It’s a day I’ve seen sneaking up in my calendar for a month. Days even weeks went by when I didn’t notice it until, again, this week, I was reminded that this Saturday would be April 25th … a day that would have marked Ben’s 19th birthday. This would be the first birthday where Ben wasn’t here any longer to be part of it.
Tears have been welling up in my eyes constantly over the past week — and as I have gazed into pictures of him and remembered and longed for him, tears have streamed down my cheeks.
In anticipation of today, I have been focused on remembering — on celebrating a life lived, a life shared, a miracle. But even in focusing on the beautiful memories, his absence on this day was poignant. There would be no “Ben dinner” this year … no great meal created just for him. No plate on the floor for him alone. There’d be no spring bath and grooming in anticipation of our traditional photo shoot. There’d be no birthday nap, no presents, no birthday kisses … no fingers buried deep into the fur of his neck as I held him close and said “Happy Birthday, Ben — I love you.”
This was an anniversary that marked an absence more than anything … but it was still a day to remember a presence, a presence that more than lingers, a presence that is imprinted on my heart in my memory forever.
There was one place I wanted to be today, a place I needed to go to remember … and without even thinking, I knew there was something I had to do today. Jess offered me ice cream — Dairy Queen — knowing that it was one of the favourite pastimes shared between Ben and I … and I agreed, it would be a perfect remembrance, but I added, “I want to go Conroy Pit.”
Conroy Pit is one of the largest parks in the city of Ottawa and is an area operated by the National Capital Commission and one of the few areas in the city designated for dogs and off-leash play. It is a place that Ben and I spent hours adding up to months over our life together and it is the place I think of most when I think of Ben. It was our place — and while it was shared by hundreds of other dogs, we had our own special places within the park, places that will remains “ours.”
As much as I needed to revisit this space and celebrate it with ice cream, I needed Ben to be there with me, so I went to my shelf where Ben’s ashes have sat since they were returned to me at the end of October and I gathered him to bring him with us.
I never thought I would keep Ben’s ashes, but when they arrived in October, I was in no emotional space to do anything with them and then winter came … and so Ben has sat in the living room with me ever since. Today was a day for him to go for a walk back to one of my favourite spots in the park.
I retraced the paths of Conroy Pit, sharing memories with Jess along the way and felt the wave of emotion rush over me as familiar trails opened up in front of us … trails that seemed empty and wide without Ben on them to share them with us. The long dormancy of a long winter still shrouded the park, absent of buds, absent of new life. The park was as Ben left it ….
We eventually came to the tree, an old almost ancient maple, that has long been an anchor for me in one distant corner of the park seldom traversed by other walkers. It stood majestic against the grey sky while ribbons of blue opened up out of the heavens above. Ben was with us.
The tears began as I just stood there and felt the expansiveness of the tree. I then went to the bag that had held the ‘urn,’ a stainless steel container that had held Ben’s dog treats for so many years, and I reached inside to lift out the velvet pouch. I opened this for the first time to discover a plastic bag inside that held the ashes of Ben, tied with a gold ribbon, and as I fumbled with the knots the tears just came coming.
I remained stunned and hurt by the fact that the weight of my dog, my Ben, who at his peak, when he ran these trails with me and played fetch for hours, was once 35 pounds and who at his passing weighed almost half of that, now fit in the palm of my hand weighing no more than a few infinitely precious pounds. And I placed Ben on top of a moss-covered fence post that separated the tree from the path and I collected myself for what was about to come.
I tossed a pile of leaves into the air to confirm the direction of the wind and then I reached inside the bag and carefully slid my fingers into Ben, feeling not the smooth and sometimes wiriness of his fur this time, but the granularity of a life reduced to sands in what remains of our hourglass. I carefully lifted a small handful of his ashes and closing my eyes I envisioned Ben, said happy birthday — I love you — and I tossed him into the winds that wrapped the tree, letting them lift him up in the motion of the day.
And as the park gathered up this part of Ben in its arms making Ben a part of it forever, Jess wrapped up the rest of Ben’s ashes to bring home, because while I knew that this was something I had to do today, I wasn’t quite ready to release the rest of Ben to the park … at least not on this day.
I went back to the melted remains of our Dairy Queen blizzards we had carried deep into the woods and prepared to make one final gesture. While Ben wasn’t Irish (though he undoubtedly had some Irish terrier in him), I wasn’t going to pouring whiskey on his grave — instead, I poured the melted ice cream at the base of the tree and whispered, “Happy birthday, buddy.”
And, with that, we took a long walk back through the park, remembering the many days and times that Ben and I had spent here, remembering the paths we had literally created together, the hundreds of photos I took of him here and the photos I took of the park while he accompanied me. I remembered the barks of joy, the silly looks and play, and the beauty we shared for so many years and I love that will not die.
All text and images © Dale Schierbeck
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