Have Ashes, Will Travel

by Maggie Van Ostrand


“I can’t go on,” I bawled to the empty room. Markus, my beloved canine companion who had been with me for over 14 adventure filled years, had passed away two weeks earlier. It was the worst time of my life, and I was so busy suffering that I wouldn’t answer the phone or the doorbell to allow kind friends to comfort me. I wanted no consolation for none could dissipate the knot in my chest, nor fill the place in my heart where Markus once lived. It was a far worse natural disaster than previously experienced, like fires and earthquakes. They only took my home. This one took my heart.

 About a week into my period of self-imposed isolation, someone shoved a newspaper clipping under the front door. It was from the Los Angeles Times. It said grief counseling for pet owners was to take place at 7:00 p.m. that very evening at the Glendale Adventist Medical Center, about 40 minutes drive from my house. “Maybe I’ll go,” I muttered, “I really must do something. I can’t go on like this. It’s time to get a grip,” and I weaved through the freeway traffic to Glendale. Perhaps professional help would ease the pain and enable me to function.

 At the Information Desk in the Medical Center, I showed the man in charge the newspaper article and confirmed that pet owner grief counseling was to be held in the Chaplain’s office in half an hour. The man clucked sympathetically, pointed me toward the appropriate door, and pushed a pamphlet across the desk claiming that reading it would help me accept and ultimately overcome my pain. Waiting in the hallway for the chaplain to arrive and unlock his office was a sad-looking woman dressed in black. She was shifting from one foot to the other, her hands twisting a damp handkerchief with which she occasionally daubed at her eyes. Perhaps, I thought, if I can get her to talk , it will distract me from my own loss. Isn’t that what life is all about? People helping people? Finding a connection? She looked at me and I don’t think I ever before saw so much sadness in a pair of eyes. She looked as I felt. A kindred soul.

 After introducing herself, she asked compassionately, “When did you suffer your loss?” “I lost my Markus two weeks ago,” I sniffed, feeling my chin begin to tremble and my eyes to well up. “It’s been nearly a year since I lost my Kenny and I’m not over it yet,” she said slowly, gazing into the distance at an invisible horizon. We talked about how difficult it was to be with someone for years and years only to have them suddenly go. Just like that. Snatched away when you weren’t expecting it. We talked about how, even if we had expected it, there’s really no preparation for the devastating feelings rampant in the survivor. She had opted for Kenny’s cremation, as I had with Markus, and both of us had decided not to scatter the ashes but to keep them with us.

 “My ashes, I told the woman, “are in my car in the parking garage downstairs. I couldn’t bear going anywhere without Markus.” “Mine are in the bedroom we shared for so long. It’s comforting to know that part of my Kenny is still with me. I confided that when I wasn’t driving around with his ashes, Markus also was kept in my bedroom just like when he was alive. “Twin beds?” Catherine inquired, continuing, “That’s what we had after my Kenny got the cancer.” “No, we slept in the same bed. Markus never got sick. He just died. No warning, just died.” “Oh you poor thing,” she said, putting her arms around me. What people say about sharing feelings and the magic of a hug is true.

A bit of the sadness lifted from my mind and I began to hope that it wouldn’t be too long before I could return to work. It was right about then that she said, “It’s worse for me at this time of year. My Kenny was going to get an RV and drive us to Phoenix.” “What?” “Kenny was going to rent an RV and we were going to drive to Phoenix," she said louder, "Say, what’s the matter. You’ve gone all white. You look just awful.” The woman was talking about her husband and I was talking about my dog. I had been directed to the wrong grief center, the one for spouses, not pets. “Uh, I don’t feel well,” I said, swiping at my forehead with a Kleenex.

“I understand dear,” she said patting my arm, “It’s just too soon for you to be out in public.”