I’m a Stoic. (I’m also fairly stoic, but that’s just a coincidence.)
Stoic philosophy has a long set of beliefs and doctrines, but my second favorite of them all is the principle of “amor fati“, the love of fate. There are several interpretations of “amor fati”, but to me, it means facing and accepting the things that come your way: a long line at the grocery store, an unexpected ruling from the Supreme Court, or finding a quarter on the sidewalk.
Most things in life are beyond our personal control, but we can nearly always control our reactions to these things. And as reactions go, I generally find acceptance more useful than denial or anger or even grief. So, I do my best to acknowledge the current state of things and move forward. It may not be the best life strategy for everyone, but it works for me. It’s gotten me through loads of things that, if I’d had a choice, I would’ve rather not endured—Hurricane Katrina, a few surprise career shifts, and the deaths of family and friends.
It’s also how my partners and I ended up with two puppies.
After Jacques passed away in February, none of us were in a hurry to bring a new dog into the house. We needed time to process everything, and we didn’t want to feel like we were trying to replace him.
But then a couple of things happened.
First, Sebastian started acting weird. Our one remaining pup had never been especially interested in/friendly to other dogs, but after Jacques’ death, he became…well, I wouldn’t call it sad, but maybe different. He was anxious when the three of us left the house. He seemed scared and hesitant all the time. It was unusual and worrying.
Second, two dogs–twins, if a dog can be twins–fell into our lap. They were strays, a few weeks old and ready for adoption. John, Peter, and I had talked about eventually adopting pups from the same litter, and I mean, there they were.
And that was that. The three of us and Sebastian went to an adoption event and met them: Roxie and Velma. The fact that they were clearly named by a theater kid was a great sign (to me, a former theater kid). The fact that Sebastian seemed interested in them seemed even better (to all of us).
Jacques’ death was painful, but it was an opportunity to feel and to feel deeply–something I don’t often get to do, and I’d bet that most folks don’t.
The arrival of Roxie and Cleo (Velma just didn’t stick) was another opportunity: an opportunity to open our home to two animals who needed love and a warm bed.
In both cases, I like to think that we embraced what fate brought us and used it to move forward.
I met my birth mom when I was 33. Twenty years later, I’ve met my father.
Technically, I met his son first. He spotted me as soon as I walked in the door, waved me over, spread his arms wide in welcome. Then came two sisters—three half-siblings in all. (There’s a fourth who wasn’t able to make it. I hope to meet her soon.)
Eventually, I stood before the man himself: a little shorter than me, trim, smiling, not fussily dressed but definitely put together. He waited patiently beside a sofa in the lobby of the hotel where he and his children were staying on their trip to New Orleans.
I expected him to be reserved, probably a little anxious. Then again, who wouldn’t be? Meeting a grown adult that you conceived over five decades ago during a short-lived college romance—that would be challenging enough, but introducing that man to your children? There’s no chapter in Emily Post for that kind of thing.
Since our first phone chat in 2007, my father had often said that we would meet, insisted that he would arrange it, but I knew right away what was happening. I’ve encountered many men like him over the years, men who say that they’ll get around to something but never seem to. My adoptive dad was like that. So was the president of my Carnival krewe. My old landlord, too: “Sure, I’ll sell you this house. Let’s talk about it sometime.” But “sometime” can be years in coming.
I’ve never understood that kind of behavior. Are guys like this (and yes, they’ve always been guys) testing me to make sure that I really want what I say I want? Or are they trying to put me off because they have no desire to go through with the deal, and they’re hoping that I’ll eventually forget about it?
My father’s case was a little different. I’m 99% certain that the 15-year gap between our first talk and our first face-to-face came down to one simple thing: he was worried about his children. More specifically: he was worried about how they’d react.
I was worried too. I knew his kids were curious about me, I knew they had plenty of questions about who I was, about how much of themselves and their father they’d be able to see in me. But was that the end of it? Was I just a curiosity, a 3D fun-house mirror, a walking, talking, long-term study in genetics? Or worse, would I represent physical evidence of our father’s “wayward” life before he met their late mother, a symbol of something they wish they’d never known?
We did not know that when Jacques entered our lives 12 years ago. We only knew that he was deaf and that he’d been abandoned by his owners—presumably because they wanted to raise him for fighting, but a deaf dog wouldn’t hunt (or something). Our friend, Ken Foster, thought he’d be a great addition to our household.
Jacques’ trial play date went well: the humans and the hounds fell immediately in love with him. But we knew he was going to be a handful. “Just look at the size of those paws”, I said. “That boy’s going to be huge.”
Little did we know.
