenue reappeared as promised, I was flush with sun and the self-satisfaction that comes from hard labor and visible results. The feeling was short lived.

“Hot damn son, you never work a shovel before?” asked Mr. Daniel, handing me a brown paper lunch bag and a look of disdain. He didn’t wait for a response before loosening his tie, rolling his sleeves and relieving me of the tool.

“Time I was your age, I had a PhD in shovelology,” he explained stepping his polished wingtips into the fresh turned dirt. “I said square… unh… and square… unh. See that? Watch me now. Square… unh, and square… unh,” he continued, punctuating the lesson with clean, precise punches of the spade and transforming my sloppy trough into a proper trench. “Can you do that?”

“Yes sir,” I said, not entirely sure that I could.

“Good. Best eat-up now. Lots a work yet,” he said, appraising me with frank but forgiving eyes.

He was right. There was a lot of work to be done… on that job, and the next and the one after that. Mr. Daniel owned half of Culpepper County as best as I could tell, and whatever unpleasant task needed doing that summer, at any of his numerous enterprises, I was the boy for it. More often than not I took my daily marching orders from one of his various foremen or managers, but every now and again I’d report in the morning to find Mr. Daniel waiting for me.

“Git in,” he’d say, gesturing to the Buick. Those were always the most unsavory assignments. They’re also the ones that have stuck with me. Mr. Daniel was a busy man. That he took the time to personally direct my menial efforts struck me even then. By some miracle I was smart enough to take notice.

The big takeaways from that summer sunk in readily enough – there’s no shame in dirty hands, but its good to have options; there’s no substitute for hard work and showing up; nobody worth their salt is too big for a small job; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. But it’s not just the big picture concepts that I’m grateful for.

Every inch of spadework in that long ago ditch becomes a blessing when it’s time to dig a grave for a friend.

There’s just no earning unconditional love. We feed our dogs, shelter them, take them on adventures and rub their bellies, but in the end, at best, it’s a pretty lopsided relationship. How do you thank the animal that ignored your faults and saw in you, without exception, the person you wish you were? What do you offer? You laugh and recall the good times. You help them die peacefully. And if you’re fortunate enough to have been taught how, you pour your sweat, and your tears, and your energy into the earth until the sides are square, and the bottom is flat. It’s not enough. There is no enough. But it’s what you have to offer. So you do.

Happy hunting in the Great Beyond Sugar. Rest in peace.

6 Comments on “How To Dig A Grave

  1. Not surprisingly this is one of the more touchingly beautiful pieces written about one of the saddest moments in our lives. We are forever bonded in spirit with our dogs. May she rest in peace and you and the family find comfort in the memories.

    • Thanks a bunch Tom. You’re so right that the invisible bond persists. I know that’ll be a source of solace.

  2. The last two times I remember shedding tears in the last 10 to 15 years was when I had to put down my lab Ginger and then about 4 years later my lab Ashia. The hardest part was explaining to my very young and very attached children what was going to happen and why it was happening. Old aged and cancer are hard things for a 3 and 6 year old (at the time) to understand. The life lesson my children learned was the final gift that those two dogs gave to us. I have always had a dog in my life and I hope I always will, especially in my final moments on this earth, surrounded by friends and family, as they were.

    • You’re absolutely right that explaining it to a little one is far and away the hardest part of an already very difficult scenario. Thanks for reading and for weighing in.

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