When you live in the country, the battle against the dirt is formidable and eternal. The sources are endless:
• The dirt road in front of the house becomes so dry and dusty in the hot, long summers of central Iowa, that it forms translucent clouds from the tires of cars and bicycles making their way to the nearest neighbors. The soles of Keds tennis shoes are stained terra cotta from the dust that never washes out after the miles put on them between home and field. The same road turns to a river of sticky slipperiness in spring thaw and prairie rainstorms, mixing water and clay that clasp tractor tires and rain boots indeterminately.
• The wind blows unfettered across the endless ocean of fields that surround the houses, gleaning the topmost layer of the soil and carrying it in through the open windows that don’t close to the outside from April to October. Regardless of the tight weave of the screen, it is no barrier for what the wind carries.
• The garden earth clings to feet and hands and bounty, making its way through the back door to the kitchen sink.
• The hands of children carry it after endless days of exploring the far corners of fields, fences, barns and treetops, hands that then touch every doorway and cabinet they encounter in their trip to rid themselves begrudgingly of it.
• The feet of dogs that happily traverse the wettest and muddiest path into the house and inevitably across the living room rug.
No amount of wiping, sweeping, mopping or rinsing will cleanse the house of the layer of grit that seems to settle onto every surface, into every crevice, at the bottom of every basin.
In a fundamentalist family, you grow up learning that the heart is the source of the most permanent of dirt. That each heart is born blacker than the blackest night, and each deed considered selfish or sinful causes it to become even blacker. No matter the altruistic level of deed, it would not lighten the weight or darkness of that heart. The most sinful of all? The girls. We have Eve to thank for that. Her curse was that any female was to not only to bear children in pain, but also to be reminded by the males around her of the suffering she caused, to which there was no redemption.
My identity as a woman was forged by stories that upheld that all must be punished out of love. That because of me, a man had to die the most gruesome of deaths, that Proverbs 31 was my ideal: if I was beautiful enough, dutiful enough and obedient enough, I would be more precious than rubies…to a husband. If I tended his fields, cooked his meals, raised obedient and beautiful children, charmed his friends and made no one despise me, then I would be the choicest of prizes, the pride of my mate. This was what good women strived to be. Those who didn’t were abhorrent and undesirable.
My opportunity to be trained up and work out my mistakes was to be a prize to my father first. If I could win his love and affection by being the most loving daughter, then I would be sure to serve a husband well. Only I never could. Each failed attempt was another sin that darkened my heart before God. If my own father wasn’t pleased with me, God for certain would not be able to look at me, as He is so holy, He cannot bear to have any amount of sin in His presence.
Years later, I found myself driving in a sleet storm across my hometown at 1:30AM, towards the vet college with one of my beloved dogs in the back seat. On a normal day, it was a trip that I could make in less than ten minutes. With the ice coming down all around me, it had taken almost an hour. I could feel the life draining from my dog in the back as I tried not to panic and keep us alive en route.
This was the fourth great tragedy that had happened to me in the past four months, including losing my house, three cats and eleven guinea pigs to a fire. The insurance company still hadn’t released any money to us, so we had not been able to replace anything of consequence. And now I was losing a being that had been with me longer than anyone but my parents; one of two things that solely belonged to me.
It had been a bizarre evening that started when Tuck had gone to go outside one last time before bed and stepped off the four inch mattress that my husband and I called a bed with funny noise, walked out the back door and collapsed on the deck in the snow. Just that morning she and I had been for a three mile run. Now, she was catatonic.
When the vet brought in the x-rays to show me what the cause was, I gasped as I looked at the cavity of my girl dog’s chest, so filled with cancer that her heart had shrunk by 1/3. It hadn’t been the run that morning that was the problem. One of the cancer vesicles had ruptured when she got off the bed and was slowly poisoning her. The vet sent me home to rest before coming back to hear about options in the morning. I kissed Tuck’s sweet head and told her I’d be back soon.
The phone rang as I walked back in my door at 4:30AM to let me know that Tuck hadn’t survived the length of my return trip. It was another hour before I could lay down, my shock manifested into complete silence.
I shot out of bed a few short hours later to the wails of my daughter who had discovered that the dog who had licked her toes as a newborn had joined the ranks of her other recently departed pets. The loss was becoming too much. As I held my daughter to me tightly, kissing her hair and washing it with my own tears, another horror had dawned on me. In less than an hour we had company coming, and it was too late to cancel.
Pulling my hair back into a ponytail, I bolted to the kitchen to throw some coffee and water into something that would heat them together. I had no idea what I would serve for lunch, but I could busy the girls with making a pie. As I stood to begin a mental list of all the things needing doing in the next half hour – showering, vacuuming, dusting, dishes – the floor of my kitchen came into sharp focus. It was covered in Tuck’s muddy paw prints.
Last night’s events had caused me to neglect the mopping. And this my coming visitors were not folks who would see my dirt battle tactic as clever. I was not going to please them; I was not going to be seen as more precious than rubies. The dirt that was stuck in the crevices of my heart rubbed its walls raw as I was reminded of how I was to fail at this, too.
I grabbed a mop and began to cleanse the floors from the tracks of muddy pups as fast as I could, blindly and numbly at the same time. Until I came to Tuck’s spot where she ate. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t fighting against the dirt on the floor, but the dirt that had clouded my reason like the dust on our country road. The dirt on the floor was all I had left of her. Erasing it meant that I was erasing her.
I had not done all that I could have for this dog. I didn’t always buy her the best food, I felt bitter about having to leave my warm bed to let her out, I yelled at her as she habitually spilled her kibble across the floor each night. I wasn’t a good person.
I stared at those paw prints and whispered for forgiveness for my lacking from my dead dog. I know now that I had given her as comfortable of a life as I could manage, but at that moment the dirt buried me inwardly as I sobbed into my hands and prayed for a forgiveness that would never come.
No amount of wiping, scrubbing or sweeping can rid us completely of the dirt we drag inside.
Andi Nelson works with science and story. When not engaging with NASA scientists and educators, she is trying to make something beautiful out of nothing special, navigating the waters of parenting a teenage daughter (who is also her magnum opus), and looking at the world with new eyes.