Losing Abby, Losing Innocence: Family, Lies, and the Fourth of July
July 4, 1976. According to the family records, the first Independence Day celebration at our Northern California ranch was in 1909. Every year of my mother’s life and mine, we’d cranked out home-made ice cream, put up flags and bunting, and set off fireworks on a dampened lawn.
1976 is different, and I know it. I feel as if I’ve spent all of third grade getting ready for this bicentennial Fourth of July. The preparations are frantic. We are expecting over 120 guests for dinner, homemade ice cream, and fireworks. “Our largest Fourth ever,” says my grandmother, and none can contradict her.
That summer, my nine year-old self has a new dog. Keiska, the dachshund arrived in our lives just before the previous Christmas. She was intended as a family dog, but my brother’s affection for this 12 pounds of brown shorthaired ferocity is limited. My mother’s is even less.
Keiska is mine. I am the one to feed her and walk her every day when I get home from school. When school lets out and we move to the ranch for the summer, Keiska and I are together 24 hours a day. We tramp the hills together, feed the horses together (Keiska sits very quietly at a safe distance), and take naps together. When I try to get into the pool, Keiska runs up and down on the side, barking madly until I climb out.
Shortened swims are a small price to pay for a love unlike any I’ve ever known.
My cousin Dean calls. “Hugo, come help us take trash to the dump.”
It is 9:00 in the morning, already hot. The old ranch pickup is loaded with garbage bags. George, our leathery caretaker sits behind the wheel. He’d been a frogman in the Second World War; in the eyes of a young boy, every step he takes and every word he speaks is pregnant with potential lethality.
George loves dogs nearly as much as I do, which means he loves them more than people. He calls my pup “Feeska.”
Dean is 20, handsome with blonde hair falling to his shoulders. He is my hero, a fact I make embarrassingly clear by the way I study and imitate him.
I pick up Keiska and sit on the old Ford’s tailgate, and the truck begins to move.
“Take Abby,” calls my Aunt Marianna, opening a door. A large beagle bursts out as if propelled by gunpowder. Abby is seven years old, and though she belongs to all of the Butlers, my cousin Meg, a leggy and quiet 15, is the one most devoted to her.
Meg and Marianna wave from the door as the truck accelerated up the gravel road. I hold on tight to Keiska with one hand while the knuckles on my other grow white from gripping the tailgate. As she always does Abby runs alongside.
Keiska whines, impatient in my arms, wanting to run with her friend. Abby is Keiska’s hero, and in the two weeks since all the families had moved in for the summer season, Keiska has followed Abby everywhere.
Abby had snapped and snarled at first, but in the last few days has either acquiesced to the inevitable or developed a reluctant fondness for one very persistent little dachshund.
At the top of the ranch road is a hard right turn onto a cattle guard. I brace myself as I know from experience the truck will bounce and jolt as it crosses. Halfway across, a small thump.
In 40 years, I have never forgotten that thump, or the two seconds of silence that follow, or Abby’s awful wrenching yelps.
The truck stops. I can see Abby caught in the cattle guard, all four legs below the steel bars, her body almost flat.
Keiska begins to shake violently in my arms. Dean runs to his sister’s dog, and then jerks his hand away as Abby bites him.
“Gloves, damn it! George, I need gloves!”
George throws him gloves, taps me on the shoulder.
“You and Feeska get back down to the house now. Tell them to call a vet.”
As George and Dean work to extract the injured, howling Abby, I carry Keiska back down to the houses. I feel very calm. I’m not shaking. For the first but not last time in my life, I feel the clarity crisis brings.
I find Meg and Marianna. “Abby got hit by the truck,” I announce.
“Oh my God, just what we need. Is she alive?” My practical aunt.
“Yes. They’re getting her out of the cattle guard.”
Meg studies me. And then without a word she begins to run up the road, her sandals kicking up the gravel.
We have one old phone book, and it takes a while to locate a vet open on the Fourth of July. While the calls are made, Dean and Meg wrap Abby in blankets and put her in our largest basket.
It is the basket my mother uses every summer for picking lavender. The wicker always holds the scent until Christmas.
Abby lies in her basket on the front porch table. I sit down next to her, heeding the warnings that she might bite. She isn’t yelping anymore. She is moaning, long, dreadful moans.