Training Jacques was surprisingly easy. Verbal cues were obviously out, but he took to hand signals quickly, and he looked to us for guidance all the time. It was winter when he arrived, and we spent weeks in the living room, him and the others on their warm tuffets. When the Saints won the Super Bowl that year and the neighborhood erupted in cheers and music and car horns, the three other hounds ran for cover, but little deaf Jacques slept through all of it. He was a joy.
As the years passed, Jacques traveled widely. He enjoyed walks and treats and licking the bowl (whatever the bowl contained). And he occasionally enjoyed cuddles with us. Given his 115 pounds, spooning with Jacques was like spooning with a person.
He was the best boy.
On a Friday night, not long before Fat Tuesday, Jacques lay down after dinner and had a hard time getting back up. He’d been a little sluggish the previous couple of days, but that was nothing new for a 12-year-old dog, so the humans felt okay going out for a bite to eat. We came back to find that Jacques was still pretty lifeless. Peter and I moved him onto a dog bed and tried to keep him comfortable, but something was clearly wrong.
John and Peter woke me around midnight and told me to come say goodbye. Jacques was where I’d left him a couple of hours earlier: quiet and still and taking shallow breaths. His nose and gums were cold. By the time I called the 24-hour vet, he was gone.
It’s selfish to say this, but I have to get it out: you spend so much energy trying to protect the ones you love. You have nightmares and daymares about horrible, profoundly unlikely scenarios, and you do everything in your power to prevent them from happening. My own recurring fear is that when I go for a run, one of the hounds will find a way to get out of the house and follow me. And so, every time I cross Elysian Fields or Esplanade or some other busy street, I take a long, slow look over my shoulder to make sure that none of them are on my heels, ready to rush into traffic.
Of course, it’s all for nothing. The end inevitably comes, and even though it may not be as awful as you’d imagined, it’s still awful. It’s enough to make you wonder why you put yourself through it—and yet we do. And we will continue to.
Two months later, and I miss him every day. Forever the best boy.
Yesterday, we said goodbye to Tania, also known as Tania Marie Louise Ciccone von Huntington Smythe, Tina Toodles, Tipsy Toovington, and other aliases befitting a venerable woman of mystery and intrigue. She did her namesake proud.
Tania came to us a few months before Hurricane Katrina did. She was a foundling, taken in by a housemate who couldn’t keep her when he suddenly decided to move back where he’d come from. For over 16 years, Tania was a member of our pack, a close friend and confidante, and often, the only female in the house. She had endless adventures, and to be honest, she was better traveled than I will ever be.
Tania’s end had been looming for some time, but it was hard to make the call. Animals—including human animals—often tell you when they’re ready to go: they withdraw, they stop eating, they wind down. Tania never did: to the end, she loved walks, she loved cuddles, and she ate like a horse. But no matter how she fought it, her body betrayed her.
I’d hoped we’d be able to say goodbye at home, with Tania surrounded by her entire immediate family, but thanks to Hurricane Ida, our family was split—some remaining in New Orleans, the rest of us running for cover. Thankfully, we landed with family, in Chicago. Tania said goodbye on a beautiful late-summer morning, after a hearty breakfast and a long, long amble around the garden.
People much smarter than me have calculated that each time we draw breath, we inhale some of the same molecules that Julius Caesar exhaled when he died. I take comfort in knowing that with every breath, I am sharing some of the air that Tania breathed during her magnificent life on earth.
The first time I saw it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, was in the summer of 2015. I was sprawled across a deck chair beside a pool in Fort Morgan, Alabama, half-asleep in the heat. And over the din of children splashing and waves crashing, I listened to my father retell the same story four times within the space of 15 minutes.
Now, daddy had a fairly small repertoire of stories (tall tales, mildly funny encounters, and other short-form, dinner table stuff), so it wasn’t unusual for him to repeat one over the course of a day. But this was something new. I rolled my head to look at him. Same thin gray hair, same ice blue eyes, same mischievous smile, but something was definitely not the same.
I don’t remember the story itself—it was probably about a dumb thing that one of my brothers or I did as kids or about an equally dumb thing that one of daddy’s helpers did up at the farm. All I really remember is thinking, “Well, I see how this is going to end.”
I said goodbye to my father that day. I didn’t know how much he would change over the next six years or the indignities he would suffer at the hands of disease—if I did, I would’ve probably hugged him and my stepmother 25% tighter before I left.
It took daddy and me a while to warm up to each other—25 years, give or take. I was an argumentative, precocious kid. I liked asking questions, pushing boundaries, trying new things. Daddy—a profoundly religious farmer-turned-pharmacist from the backwoods of central Mississippi—took great offense at my disrespect for authority. In his view, children should speak when spoken to and obey orders from their elders in the meantime. To him, I was not inquisitive, I was not curious, I was a smartass.
