I had a meeting recently with the editor-in-chief at Port Folio Weekly, the Norfolk newspaper where I’ve free-lanced over the past eight years. He called me in to brain storm on stories for me to work on in the weeks ahead, but as things turned out we didn’t talk so much about that but instead rambled along in a wide-ranging two-hour rap about politics, culture, religion, art, and the precarious instability afflicting the present state of the world.
At one point I said I’d never really recovered from the assassination of JFK, and I didn’t think the country had, either. It wasn’t that he was that great President or even that he was substantively different from most politicians. Far from it, as we now know. But he was young and handsome, with a sense of humor, a keen wit, and a beautiful, sophisticated wife, and, illusory or not, he projected an aura which inspired people like me—I was 23 at the time—to dare not just to dream but to stand up and follow those dreams.
His assassins, whoever they were, killed idealism, my editor said. Or mortally wounded it, until 1968, when they finished the job by gunning down Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Since then, those who imagine a better world, a refined world of peace and justice for all, have been shoved to the fringes of society—back where they’ve always been except for brief and rare periods of resurgence, as when JFK appeared on the political scene and fired their passionate hope.
I agreed with him then, and I still do, in a public way. But, upon reflection later, I realized that what killed idealism for me—in the sense of believing that there could be a lasting good come into this world to stay—was not those 1968 political murders, which did indeed seal my disillusionment with society.
No, rather, it was an earlier event that year, a personal trauma, deeper than politics, which lay such sorrow on my heart that I could never again fully commit myself to any social mission. I would weigh in, I would show up, I would donate a few dollars, I would vote. But I would never again be able to fool myself that the material world is a place where positive change is permanent or lasting happiness possible.
How that happened was like this.
In the spring of 1967 Jala and I brought home our first puppy, a black, thick-coated, golden retriever-German shepherd mix we bought from a neighbor for $15. We named him Enzo. As we raised him over that summer he became our pride and joy, our baby boy, our blessed child—totally responsive and adaptive to us and to our routines.
We lived in a ramshackle house in the southern New Hampshire woods then. Jala worked on her book of poetry and drawings. I supported us teaching English at a secondary boarding school a quarter mile up the hill. When the term resumed in the fall, Enzo walked to class with me, lay by my desk while I held forth, chased balls and sticks the students tossed for him on the lawn during mid-morning break. He was the kind of gold-standard dog you meet in sentimental novels and movies, his companionship unconditional, his attention never wavering from the role he seemed genetically predisposed to understand and accept, as guardian and beloved third member in our little family home.
You could say he was, literally, too good to be true.
One weekend in January, 1968, we had to go away to a relative’s wedding in New York City. We decided it would be best to leave Enzo at home with Lydia, a student boarding with us at the time. Otherwise, we thought, he’d have to stay by himself all day during the wedding and reception, confined in a bedroom or basement in a strange house, and we’d worry and feel sorry for him.
Yet it was with heavy hearts that we left him behind. I can never forget his hang-dog, sad-sack look when I glanced back over my shoulder at him on my way out the door. Later, that look haunted me, and would for years. It still does, recollecting it here.
When we arrived back home, pulling between the snow banks into our driveway that Sunday night, we thought it a little strange that Lydia came out on the front stoop without Enzo. George, her boyfriend, was with her. They looked solemn, and when we got to the door she, pale and shaking, broke to us just about the worst news I’ve ever heard in my life.
Enzo was dead.
He’d been playing on the lawn with another dog at her family’s Massachusetts home where she’d taken him for the weekend, when he suddenly collapsed—with a single, sharp, final yelp.
He was only ten months old.
She had a note from her family’s vet, where they’d taken him for an autopsy. The vet could not specify an exact cause of death, except that his heart had apparently failed—the equivalent, he wrote, of an infant crib death.
We couldn’t believe it. Not that we thought Lydia was fabricating. We just couldn’t absorb the news. Surely Enzo was in the house—in the bedroom, or downstairs, or out on the back porch.
