It happened last night, and it hardly seems real. Rusty’s whimpering woke me up. It took me a moment to realize Ruth had stopped breathing, not long after we discovered her heart had stopped. Before long and despite my refusal to believe, she was cold. There’s a lot of messy stuff associated with death, but I won’t tarnish Ruth’s memory by mentioning them here. For the first half of the day I said nothing. Claire, Abby, and the pups tried to cheer me up, but it didn’t work. I ate no breakfast, instead giving it to the dogs, and like so many other days I went outside. My morning chores don’t last long enough to distract me from what’s happened. Even our geese seem quieter. I wondered around the farm Ruth and I built.
This place looked so different than in the years before I met Ruth. In those days I spent almost no time outside, I knew none of my neighbors, and the very thought of getting my hands dirty with manual labor was laughable. Now I see the fields she taught me how to tend and plant. The greenhouse where she worked her magic with plants. I pass the water tanks, now set up to filter from one to the other and send the clean water to the house. Both have been winterized to keep the water from freezing and breaking the system. I see the hoarded goods through the windows of the surrounding houses that Ruth and I collected to build the farm. The windmills on the roofs spinning gently in the wind. Even in my own projects she encouraged me.
Almost as if she was speaking to me, I knew I had one last job to do for her. My carpentry skills have improved over the past year. Using some of the stored wood I made a coffin. It’s not fancy, and the lid barely closes, but I imagine Ruth would be happy that I had made it. I was sure that building the coffin had taken most of the day but I was wrong. It was about an hour before noon. When had I learned to work so fast?
I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting still, so I went back outside. I grabbed my shovel. I thought about working on my wall, but a better use came to mind. Every coffin needed a grave. I picked a spot in the corner of the yard, and with a weary sigh I started to dig. The earth was hard and I had to hack through several roots and old lines buried in the yard, but my mind welcomed the distraction. It took several hours, but soon I was up to my shoulders in the hole. My body was sore, but physically I’ve felt worse.
When I returned to the house it was almost four. Claire had spent her time cleaning Ruth and “getting her ready.” I almost asked for what, but remembered I had just been digging a grave. The thought of putting her in the ground was almost too terrible to think about, but I still think Ruth would hate for me to leave the job unfinished. I tell Claire I need a moment to clean myself and get ready. I remember movies where sad people cried in the shower, movies and reality seem to have lost touch as I never wanted to leave the room. The warmth was comforting, and as the hot water soothed the pain in my muscles, I could almost forget what waited for me when I was done. Hot water doesn’t last forever, and I soon found myself drying off.
For the first time in almost a year I took a good look at myself in the mirror. I barely recognized the person staring back at me. I used to be so pale and thin, with no muscles to speak of. The person staring back at me was covered in muscles with a few scars to show for his trouble. The skin was tanned where the sun had beaten down on it day after day. Where there had once been a naked chin was a dark beard trimmed neatly. It didn’t feel like me staring back through that mirror. In that moment it became so clear what Ruth had done for my life. The impact that little woman had on who I was now. I felt the burn in my eyes, but I fought it off.
It took sometime to get Ruth in her coffin. I know deep down it’s pointless, but I wanted her to look comfortable. It meant sacrificing a pillow and a warm blanket, but a small voice inside told me this was the right way to do it. Rusty followed us as we took the coffin outside. The other dogs came outside with us but only Rusty stayed by the coffin.
It took me about a half hour to work out how we could ease Ruth into her grave. In the end Claire helped me rig up some ropes to ease the coffin gently inside. It was getting dark by the time the coffin was in place. Claire said a few words to start us off, but when it came to my turn, I just couldn’t find my voice. Then it came time to fill the dirt back in. I asked Claire to leave it to me and please make sure the dogs had dinner. All the dogs but Rusty followed her in the house.
It took me longer to fill in the hole than to dig it. The whole time Rusty sat next to me watching me work. Sometimes he would whimper but did nothing to stop me. Even when I could no longer see the coffin the idea that Ruth was down there couldn’t leave my mind and I was struck by how odd this custom was. I tried to think about what Ruth would have wanted. What she had thought her funeral would be like? I bet she imagined her family being here. Maybe she wanted to be buried on her son’s farm. The thought of her son out there never knowing his mother was buried in my backyard struck me. Then my thoughts turned to my own parents, was somebody burying them right now, or did they die like so many others over a year ago?
Before I knew it there was no more dirt to throw in the hole, and I had to come to terms with the fact that it was done. There was no more work to distract me. I would never hear Ruth’s voice again, never eat her cooking, never have her tell me to stop fussing over her and the dogs, never see her smile for the Christmas gift I never got to give her. It was all too much and there alone in the backyard I cried.
I had no words to say, nothing I could think to do, I simply fell to my knees and cried. My thoughts a swirl of misery. I had just buried the best friend I had ever had, she was like a second mother and now she was gone. I was half tempted to dig her back up, surely there had to be something I could do. Maybe she wasn’t actually dead and we had just made a truly terrible mistake. I was about to reach for the shovel when I felt a tongue lick me.
Rusty was standing in front of me wagging his tail and whimpering softly. He licked my face again, and I drew strange comfort from the big dog. I could almost hear Ruth telling me to not over react. Rusty spent more time with her than anyone, and I was the one crying about it. I pet the big rust colored pile of muscles on his head, and he opened his mouth in a rare dog smile. He then curled up on the pile of dirt that covered his master and went to sleep. It was late when I came inside. Claire had left me a sandwich and a note. She tried her best to cheer me up with her words, but to put them here would lessen her attempt so I will keep those to myself.
For the first time in this journal, I want to write not about what has happened, but directly in the present. Ruth, it is not an exaggeration to say that my life would have been less without you. I’m not a wordsmith, I’ve never been good with fancy or sappy words, but I want to say here what I couldn’t in front of your grave. Thank you, thank you for everything you taught me. I don’t like to think of where I would be without you, or where I may be going, but thanks to you I’m sure the future can be brighter. I will never forget you, and while I’ve never really believed in an afterlife, I hope this is one of the things that you are right about. Rest in Peace, and thank you for everything.
December 24, 2022