To be fair to daddy, his worldview wasn’t unusual, at least not where we were from. Nearly every adult man I knew was cut from the same cloth. (Mom is another story for another time.) Their core values centered on god, Ole Miss, saying “yes ma’am and “no ma’am”, and worrying about what the neighbors would think. If you sassed off about any of those items—or quite a few more that fell further down the list—you’d better just stop what you were doing and go pick a switch. Otherwise, they’d do it for you.
The darkest moment in our personal Cold War came as I was graduating from college. We’d never had The Talk about me being gay, but it was clear as a big, pink bell that I was. I told him that I was moving to New Orleans after I got my diploma, and that didn’t sit well with daddy one tiny little bit. The phone call ended around the time that he shouted, “You gonna go down there and catch something you can’t get rid of!” I hung up and didn’t speak to him again for half a year, maybe more.
When we reconnected, things were different. I don’t know for sure, we never discussed it afterward, and now we never will, but I think our brief estrangement made him see that he wasn’t going to change me and that if he wanted a relationship, he’d better start accepting me for the adult I was becoming.
And ironically, that changed me. Around the time that the Soviets’ Iron Curtain was falling, I slowly let down my defenses. Daddy and I stopped shouting at one another and started listening. And before either of us really knew what was happening, we’d become friends. He drove down to New Orleans and helped me pack when I moved to New York for grad school. He helped me buy a car when I returned.
Our friendship accelerated after he had emergency heart surgery a few years later. It was the closest he’d ever been to death, and the recovery process was long and brutal. He never said it outright, but it’s pretty clear to me that the experience gave him a better sense of what was important in life and what was not. A relationship with me fell in the former category.
Daddy and I got into the habit of meeting in Hattiesburg for lunch every few months. And we started spending long weekends at the beach, him and me and the rest of my family, at the house of a family friend. I don’t know if I ever became the son he’d wanted, but I can say for sure that he became a much better version of my dad.
In short, the second 25 years of our relationship made up for the first 25. I’m glad we both lived long enough to see that.
One of the last conversations we had—the last real conversation, anyway—was on February 4, 2017. My uncle had offered me some of my grandparents’ furniture, so I’d gone up to get it, and daddy had helped me load it into his massive F-150. (I should point out that I was driving; a year and a half after the story-retelling incident, dad was already too far gone to be trusted behind the wheel.)
Anyway, I don’t recall how we got there in the conversation, but as we were heading home, I remember explaining to daddy that growing up as a gay kid in the Southern Baptist church in small-town Mississippi was no fun at all. And as I turned onto the long, straight stretch of Wansley Road, he looked over at me and asked—fully sincere and truly curious—“Is there anything I could’ve done better?”
Part of me broke inside. Not just because this one one of the few open, honest conversations we’d ever had; not just because dad was admitting that he was fallible, something that rarely if ever crossed his mind when we were younger (despite all of Pastor Kennedy’s talk about sinning and human frailty in his Sunday sermons); but because in those seven words, daddy made clear that he saw his own end on the horizon. I think he knew that he wouldn’t have many more chances to speak with me so frankly.
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.
I took a deep breath and told him that he’d done as well as he could, given when and where I grew up. And I told him that I’m fine now, so everything came out okay in the end.
I didn’t mention that he’d been right, that I’d moved to New Orleans and had indeed caught something I couldn’t get rid of. I suppose I have my own issues with fallibility.
Last Monday, May 17, we all got a text from my stepmother. Daddy had gone on hospice care the week before, and she said that he’d taken a turn for the worst. If we wanted to say our goodbyes, we’d best come on.
The next morning, I left the house at 7am and drove up to Laurel to see him. He was unconscious, but I sat beside him and said my piece. The last words I said to him were “thank you”. I said it four times.
That night he passed away, and two days later, we buried him. I didn’t care for the pastor much (then again, I’m wary of religion, so part of that’s on me), but otherwise, the ceremony was simple and lovely. And for the first time in maybe ever, our family felt like a family.
I don’t know how yours went/is going, but mine was not good/is better now. Maybe. Probably.
The thing is, I shouldn’t have anything to complain about. Not really. I was lucky. I kept my job, I had a steady income, two partners and three hounds to keep me company. A small circle of friends I saw on a regular basis.
But that’s just me being rational. Pandemic or no, rationality often flies out the window when our routines are disrupted, when we’re ejected from our comfort zone, when we face adversity. We all know that chronic complainer who probably experienced a garden-variety aborted lane-change on the freeway but won’t shut up about “That idiot nearly ran me off the road!” I mean, that stuff can be nerve-wracking and all, but rationally speaking, they have a car, probably a house, and they’re still alive, so they should count their blessings, am I right?
