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Douglas James Troxell

Douglas James Troxell lives and writes in Macungie, Pennsylvania. When he's not writing, you can find him playing disc golf, reading Kurt Vonnegut novels, or watching wonderfully horrible Nicolas Cage movies. His work has previously appeared in Mobius: The Journal for Social Change, Dark Futures, and The Book of the Macabre. To read more of his work, visit: 

A Father’s Burden

By Douglas James Troxell
(Summer, 2018)

Of course the damn dog had to die on my son’s birthday. Mason turns ten and our Cocker Spaniel, Chewbacca, drops dead. It was certainly inconsiderate of the dog, but I figure he didn’t have much say in the matter. He was thirteen years old. Chewbacca dying was sad enough, but the tragic part of his passing was that Mason would forever associate his birthday with Chewy’s death. Growing up I had a hamster named Fluffball that died on the Fourth of July, and I still say a prayer for that ball of fur every time a firework explodes overhead.

Chewy’s death, however, did afford me the opportunity to make good on a “future dad” promise I made to myself growing up. I assume every little boy makes a dozen or so of these promises that usually starts with the phrase, “When I’m a father, I’ll never…” or “When I’m a father, I’ll make sure I…”

Growing up, my family was always a pet family. The first pet’s death I remember was our Golden Retriever, Casey, when I was seven. My father loved that dog. I mean, it was clear he always liked my sister and me well enough, but he loved that dog. I remember coming downstairs when I couldn’t sleep and finding my father sitting in his recliner, Casey at the side, both of them eating cheese balls and watching Charlie’s Angels.

When Casey finally succumbed to a heart condition the summer of ’78, the family was a mess. I expected my father to be struck by Casey’s death the hardest, but he was the only one who didn’t weep in the parking lot of the vet’s office. We brought Casey’s body back home wrapped in his favorite blanket. My father instructed me to get the shovel from our shed. I had already made the decision in my seven-year-old mind that, as the eldest son, it was my duty to assist my father with the burial. I knew he was hiding just how hurt he was by the loss of his cheese ball companion, and I didn’t want him to have to bear the burden alone.

When I told my father about my intentions to assist with the burial, he took the shovel and shook his head. “No, son,” he said. “One day you’ll be the dad and this will be your burden to bear—but not today.” And he left me there with my weeping mother and sobbing sister.

At the time I thought maybe he considered me too young to handle such a morbid chore, but then I got the same response two years later when Molly, our Golden Retriever puppy, managed to get into our parakeet cage and then again on that Fourth of July when Fluffball passed on to the giant exercise wheel in the sky.

“No, son. One day you’ll be the dad and this will be your burden to bear—but not today.”

There was no arguing with the man. I realized after that I would never be mature enough to assist with the burial duties—no matter how old I was. For whatever reason, he was determined to hoard all the pain and loss for himself. I made a promise that day when I was finally the dad, if my son wanted to help bury the family pet, I would welcome the help.

Mason’s tenth birthday was the day I would finally make good on that promise.

My son and I ventured out to the back corner of the yard I had always envisioned as our family pet cemetery. I picked out the best plot possible near the corner of poplar trees separating our property from the neighbors. I did my best to hide my ignorance of digging technique from my son, who sat cross-legged between two of the poplars, waiting to assist with the filling in of the grave. Since my father never allowed me to assist him in the burial process, I had no idea how long the digging would take or how deep or wide the hole should be. But I soldiered on—because my son was watching, and, somewhere, I felt my own father watching, too.

I must have been going at it for close to an hour before the hole was about three feet deep and wide enough for Chewy’s body. I had been so wrapped up in the digging I had forgotten Mason was even there. I glanced over and there he was, still sitting between the poplars next to Chewy in his blanket.

And then it was time.

Mason stood and I noticed he had the other shovel from our garage. At some point during my digging marathon, he must have retrieved it in preparation for the actual burial, a job that, unlike the digging of the hole, would not be hampered by a second man.

The shovel was taller than he was. This boy, who had just added a second digit to the number of years he had been on the earth, stood doing his best impression of what he thought a man should look like.

I reached back into my memory, trying to capture the feeling of sticking a dog I loved into the ground and piling dirt on top of his body, but I realized I had no point of reference. All my memories of the family pets were of the animal being alive and then the horrible day of its death, standing over the grave after the burial was already complete.

I told Mason to give me his shovel and go back inside the house.

“But why?” he asked. “Don’t you want me to help?”

“No, son,” I said. “Someday you’ll be the dad and this will be your burden to bear—but not today. Not today.”