In a place that’s far away from everything and also at the center of the universe, a shaft of light streams through the pines and maples overhead. The maple leaves are finally turning, starting at the tips furthest from the stems, glowing autumn fire bleeding into still summer green. The beam spills through to the forest floor, where a woman stands in the ferns and the moss. She is gazing up, arms outstretched, a silhouette against brindle light and shade, her shadow long in the morning sun, her faithful dog (her other shadow) at her feet.
The smile on her face is visible.
The woman has been here before, has been in this very spot before, but it’s the first time she’s been whole here.
“Don’t move,” Mom said. We were together in the woods, on Coyote’s path. I was holding my cell phone up and out, aiming to capture the maple leaf phase change against the faultless blue sky, the handle of my dog’s retractable leash clutched between my knees. I grinned, realizing what she was doing. It suited my purpose fine, holding still to steady my hands, while she took a picture of me taking a picture.
It’s a great shot, Mom’s I mean: I never would have been able to see the woman for myself, otherwise. I would only ever have been able to guess. Or maybe hope.
We were there to figure out what to do with Coyote’s bones.
Two years ago, already quite some time had passed since Coyote had curled up like she was sleeping, at the foot of a big old pine. When we found her, her flesh was gone, her fur puddled around her bones like a soft blanket. No scavengers had scattered her. We marveled at each bleached segment of her resting skeleton. I picked up her skull, and then I couldn’t put it down. Mom covered the rest of her with branches. Months later I had a dream in which I was very old, and was living on that spot where we’d found her dormant bones: it was called Coyote’s Rest. I told Mom about the dream, and she promptly made a sign from weathered boards, and nailed the dream name up on a tree for all to see.
The sign is still there, but Mom wants to cut away some branches that have already grown in and occluded it from view.
The woods likes its secrets, and you have to look carefully to find the things that have come and gone before. We laugh about it still: that first time two years ago, we had walked straight over poor Coyote’s whole carcass without even noticing her. We were looking up, at the transforming foliage, taking pictures that probably look exactly like the ones I’d take two years later. It wasn’t until we were coming back along the same path that we saw her skull, lying on top of what remained of her as it all merged into the fur and the dirt and the moss.
Waiting patiently as only the dead can.
Two years ago, my marriage was dying. I’d made an extra-long trip to my mother’s for our October birthdays, sure, but also and as much to get away from that advancing certainty.
Two years ago, I picked that coyote skull up, held it in my hands, and my very first thought was, “John. Bring this to John.”
When you love an alcoholic, you’re always in pieces. You go away, to get away, and parts of you come apart, so you can stay where he is, even when you’re gone. So you’re never really gone, and you’re never really in the place you are, because part of you is always there with him. Caught.
You’re never whole, fractured everywhere you go, fragmented and afraid.
I was born a light person: an optimist by nature. Instead of resting bitch face, I have resting rollercoaster face. I’m sure people have wondered if a constant bright grin must hide a rather dim vacuum. “How hard can it be?” is my (often rather clueless, I admit) mantra. Everything from sewing a black velvet dress for Christmas without a sewing machine, a pattern, or even five seconds of sewing experience, to going to college for a physics degree twelve years out of high school. (Mom ended up making the dress. I got the degree, though.)
Two years ago, the birthday trip was also the first road trip with my dog. After an unskillful and too-quick introduction on my part, he took not a little bit of dislike to my mother’s one hundred and fifty-pound Great Dane, and that entire first evening after a twelve-hour drive was spent trying to keep my normally-docile dog’s teeth out of the loose parts of the poor and very curious Dane’s face.
I went to bed with my stressed-out dog, and was in the throes of a full-blown panic attack. Breathing heavy, my heart pounding, I decided that I would drive back the next morning. I couldn’t subject my mom and her dog to this for the next two weeks.
I finally fell asleep to the sounds of a meditation app unspooling in my ear. It must have helped, because by morning I had changed my mind.
(Later, when I tell Mom how close I’d come to making the other decision, she says, “I would have laid down behind your car,” which makes me laugh even typing it. As if I could have gotten away so easily.)
Instead of driving off, I told Mom something that had just occurred to me for the first time. I told her I felt like a battered spouse, which I didn’t do easily, nor without a lot of apologizing for the affront. But, disaster my current template, I could see myself wincing, waiting for the blow I was always sure was coming.
(As it turns out, within a few days, my miserable pup had cheered up considerably, even developing amorous feelings for Mom’s Dane, and if the sight of an 18-pound Chihuahua mix putting the moves on a dog a whole order of magnitude larger than him doesn’t lighten your mood, nothing will. Disaster: averted. A novelty. And a lesson.)
Mom had been to Coyote’s Rest with my niece recently, and noticed that Coyote’s bones had been disturbed from under their airy branches. They’d returned all the pieces they could find to her, and found more branches and a small stone to cover her. But Mom thought it was time to bury Coyote, to protect the bony little guardian and namesake of the woody ridge.
