This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on March 23, 2008.
I used to lower Cookie over the block wall separating our backyards so she could spend
the afternoon stretched out on the couch in Wilbur’s family room. Cookie was our
slightly neurotic female Beagle and Wilber was our neighbor, well into his retirement
years, who loved to spend long, lazy afternoons with Cookie by his side.
My dog and my neighbor spent many happy years together until Wilbur’s 95-year-old
mother died and Wilbur sold the home he raised his family in and moved to Lake
Havasu. For weeks after he left, Cookie kept running over to the wall and stared at it,
waiting for Wilbur to reach his arms over the wall to pick her up. Eventually, she gave
up and resumed her place in her doggie bed in the family room.
Wilbur and I exchanged Christmas cards after he moved and I always included pictures
of Cookie. His son stopped by a few weeks ago and told me Wilbur died after
complications from surgery.
Last Saturday morning we took Cookie to the veterinarian and bid her farewell after
her liver started to fail and we decided not to pursue aggressive medical treatment for
our 13-year-old dog. She was tired and so we put her to rest. Our former neighbor
Wilbur and Cookie were parted forever, or reunited, depending on how you look at it.
You don’t have to believe in an afterlife or have a deep religious conviction about the
spirit continuing after death to imagine Wilbur and Cookie on the couch, enjoying each
other’s company once again. When you lose a pet, the loss isn’t equal to the loss
of a spouse or a child, but it is the loss of a family member just the same.
This is especially true when you make the decision to put a dog down and she looks at
you through her cataract clouded eyes with complete trust as you say goodbye for the
last time. That kind of moment taps into a part of one’s heart that bears deep pain.
People may think I am naïve or even stupid to gain comfort from the loss of a neighbor
and a dog by imagining them on a couch in the sky, but I made that choice. When I
think of Wilbur I could imagine his body buried deep in the earth, over and done with,
but that is far from a comforting thought. I could entertain the macabre thought of
Cookie being cremated, along with other dogs, which is an even more depressing image.
I choose instead to imagine Cookie and Wilbur together, reunited in the spirit world, far
from liver problems and surgery suites. I will always carry that cheerful image of two
friends, one canine and one human, when my thoughts go back to my neighbor and
Nobody really knows where we go after we die, but those of us left on this side of life
can be depressed, or sustained, by our images of where our loved ones are after they
leave us. It is our choice.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on February 9, 2006
My friend Sean (not his real name) fell in love with another man, back in the days when homosexuality was taboo, just like in the movie Brokeback Mountain. Sean and his partner Joseph (not his real name), aren’t cowboys and they don’t live in Wyoming, but right here in Los Angels.
I met Sean when he became a volunteer for a peer-counseling program I directed. On the first day of training, each trainee introduced him or herself. Most were recently retired and briefly described their professional career, their marital status and their reasons for doing volunteer work. When Sean’s turn came he said he was a bachelor. He knew he couldn’t tell the other volunteers that he had lived with another man for more than forty years.
Brokeback Mountain is an Academy Award nominated motion picture about two lovers who are kept apart because of society’s brutal attitude toward homosexuals, and their own inhibitions.
As I watched the two characters struggle with feelings that could only be expressed in the secluded mountains, I thought about how Sean and Joseph managed to live together during the button-down 1950’s by maintaining their privacy and presenting an acceptable picture to their neighborhood and society at large.
Sean and I worked together for many years and as we got to know one another, he began to trust me and was more open about Joseph. He would occasionally mention him, but never brought him to our activities, such as the annual volunteer recognition luncheon. One year Sean received a special award. Proud spouses of other award recipients were there, but not Joseph.
Sean worked for a very conservative company for thirty years. He told me that he dated women for “cover,” all the while coming home at night to Joseph. I once stopped by their house to drop off some files and saw the lovely antiques and carefully decorated home they shared. They made a quiet, comfortable and private life for themselves.
Sean became one of the stars of the volunteer program, a tireless advocate for some of the most fragile elderly people in his community. He helped them sort their bills, called doctor’s offices on their behalf and sorted out their Medicare claims. I watched Sean bring great comfort to lonely and distressed old people. He solved many of their problems and sent them on their way with peace of mind.
The people he counseled were members of the generation that had no tolerance, much less acceptance, of Sean’s lifestyle. I wonder if they would have refused his help if they knew he was gay. Sean never stopped to consider their attitudes toward homosexuals when he sat down to help them with their medical bills.
I no longer work with the volunteer program but keep in touch with Sean. When we spoke recently, he told me he and Joseph were planning a celebration to mark their fifty years together – their golden anniversary. In an era when half of marriages end in divorce, this one, with no legal definition or social standing, lasted a lifetime. When I hear the contentious debate about gay marriage, I think of Sean and Joseph and their good, long life together.
Sean and Joseph have remained discreet and kept their privacy through all their years together. Even today they can’t be sure that they will not be victims of violence if they come across a creep who may want to harm them.
Sean and Joseph’s union lasted a lifetime because of love. It prevailed in spite of a lack of acceptance from a society that kept it far from public view. It endured quietly, on terms set by two men, who knew the power of fear and hate. They set their path and stayed on it – together.
Congratulations, my friends.
This piece was published on August 28, 2008 in the Pasadena Star News.
Kathleen Vallee Stein