I’m not doing a very good job of explaining this.
I’m saying, that the past year+ was stressful and is stressful and even though none of my close friends died from the disease, none of my immediate family died, it was a lot. And I didn’t deal with it well.
This week, give or take, the last pre-COVID babies will be born. Their parents received the news that should have been joyous and instead said, “Oh no, not now.”
Next week, give or take, a new breed arrives. Their parents said, “Oh this is fine, we’ll manage.” Or, “Our child will make the world a better place.” Or, “I’m horny, let’s fuck, and for the last time I’m not wearing a goddamn rubber.”
Or maybe they said nothing at all. Maybe mother and father were overwhelmed, their minds racing from one thought to another: do we have enough toilet paper? did I sanitize my hands? is Pizza Delicious open for takeout or not? Paralyzed by fear, anxiety, and, in many cases, depression, sex was a coping mechanism, a way of tuning out for a few minutes. Or hours, for those who really keep up with their Pilates.
I’m not interested in condemning parents from either group. We do a lot of moralizing these days, but can we please not get all judgy about people who choose to get pregnant or to have a child in the middle of a pandemic? There are bigger fish to fry, folks. Aquariums full of them. (Vegan side note: emptying the aquariums is a fish worth frying.)
No, what interests me is that within my lifetime—sooner than I think—I’ll be speaking to someone, and they’ll say, “COVID? That was before my time.”
It seems so impossible, the same way it did on September 11th, impossible to believe that living memory will run out, that this experience won’t be duct-taped and soldered to our DNA, passed down to generation upon generation upon generation, through an Old Testament’s worth of “begats”. But no, everyone forgets: friends, family, elephants, the owner of the corner store who caught you shoplifting comic books in grade school. Even the internet.
I know that sounds melodramatic. Old habits die hard.
But don’t worry, my love–not yet. My eyes are fine, my vision, perfection. It’s the darkness that’s the problem. I’m straining to find light, any light at all: a glimmer, a spark, a particle, a wave.
I had a professor who used to say that light is a particle on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a wave on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On Sundays we just think about it.
That’s a physics joke. A physics dad joke. I’ve succumbed to dad jokes, the kindest, gentlest, dumbest form of gallows humor.
I’m as appalled as you are. Let me pull myself together.
* * * * *
Mildly better now. I’ll start over.
It’s a shock, suddenly being unable to see, going blind in the blink of an eye. (That’s not a joke, much less a dad joke, just a cliche sideswiped by poor phrasing.) It reminds me of being a kid, when my friends and I played hide-and-seek at sleepovers. I’d curl up in the darkest corner of the pitch-blackest closet of a house that wasn’t mine, certain that I’d claimed the perfect spot.
But after five minutes of giggling nervously to myself and not being discovered, the strange scents, the unfamiliar silhouettes of boxes and clothes, began to seem ominous. I knew they were just a bunch of sweaters, but they were scary sweaters.
Then as now, my eyes opened and shut, opened and shut, trying to clear away the darkness like it were a speck of dust. Now as then, my mouth opens as wide as my eyes. If I could see myself, I’d look like a fish out of water, gasping and awestruck.
Can a fish be awestruck?
Sorry, I’m avoiding the unavoidable. Give me a minute. I’ll try again.
Last fall, I took part in a thoroughly underwhelming workshop on racial equity*. Anyone who walked into that room hoping to learn strategies for improving equality in their community walked away very, very disappointed. Basically the message was, “Live with it. There’s nothing you can do.”
Well, almost nothing. As a throwaway—an afterthought, honestly—one of the presenters admitted that there is ONE thing you can do: say “hello” to everyone. The stranger in the elevator. The co-worker who’s never given you a second look. The homeless woman outside the grocery store. Everyone. And mean it. Make them feel seen, make them feel welcome.
I don’t believe that’s the only tool we have. I can’t believe that. But it’s a start. And it’s certainly easy to do—even easier than wearing a mask, which should be a no-brainer, but apparently….
So, until a better strategy comes along, I’ll say “hello” to everyone, even if you’ve chosen to go maskless for some reason. And you’re welcome to say “hello” to me. Or “hey”. Or “hola”. Or even “‘sup”.
Actually, I’m gonna draw a line at “‘sup”.
*I’m not going to name the group here, but I will say that their organization has an awfully ironic name for one that claims to fight for racial equity. If you’re organizing something for your workplace or community and want to know, email me. I’m happy to share.