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Lost Ashes

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • November 10th, 2007
  • 18 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok


Six weeks past I sat by the computer penning the “My Chanteuse” series, wrapping up 18 months of my life into five easily readable narratives in the course of a few hours. Sometimes when we write the story “gushes” or “pours” out of so quickly that we don’t have the chance to think, analyze, or otherwise embellish the story for the sake of how others will read it. With a loud rush and a roar the story is finished and there it sits. Do we refine it? Do we go over each piece of the story to check for accuracy or the parts that might offend? Send it off to an editor so he/she can tell us what we should have written? Not bloody likely. Or do we release it for dissemination and give up the control? In this case the only real question I had was should I release Part V.

Weeks after Part I was published I still wasn’t sure, so I sent a copy of Part V to two people I respect, but for different reasons. One person I respect as a writer, the other as a man of thought. Only one responded and Part V was released. Where would I have been if each had responded opposed to the other? Perhaps I knew it was something I had to decide all along, perhaps the person who didn’t respond knew that as well and showing me the respect he thought I deserved.. didn’t respond. Either way, thank you both. Not for your response, but rather for being someone I can respect. In a world where a rare homerun baseball sells for over three million dollars.. men I can respect are even more few. I’ve enjoyed my six week hiatus, and I haven’t written a word during this time. It’s left me feeling refreshed and allowed my perspective to settle and given me time to decide if I was going to continue. I’ve decided, for now at least, to continue. I wanted to herald my continuation with an example of the not so rare conflict between obligation and ethics.

We were riding in his truck on the way to the lawyer's office to sign the papers. He was giving me a great deal of responsibility in the administration of his estate and I was determined not to let him down. Guiding his pickup expertly through the mountain passes his eyes were on the wet road as the rain came down relentlessly, but his mind was set on making me understand that the estate wasn’t that important, instead what really mattered to him was that I carried out his final wishes. Bone cancer is one of the most painful cancers and he was well into the last stages of the disease where treatment was no longer possible and managing pain was the only option, at least in most states. In Oregon there is another option, a humane option reserved for those who had nothing else left but terrible suffering ahead. Even at this late stage he stoically refused any type of pain medication past the ibuprofen one takes for regular head and body aches. The new F150 Lariat with its generously padded leather captains chairs soaked up a lot of the pothole, but as the truck bounced his eyes betrayed the pain.

Two things he wanted to make clear, these last two items of business would be his last and he was trusting me to carry out his final wishes. One wish, the wish to protect one of his sons financially from his controlling wife I understood. More, as a long time observer I agreed with him. An easy promise to make. The final wish left me uneasy, unsure, but without hesitation I ensured him that his wishes would be carried out as instructed. Taking his eyes off the road for a moment he glanced over at me, patted by shoulder with his hand, and said thank you. A few hours later with the papers signed, and after making sure he had his dinner warmed in front of the television, I went out to the drive in the bitter cold and walking towards the dog kennel I was prepared for the two powerful balls of fur and teeth that lunged at me against the fence. Their owner had traveled the world training and showing “Schutzen” grand masters, and having taken many awards I suppose it was natural for him to teach his personal pets some of their traits. Teeth gnashing and lips curling, deep growls were directed my way as I prepared their dinner into two separate bowls and slid them under the feeding area. They didn’t eat as you’d expect, instead they sat and watched me get in my car and start down the drive. As I headed down the drive I saw him signal the dogs through the window that it was ok to eat and they became a flurry of movement around the bowls.

Over the next few months I tried not to think of my promise, and as the need for my visits increased I tried bringing the dogs special treats in the secret hope they’d see things my way. They didn’t, their protectiveness was steadfast, the resolve to care for their master absolute. Beautiful, noble and selfless, two more loyal friends I’m sure were impossible to find. In his final days they’d sit by his side with their ears pointing forward ever vigilant to his needs, not moving a muscle or making a noise lest they disturb the sleep made so rare by the unrelenting pain. Now after preparing their meal I’d return to the house and climb the stairs to help him to the window where he could signal the dogs that it was ok to eat and then helping him into bed before returning to my own home and wife. Winter had mostly gone and the bitter cold along with it, yet the evenings could be quite chilly and as I drove the 30 miles home I’d often crack the window so the fresh smell of the evergreens could join me in my thoughts. We’d spent many hours together in the woods over the years, nothing was more natural to me than the smell of the trees, as common in these parts as the air we breathed, almost as common the ever present smell of the strong tobacco responsible for his disease. A mans man, born in a time where he could ride his horse to grade school. Los Angeles has changed since then, so I can understand his move to the northwest decades earlier.