But no. The joy of his sturdy presence, his bobbing and weaving in playful greeting, the ball laid at our feet to throw down the steps for him to retrieve—all that we’d been looking forward to resuming over the last miles of our long drive north—were inconceivably, impenetrably absent.
This was not our home! Not this hollow house, this vacancy, this oppressive suite of joyless rooms!
For the next three days we wept inconsolably. We’d stop for awhile—a quarter or half an hour—only to break down again in a fresh wave of sobs, rising from the depths in an uncontainable flood. We couldn’t work, we could barely get out of bed. I had never known such grief, had no idea I was capable of it. My life became hateful and alien to me. I didn’t recognize myself.
I’ve experienced death since—both my parents, certain close friends, most of my aunts and uncles. But the truth is that, aside from Jala, I’ve never been as intimate with any human being as I have with our pets, in particular a certain few dogs who have lived with us over the years; and I have never felt such helpless, overwhelming grief as I have with their passing, beginning with the most brutal shock of them all that January night in 1968.
Up to then, I’d postponed serious reflection on the fact of Death, as if pretending it didn’t quite include me in its ubiquitous touch. Further, I was conscious of that postponing. It was deliberate, ever since the first time, as a child waking up with cold fear in the middle of the night, I realized that people die. One day my parents would die. One day I would die!
To cope, whenever that terrifying insecurity woke me with a bolt from my dreams, I lulled my small, frightened self back to sleep with the promise that I would think about it later. I was just a little kid. I didn’t have to worry about this yet. There was still plenty of time to figure it out before it was too late.
But with Enzo’s abrupt departure, I realized, I’d waited too long. I was 27, and it was already too late. I was drowning, defenseless in this grief, stripped bare, lost, exposed in shameful weakness before a community which allowed little more than a sad moment of silence to honor the death of a dog—because dogs are just dogs, not real people.
Eventually the tears dried up. There were no more to shed. Over a week or so the torment in my belly receded to a dull, intermittent ache. A few weeks after that we got another dog, a puppy from the local animal shelter, and life went on.
But I was changed. Death had become a reality for me—more real, in some ways, than Life itself, and certainly more real than my life before had ever been. Not that I lost my previous ambitions to excel in some literary or artistic endeavor. No, those sorts of dreams still simmered in me. But something else had leap-frogged over them to the forefront of my interests, something far more personal and private.
I wanted to know where Enzo went. I wanted to find him again. I wanted him back.
I tried a lot of suggestions—some foolish, some downright insane—to come to terms with my loss. None of them really worked. Not even time has really worked. When Death takes away something so dear to you, what cure can there be? We patch over the wound, but the scar remains, and under pressure it opens up again. Last year we agreed to have our 15-year-old cat euthanized because he had cancer of the mouth and couldn’t eat any more. I cried all over again, for him and for all the others, beginning with Enzo, whose deaths flooded back in animated procession before my witnessing mind’s eye. It’s unbearable!
I think the only cure for Death is Death. Sometimes I long for it, as if by following my dearest friends through that one-way door I might catch up with them and restore the joy I lost when they left.
In the meantime, I meditate—on these and others things. But mostly on these. I’m not suicidal, though I don’t condemn the act. But I still on occasion entertain the wild notion that somewhere in my mind all these joys still exist, and that one day I will open the right door and find Enzo on the stoop, waiting for me to take a walk with him.
Somewhere JFK is still President. Somewhere Martin Luther King is preaching of a glory found, beyond the struggle.
But here in the ordinary waking world Death has the final word, no matter how we resist. Love your enemies, Jesus said. Love Death? Only in art have I learned to love Death—often as comedy, as fanciful speculation or whimsy, as philosophy, as catharsis, even as rehearsal.
But not in the flesh. In the flesh, even after all these years, I am more on weeping terms with Death than on speaking terms. And no preacher or politician yet, living or dead, has been able to change that. Not after what happened in 1968.