Keiska jumps up on the table, and before I can stop her, begins to nuzzle and lick her stricken friend. Abby licks her back. The moaning seems to soften for just a moment.
“We’ll call with news,” my Uncle Peter says, picking up the basket. He and Dean load Abby into the truck. Meg stands with her mother, solemnly waving.
“Why didn’t Meg go?” I ask my mother. My mom smiles sadly. “It’s too upsetting for her. Besides, we have a lot to do here. Abby will be fine.”
The morning passes in a blur, and as the afternoon sun begins to scorch the hills, we the Preparers of the Party move to indoor work. More bunting hung, more cooking, more cleaning, more setting up extra tables, more cleaning, more staying out of the way for a boy and his dog.
Just after 1:00, Peter and Dean return, smiles on their faces. “Abby will be fine,” they announced, “but she needs an operation. We can go visit her tomorrow.” Meg sags with relief, and tears up.
I hug Keiska. “Abby’s coming back to play with you soon!”
By late afternoon, everyone has bathed and changed. I put on my red and white striped shirt with the royal blue trousers. My brother wears a navy blue shirt with red pants; my mother a light blue dress with a flag scarf.
Our patriotism is more decorative than principled.
The guests come in waves. The teen boys we’ve hired to park the cars run to and fro, delivering Dodges and Cadillacs and Ford pickups into the orchards and pastures. There are kegs of beer and bottles of Bloody Mary mix and all the Coke and Tab a boy could want.
As the sun sets, before the fireworks, the excitement I’ve been waiting for weeks: the Ranch Independence Day Pageant. It is a small event, consisting of a few small skits (in which Dean, a future actor, plays two prominent roles), and a mass singing of all six verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
At last, my turn:
Holding a candle in one hand, with an Uncle Sam hat on my head, I read aloud the Declaration of Independence. It was supposed to have been the whole thing, but after a rehearsal, mother decides Mr. Jefferson’s masterpiece needs some editing. Shorn of all but its most soaring passages, I deliver the entire thing in 90 seconds. There is much applause.
Keiska stands next to me, and barks with what I decide is pride.
Then the fireworks, then a last round of drinks, and because it is a different era, 100 inebriated people toddle off to drive down a winding road in the dark.
“Let’s go see the fireworks from the back porch,” my mother suggests as the guests leave. Our back porch faces the San Francisco Bay, and most Fourths, if the fog doesn’t rise, we can see spectacular displays from as far away as San Jose.
A dozen of us head into the main house. As we go into the kitchen, Keiska makes straight for her water dish. I follow.
When I turn, my mother, my uncle, my aunt, my grandmother, and Dean are all standing around Meg. I am nine. Yet somehow, in a way I cannot explain, I know exactly what’s coming.
My aunt puts both hands on Meg’s shoulders. Meg stands utterly still, her eyes locked on her mother’s.
“We put Abby down today. There was nothing we could do. We didn’t want to tell you until after the party.” Marianna’s voice is calm, soothing, factual.
There is a pause. I feel Keiska put her paws on my leg, wanting to be picked up.
“Meg, I’m so sorry. We wanted you to have a lovely time today.”
The two memories from this day that will stay with me all my life are the sound of the truck hitting Abby, and the sight of my 15 year-old cousin’s face as she absorbs the news. She is beautiful, she is poised, she is crushed.
Meg’s mother releases her, and the semi-circle of adults steps back. In other families, this might be the moment to fold the heartbroken in an embrace. Not our style. In my family, we respect the towering force that is grief by offering the comfort of distance and privacy.
Without a word, Meg walks out, headed to her room, her pace quickening as she walks down the hall.
Keiska in my arms, I confront my mother.
“Why did everyone say Abby was alive?” I am close to tears. I am outraged on Meg’s behalf, and on Abby’s too, as if her memory was done a violence by this delay.
Mama smiles sadly. “Meg was always going to find out Abby died. This way she had a nice party first.”
“But they lied to her.” This isn’t about Abby any more, this is about the way the world itself is supposed to work.
“I know. You’ll understand when you’re older. Just be especially kind to your cousin, please.”
Keiska’s wiggles tell me she needs to pee, so we head out into the darkness.
From the distant valley, I can hear the booms of the big fireworks. As my tears fall for Abby and Meg and all that I don’t understand, those booms seem to shake the very foundations of the earth.