His stay in the VA Hospice was short, only days. In a brief respite of mercy the pain medication he had refused now worked to make his last days less horrific. His youngest son has just left from a visit where he was awake and talking, but before he had completed the journey to my home the phone rang letting me know he had closed his eyes to sleep and passed in peace. Standing outside in the gravel drive I watched him come down the drive in the F150. He looked at me as I stood there without words and said that he knew, that he knew it was time before he left but that his father asked him to leave so he did. I hugged him hard, he was the one ever emotionally fragile, I knew he needed it. His uncle came outside and joined in the hug, he’d just lost his brother and needed to be part of the healing. Three men, two generations, hugging, grief, and the smell of evergreens so strong..

Promises. A hastily arranged private service at the VA chapel surely didn’t count as a memorial? Service completed before 0900 the next morning and both son and uncle are back on the road heading home to Los Angeles. My duties have just begun. Verifying the body, completing paperwork, arranging for the cremation, before noon I’m off the VA grounds and heading north. Driving up the steep drive for the first time I didn’t hear the dogs going crazy at an approaching car. Did they know? I noticed their dinner remained untouched for the fourth day straight, yet they had the energy to lunge at the gate and show more teeth than an alligator. I knew if I did it now it would be violent and messy, and still I wasn’t sure I was going to promises or not. Even though I’d made the promise I hadn’t yet reconciled the request. Still, they had to eat so going back to my car I took out a bag of BBQ ribs still hot from the restaurant and figured it was time to teach them to eat when I said it was ok.

By the third rib they’d stopped barking and started salivating and I knew I had them. Breaking off little pieces with my fingers I threw them over the fence and they’d look back and forth between me and the meat suspiciously, and when they thought I wasn’t looking they gulped it down. Soon I was sharing the second rack with two well mannered dogs who appeared to enjoy cornbread. Finishing up I knew they hadn’t eaten enough, but after four days without eating I figured it would take a while to work back up to a normal diet. Looking out over the small yard area of their kennel I knew that eventually I’d have to go in there and clean it, the sooner the better, but when I put my hand on the gate to open it they were all teeth so I thought it best to wait. Over the course of the next 4-5 days nothing had changed except they’d decided to eat again, so I rigged up the longest pooper scooper ever and by standing on a step ladder was able to clean the area well enough so that the hose could finish it up. All this time the pair kept an eye on me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about my promise.

On the fifth day I went inside the house. Dirty and messy as a sick man's house often gets I set about doing dishes, emptying trash, washing his laundry and putting it back in the dresser, and generally cleaning house. A very strange feeling this is, being in a man's house who has passed and you still have this desire to respect their privacy and not snoop where you don’t belong, except now I belonged everywhere. I just had to get used to the idea of it all. Any meat in the fridge was cooked up for the dog's dinner, the rest of everything went out with the garbage which in this neck of the woods was a big 4.5 meter long tandem axle trailer where you filled plastic bins until they were full, then you towed it to the landfill. I started counting, by the time the house was finally sold and I handed over the keys I’d made over 120 trips to the landfill.

By the seventh day there was really no improvement with the dogs and any hope I had of finding them a happy home were in rapid decline. The home could have no children and would have to be managed by someone who knew schutzen trained dogs or at the least was willing to learn a lot in a short time frame. By now I’d actually had several people offer to take them but they were either clueless and only saw them as cute puppies, or were evil and looking for either fighting dogs or worse.. the vultures that pretend they’ll go to good homes during your time of grief and then sell them to be used for medical experimentation. Bigger dogs bring higher prices as they make good practice for aspiring surgeons. He’d told me about that, made me promise I’d do as he said, and now I was starting to see things his way. By the end of the ninth day I’d reconciled my promise and when I left that day I stopped by my vets office to pick up some medication and arranged with her a time for the next day in the early afternoon. For over a month now I’d been trying to make these dogs my friends, during all my visits, after his passing, it was a daily thing and I was failing. I knew the only acceptable alternative was to bring them to my own ranch and make them my own, but with my children there it would have been highly irresponsible. It’s funny, when something distasteful needs to be done you can really come up with some off the wall rationalizations to avoid the unpleasant part, and I figured he knew that when he made me promise.

The next morning I awoke early and stopping by McDonalds picked up four 12 piece chicken nugget packages. Driving up the steep drive that day the dogs didn’t bark, for the first time they recognized and accepted my vehicle and were standing there at the gate with their stumps wagging and a friendly look on their face. Surprised would be an understatement, did they read my mind? Did they know what was going to happen? Deciding they at least deserved some final freedom I took a chance and opened the gate letting them free. They were like two puppies having a great time, chasing each other, playing ball with me, rolling onto their backs so I could rub their bellies, and standing perfectly still while I brushed their coats and made them shine. He’d always prided himself on his breeding standards and the beauty of these two champions was undeniable. They stood side by side stone still as I brushed them with their muscles rippling and noses to the wind, finer specimens I’d never witnessed. We took a walk in the woods and they stuck right by me, not venturing off too far on their own, making sure they could always see and protect me. Later I looked at my watch and knew I only had an hour till she arrived so I took out the chicken nuggets and the bottle of tranquilizers and slipped one inside each nugget. Sitting on the lawn with them I tossed them nugget after nugget until they were finished.