So the next morning, we came back with a shovel, my dog leading the now-familiar way. We moved the stone and branches, and pawed through the dirt to pull together all of her pieces, big and small. For all that we’d thought we’d seen of her complete skeleton, we kept finding smaller and smaller bones, tiny tail tips and toes and even two bitty teeth, the empty sockets of which I had noticed in the skull I still held six hundred miles away.
Once the ground yielded no more of her, we dug a hole. Then we laid each bone in, a pelvis and a single scapula (the other shoulder blade missing), leg bones and rib bones and beautiful, intricate rings of vertebrae, sprinkled the tiny bones over like seasoning, laid leaves on top, and filled the rest of the hole with the dirt we’d dug. The small stone, intriguingly heart-shaped, went on top of the freshly-turned earth.
A year ago, my marriage died officially, the phase change completed by a fifteen-minute conference call with the county court. I kept the skull. He didn’t argue. (It sits on the shelf with our first dog’s ashes.) And suddenly, it was time to scrape my scattered pieces back together.
Of course, some pieces are missing, and there are strange pieces that seem like mine but don’t seem to fit anywhere.
I’ve taken back my name, or my father’s name, my father’s father’s name, an infinite regression of father’s names, which oddly I’m more attached to now than I have ever been. When I first divorced, I thought, I’m not her anymore. But then I thought, Maybe this is the first time I’ll be her.
I am changed.
But I am not undone.
There’s quiet now where there was chaos, and solutions to compounded problems that are breathtaking in their simplicity.
In the steep decline of our relationship, the front door’s deadbolt started to seize up, to the point that you couldn’t even get a key to turn in it (if you could get the key in at all). The stuck lock was a constant struggle. Every day I would come home from work, and wonder if he, working from home for years now, had locked it, forgetting that I couldn’t open it, “forgetting” despite the sign on a hot pink post-it that I’d taped carefully above the lock, a friendly DO NOT LOCK THIS LOCK IF WE’RE NOT BOTH IN THE HOUSE (the GODDAMN IT was left implied). Odds were slightly better than one to one that I would end my work day standing on my own doorstep, banging furiously on a door that I couldn’t open, wondering if my husband was catatonic upstairs, or dead, or just an asshole, or some combination of the three. He would appear at great length, peevish, asking me what the hell I was banging on the door like that for, as if we hadn’t just had this very same conversation the day before, and two days before that, and last Friday, and… Then he would say, “I’ll call someone to fix it,” and the next day, I’d find myself in the exact same place, wondering how the weighted coin toss would go this time.
And months and months after the divorce, no sense hurrying simplicity, I purchased a can of WD40 on an absolute whim, and with a single squirt of oil through the long red nozzle into the keyway, the deadbolt worked like new.
You’ve got to admit, that’s kind of hilarious.
Mom remembers finding bones in the front yard, and realizing that they were from one of our buried dogs, dug up by scavengers, maybe a fox or a skunk (or possibly a coyote).
She wanted to place a larger stone over Coyote’s new grave.
She’d found the perfect stone, the day we dug the hole. It was a big piece of granite, rounded along one edge, jagged and broken along the other, only partially buried. She was able to dig it out and roll it over, but it weighed maybe seventy-five pounds, perhaps closer to a hundred. We needed tools.
So the next day, we returned with a power wheelbarrow (I swear I am not in the pocket of Big Wheelbarrow, so please believe me when I say it’s the coolest piece of yard equipment this side of my slick, battery-operated, seldom-used snow blower) and managed to maneuver the stone into place.
Realizing we needed it set into the ground a bit, we returned the day after that with a pick axe (which you really can only carry slung over your shoulder), flipped the stone, dug grooves into the ground, then dropped the stone back into place and pulled moss up around its shoulders.
Mom placed a smaller, round granite stone on top of the larger one as a finishing touch, and we stood back to survey our interment efforts, wholly satisfied and more than a little happy.
Coyote’s Rest. Finally.
Humans are absurdly skilled at generating meaning, at creating connections, at finding patterns. It’s how we can see a face in the craters of the moon or in the mountains and valleys of Mars.
What kills the soul in alcoholic hijacking is how meaningless everything becomes. How unconnected everything is. How everything, no matter how simple, dissolves into chaos. When a Canis latrans skull offered up from my mother’s father’s land is just a thing, of course you can leave it behind. It has no meaning.
Several times, I watched Mom tell the story of our exploits as Coyote’s undertakers with a wry and pre-emptive, “Aren’t we foolish?” I recognize it as the special defense mechanism of someone who’s had one too many pairs of eyeballs rolled at her for earnest effort and heartfelt fascination.
As if finding meaning in chaos could ever be a waste of time. As if transmuting disaster into delight for someone with post-traumatic stress isn’t magic.
As if gathering up the scattered pieces of a life could ever be foolish.
If you’d like support to help you gather up the pieces, please consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery.