I’ve learned the importance of immersing myself in emotions good and bad. I force myself to look terror straight in the eyes. Often, I let despair wash over me completely. I once believed that I could do these things because I was certain that, in the end, I would crawl back out of the depths. Armed with this certainty, I would allow dark feelings to close up around me and drag me into the deep. I believed it to be my greatest protection against the fall.
A few months ago, I was reminded that there is a final fall: the inevitable fall from which one doesn’t get up again. While I had already experienced the deaths of relatives, it was the death of a pet that struck me. Our family dog, Jack. ‘Why is this so hard for me?’ I asked myself over and over again. Could it have been the sight of life leaving his body, his eyes gone blank? He didn’t disappear with a phone call, or a friend’s careful report; he died under my gaze. I wanted to know where he went. I hated the idea of lowering him into the open ground knowing he would never stand above it again. I hated the whole concept, because it threatened the certainty that once made me strong. Our story can’t always end with a rise – eventually, we all lie down for good. Everyone we know, everyone we love. This truth shook the ground beneath me and made it hard to plant my feet.
My brother, sister and I drove out to the edges of Dufferin County, to bury Jack on a property where family lives. Our collection of supplies: three shovels, a beer for each of us, and cigarettes for my brother. We came to the quiet place we had chosen, all swaying grass and light breeze, the sky just a little bit cloudy. We opened up the ground with our shovels.
Sometimes we dug with quiet determination, at other times furiously, releasing a desperate energy we couldn’t make sense of. We laughed at how we struggled, and began to marvel at the displacement of earth, the mountain it created and the deepness of the hole. When the hole became too deep to dig from the surface, I crawled down into the opening. The drop was far enough to jostle the wind out of me as I hit the bottom, and I wondered if we could stave off the final stages of burial by digging forever. Or at least straight through to China. I loosened the clay floor with a shovel and then hauled it up with bare hands. We each took turns doing this, and when one of us became exhausted, the other two would reach down and haul them back to the surface. When the digging was done, we paused and sat for a long time before lowering the little makeshift casket.
It takes bravery to examine the things we fear, and to move forward when there is no certainty to be found. As the first shovelful of dirt fell, I realized that strength can exist when certainty is absent as well. For when we learn that the ground we stand on today is the ground we all become, it takes strength to walk across such unsteady terrain. All this time I’ve been proud of my scramble up and away from the deep, returning again and again to the same space above ground, feet firmly planted. I’m learning now that true strength comes from pressing forward into darkness, moving through it to the other side. It’s the action we must all take in the end.