Forty-five minutes later I heard the vets truck rumble up the drive and I was glad I’d slipped on their leashes. Even heavily drugged and relaxed their aggression was extreme and it was all I could do to control them. Parking I asked her to sit in the truck and give the drugs more time to work. Fifteen minutes later I had two very sleepy schutzen trained attack dogs with their heads on my lap letting me rub their ears. To say I had an internal conflict going on would be an understatement, but I knew if I displayed any uneasiness or reservations at all the dogs would pick up on it and we’d have a violent scene to deal with. I wanted it to be peaceful, serene if possible, as humane as we could make it.

I signaled for her to approach and she came and sat beside me and soon they accepted her. She looked at me, questioning me if it was time, and holding out my hand for her bag she shook her head and said that was her job. No, it was definitely my job. I’d made the promise, the dogs trusted me. First one and then the other, I found their veins and gave them each two pre-prepared injections as their eyes followed me, trusting me. With their heads on my lap I watched them, stroked their heads, talked to them, said it would be ok. After some minutes their eyes closed and I could feel their hearts stop under my hand. I nodded at the vet unable to speak and putting the stethoscope in her ears she confirmed they’d passed. Silently she packed her bag and put it in her truck, only returning to bend down and give me a hug from behind and to whisper that I’d done the right thing. I sat there as she drove down the drive and was still sitting there two hours later when the guy from the animal cremation service arrived. I helped him bag and transfer their bodies and he gave me a receipt and left.

Standing on the hill alone I noticed that for the first time in all the hundreds of times I’d been here before, there was silence. No cars, no other voices, and no dogs barking. Only the wind whispering through the evergreens. Grabbing some tools I went to work in silent frustration disassembling the kennel and putting all the pieces of their home, food, bowls, all of it went into the trailer and then to the landfill that same day. Before I left that day all signs of the two schutzen trained attack dogs were gone, but something else was gone with them. I can’t explain it, I can only tell you how I felt standing there that day. Until that moment it didn’t feel like he was really gone. And now he was. Now, everything felt empty. I felt empty. And I hadn’t yet fulfilled my promise.

Later that week I stopped by the animal cremation place and picked up two boxes with their ashes, and on the same trip stopped by the mortuary and picked up his ashes, and then went home. Driving down my drive I turned off at the barn and pulled inside the barn instead of where I normally park. Taking all three cardboard boxes from the truck I sat them on the floor, took a bucket, and emptied all the ashes into the bucket and mixed them well. I put most of the ashes back in the box from the mortuary and resealed it, and put the rest in a small handmade dovetailed box I’d made from his favorite wood, black walnut. That box I placed on a shelf and the next box I hand delivered to the VA’s cemetery. They had refused to put the dogs ashes with his saying it was against policy, so I did it myself and didn’t say anything. They told me his grave and marker would all be complete on a certain date and gave me a card with the time/date on it to come back and visit.

Five years later, in July. The flight from Bangkok was long as usual but I’d really enjoyed the drive from San Francisco to Oregon. I had a few pieces of business to attend to, but here I was at the VA cemetery with my youngest son to deal with the most important part. This should have taken place five years ago, but somehow they’d lost his ashes. It’s a very small cemetery, it’s hard to believe it’s possible at all to have lost a plainly marked cardboard box, but they did. At the time they’d tried to tell me it didn’t matter whose ashes went where, then they’d tried to offer me “replacement ashes” so they could finally place his marker. I didn’t budge, over a dozen letters, even more emails, phone calls, and only after tracking down a temporary worker in another state did I learn what had happened to his ashes. They were retrieved, placed in the handmade box I had provided, and placed below his marker on the gentle slope facing the stand of evergreens by the river. We’d brought lunch, and my son and I laid out a blanket next to his marker and ate lunch, told stories about his grandfather, looked at his pictures, and talked for hours about everything we could think of. The first time he taught me to shoot, the first time I taught my son to shoot while his grandfather looked on making sure I did it right, what it must have been like during his service in the war, what it was like during my service in the war, and about promises and responsibility. What it meant to keep a promise even when you’d rather not. All three of us enjoyed lunch that day.

Yesterday I finally completed my promise. He knew my habits, that I have a wanderlust, and that finding a place I could call “home” might not ever happen with me. That day in the truck, with the rain pouring down and the slick mountain passes, he’d told me to make sure no one could ever mistreat his dogs. I asked how, and without missing a beat he asked me to put them down and bury them all together. Then he said to save a few of the ashes, and when I think I might have found a real home, a place where I might live out my days, to find a pretty place near a river and leave part of him there. I think this was the Native American part of him speaking, if he’s here then it would be easier for me to put down roots. Today I woke up early appreciating that the weather has changed this week, Bangkok has really cooled off. Driving down by the Chao Praya I parked and taking the small hand made box walked down by the seawall and left part of him there. The biggest part of him I’ll continue to carry with me everywhere.

Until next time..

Stickman's thoughts:

Touching.