A week-long seminar on the subject of Death in Philosophy and Popular Culture is sponsored by the Alumni Association of Johnston College. I graduated from Johnston in 1977 and Joe College is currently enrolled there. I had hoped to attend this event myself, along with Himself, but am unable to get away. Himself's employer actually coughs up the dough for him to attend. He heads off to the Palisades for a week. Attendees include my own former classmates, a kid who just graduated and alumni from every decade in between. Himself is the only non-alum but being of Irish-Catholic descent and a diehard bookworm he immediately connects with the facilitator, Johnston Professor emeritus, Kevin O'Neill.
One section of the seminar requires each of the participants to detail their own experiences with death IN DEPTH. To Himself's surprise I ask him if he's going to talk about Fido and I hit the nail right on the head. I tell Joe College that Dad is going to have to talk about his personal experiences with death and before I even complete the sentence the boy concludes, “Fido.”
I've had a few friends pass away well before old age but no one I would consider a “best” friend. The loss I cannot imagine is the death of a young child but I can relate to my husband's experience that the loss of a beloved pet is more devastating than the loss of an elderly parent. Over the last decade all four of our parents have died but each death followed an illness that greatly diminished life quality. I would characterize our reactions to these losses as wistful relief. My own sister was about the same age that I am now when she died. In ordinary circumstances this is “too young” but she was so ravaged by multiple sclerosis that her death only meant an end to her suffering and to our own suffering at seeing her suffer.
When it was time for my beloved Bowser to ascend to doggie heaven, we called a vet who specialized in making house calls to euthanize pets. Even though she daily interacts with grieving pet losers, our reaction must have struck her as over the top as she voiced an earnest concern about our mental health. Fido, half poodle, was supposed to be my dog. Himself wasn't that wild about poodles but from the moment she arrived at Casamurphy, she established herself as Himself's. She was diagnosed with cancer and when the time came, I totally wussed out and wasn't present when she was euthanized.
My boy Rover is hanging in. He still expects his 10:30 walk and has a good appetite. He is rheumy eyed and it takes him a while to get up and I have to help him get into the car. He is two years past the life expectancy for a dog his size. Oprah, our alpha female is a sweet dog but she cannot control the herd instinct to weed out the weak and infirm. She has attacked Rover a couple of times and therefore she is kept separate from him most of the time. When she is in the same room, she is muzzled. She cowers and cringes when she sees the muzzle or is put behind the baby gate. I hate that she has to endure this and hate knowing what will bring the muzzling and separation to an end.
I was too intimidated by Kevin O'Neill's erudition to enroll on one of his courses but the impression he made on my nearly 40 years ago is still vivid. I was driving down Colton Avenue in Redlands and saw a man stomping down the street. When I passed I saw in the rear-view mirror that it was Kevin, and that he was reading a book while he clomped down the sidewalk. This was extraordinary to me and it wasn't until years later when I met Himself that I began to understand the compulsivity that drives someone to spend as many waking hours as possible devouring written material.
Our anniversary and Himself's birthday fall during the symposium, which is being held at a Methodist Retreat House. There is a scheduled field trip to Forest Lawn, to be followed by a discussion and take-out dinner at Kevin O'Neill's Carthay Circle home. I volunteer to surprise Himself for his birthday and show up with dinner for the group. I have already been apprised via phone conversations with Himself that none of my classmates remember me although I myself do remember the half dozen attendees who were on campus when I was. I do have a handful of friends I've had since college but I think that during this period of my life I was definitely an acquired taste.
I find some nice Copper River salmon and bake some cupcakes and dip them in green coconut to look like grass and then plant each with a little shortbread tombstone with “RIP” in icing. It's very Suzy Homemaker but I like doing stuff like this more than just about anything. The group has been let in on the secret but Himself's jaw drops and his eyes bulge out when I waltz in with baskets full of food. I don my apron and busy myself in the kitchen but overhear snippets of the conversation. “...and then, minutes after being born, the infant expired...” and am relieved I've relegated myself to a purely domestic role.
The group is friendly and I have some pleasant tiny interactions. One woman confesses, that she too had been too scared to actually enroll in one of Kevin's philosophy courses. Kevin and I correspond all through the week in preparation for the surprise. In every communication he notes how fond he is of Himself which doesn't surprise me, given the walking and reading thing. At one point in the evening he asks Himself to stand next to me and just drinks us in. “I just wanted to see the two of you together...” and he nods in approval at the vision.
I tell Kevin about my vivid memory of the walking and reading and how extraordinary this seemed to me until I met my husband. Kevin talks about his own curiosity and photographic memory and then he says something that will probably be as indelible as catching him in the rear-view mirror. “I never wanted to do anything,” he says. He explained that his only desire is to learn and he requires nothing by way of publication or prestige to show for it.
My real estate dilemma seems perhaps to have taken a positive turn and I will have some preliminary environmental reports in a few days. I've gone back to carving out some sort of writing career beyond my weekly blather here. I get a particularly nasty rejection of my memoir from a publisher. The next day an agent sends a polite and friendly rejection saying that while the writing is “poised and polished” it's just not his kind of thing. I am a little bolstered until I read on an Internet bulletin board for writers seeking representation that this “poised and polished” thing is just a form letter. I write a nice little piece for Weight Watchers Magazine which I think is a sure thing and exactly the kind of piece they'd want. They don't even bother responding with a rejection.
I have always considered myself somewhat lazy but writing is one worthwhile thing that I've applied myself to and really worked at. The rejections are starting to get to me until I think about Kevin doing what he likes to do. I like to bake and watch crap on TV. I like writing here once a week, or like Dorothy Parker said, “I like having written.” I'll continue polishing my query letter on the memoir and sending the thing around. No doubt other non-blog pieces will take shape. But I've been thinking about the ambition that drives me and a lifetime of trying to prove something to someone else. So much of what gives me satisfaction is stuff other people wouldn't necessarily find productive. The older I get the more losses I will inevitably stack up. I'm letting Rover eat whatever he wants. Oprah will soon be free of muzzle and baby gate. There are fewer days in my future than in my past. I look forward to living the rest with nothing to prove.