My boyhood backyard was anything but a typical backyard. Minus the above ground pool, gas grill and patio furniture, it sloped at a 60 degree angle upwards, forming a suburban, forced steppe to the North. In the winter, as kids, we used it for sledding. And in the summer, as kids, we bemoaned its difficulties as a mow-able lawn.
My father’s answer for the latter: a self-propelled lawnmower, worked for a time. But his long term solution proved more agreeable for lazy, teenagers in the suburbs of New Jersey. He planted ivy at the top, and in a few short years, it began to grow down the slope, slowly covering over the angled area of grass with dense, green vines. As a part-time landscaper, my father was rewarded by the successes of his experiment, and as full-time slackers in the 16-year-old, don’t give a shit about the upkeep of the house department, the ivy meant less work with the lawnmower. It was, in the very best of ways, a mutually beneficial solution to grass growing on a steep hill, and children that cared less and less about their home as they aged year by year.
Our dog, an 80 lb. mutt named George, spent hours in said backyard. And it never tired him. Between squirrels, rabbits and laps around the above ground pool, there never seemed to be a dull moment for that dog in the backyard on the side of a hill, half-covered in ivy and dog shit. He knew it end on end, traversing it daily and announcing to his fellow animals in the area, “This is my backyard, stay away (and don’t think you can hide in the ivy.)” He had made it into his territory, and he maintained it as his own. To his credit, he dismantled rabbit nests (crunching the rabbit offspring between his teeth,) chased trespassers away (even if they were friends casually using the backyard as a shortcut between two roads,) killed a cat or two (hiding the bodies in the ivy) and even drank a saucepan full of cooling cooking oil on one dreaded (and vomit-filled) occasion.
George owned the yard, and he continued to do so until his death in February of 1994, leaving a trail of paw prints behind in the snow as a mark of his presence. At the time, I was 19, living away at school, and not ready to deal with the death.
When my father called me, and announced that my brother was also on the line, I just knew that something couldn’t be right. And they didn’t beat around the bush: George had been sick, but because he was a pack animal, he had kept it hidden to prevent his pack, which by now was essentially (but not instinctually) myself, my brother and my father, from turning on him and/or abandoning him. He stumbled, and fell, and my father and brother rushed him to a 24-hour vet in Linden, where he died a time later.
The ice on the stairs to my apartment in New Brunswick hadn’t yet been cleared from the last storm, and although I don’t remember dropping the phone and running into the cold night, I do remember falling backwards down the stairs, clipping the back of my head on the top stair, then instantly getting up and continuing to run to my car. I drove the 20 or so miles home, and tried in vain to take some expired asthma medication to fall asleep. The house was too quiet, and George’s food bowls remained in the kitchen.
Sometime in the middle of the night, when I realized that George’s familiar weight wouldn’t be crashing at the foot of my childhood bed, I got up and walked downstairs. I pulled on my shoes and walked into the cold night of the backyard, unbeknownst to my father and brother. And there, in a moonlit and snow-covered yard, lay George’s footprints, circling around the pool and traversing up the hillside of the backyard. Not knowing what to do or how to react, I traced his tracks around the pool and up the slope of the backyard, careful to not blemish the physical marks he had left in the snow. In the morning, I returned to school, and inevitably initiated the grieving process.
February turned to March, then March to April, and George’s footprints melted into the topsoil. And as I reached for anything to mark his presence in this world, my boyhood backyard stood silent under my dog’s gainful watch, ivy glistening down the slope in the morning New Jersey sun. George everywhere.