Pets have a strong presence in my early memories—there are many reasons why, but one simple one is that animals and children spend a lot of time on the floor. Adults walk around and sit on chairs or couches, but our fat striped cat named Sophocles and our lanky old German Shepherd, Jess(i)e, were always lying around on the floor where I was constantly crawling and playing with Matchbox cars and Princess Leia. The animals lived in my world while people passed by like the legs in a Saturday morning cartoon.
If it seems strange that I don’t know how Jess(i)e’s name was spelled, she died when I was six, just as I was learning how to write and spell; her name was just a name spoken aloud, a name in the air. In my earliest recollections, she was already old: her back curved low and her legs stood wide as her hips betrayed her. I have so many memories of her struggling up the narrow red-carpeted stairs to our second floor apartment in a brownstone on Pierrepont Street. It’s a brutal experience that so many New Yorkers know: if you live in a walk-up, there is no way to avoid the pain and humiliation of stairs for old dogs. I guess my first awareness of death and the idea that death would happen, came from living with Jess(i)e.
Right after Halloween in 1984, my parents made the decision to put Jess(i)e down. She was almost fully blind and deaf and she could no longer make the trip up and down the steep stairs to go out. Clearly everyone around me was heartbroken. My older sister’s sadness in particular was a cue to how I should be feeling. She was a kid like me. But I don’t remember crying or being particularly sad. I do remember being terrified. My mother explained what ‘being put to sleep’ meant in the gentle, honest way that she had of talking to me. I was able to imagine the injection and the quick fading of life but knew it had nothing to do with sleep. When you are six, you go to sleep so that you can wake up again—it’s a temporary confinement imposed on your tiny boy body by your parents and by nature. It’s not sleep if you don’t wake up afterwards.
They took Jess(i)e to the vet and I stayed home and dreaded the fact that they would come back withouther. When my parents went out, they always came home with things: groceries, furniture, books, or new clothes because we grew so fast. This was the first time that they were taking something away, removing something. And not something—but Jess(i)e—with her wide milky brown eyes—who was definitely alive when she walked out the door. I wish I could tell you that I remember petting her or hugging her goodbye, but I don’t. I just remember that mixture of dread and relief: I saw how much pain she was always in. Even at six, I could recognize a half-life.
Monday I went in to my first grade classroom on the sixth floor of Saint Ann’s School across the street. Besides the blocks and books and games that lay around the room, there were all manner of things having to do with India. That semester we were studying India—its history and culture. Later in the semester we put on play in which I played a Brahmin priest who said, “It is prohibited.” I don’t remember what exactly was prohibited.
Our teachers called us to the rug for our regular Monday meeting where we discussed things that had happened and things that were going to happen. They were sober-faced and talked with us about the fact that Indira Gandhi, the female prime-minister of India, had been assassinated on October 31st, the Wednesday before. Somewhere in the chaos of the weekend, I had registered this and remember seeing the cover of the New York Times with her picture on the dining room table. It’s the first global and historical event that registered on my insular boyhood world. I barely knew who Ronald Reagan and Mikahil Gorbachev were. Our teacher spoke to us for a while and then asked whether anyone had anything else to add. I knew that I did. I understood this death thing. I knew what it meant that Indira Gandhi was dead—she had gone out one day and not come back. So I raised my hand.
“Liam, you have something to say?”
“Yes.” I was so nervous to say the words out loud, as if that would make it more real and fully condemn Jess(i)e to the world of the dead. “This weekend my dog died.”
There was a bare pause before my teacher crushed me: “I meant something relevant. We are talking about Indira Gandhi.”
Because I am a teacher now, I try to imagine that her words must have been less harsh and unforgiving when they came out of her mouth than they felt when they fell on my ears. She was a teacher I generally liked, after all. She had always seemed like a good teacher. And of course she was teaching me something: she was telling me that the political assassination of a major world leader and one of the most powerful women on the planet was more important at that moment than the death of an old German Shepherd in Brooklyn. But I couldn’t feel that or know that. At six, all I felt and knew in that moment was that she was cruel for saying that. What could be more relevant than the death of a dog that would lie next to you every day when you played, that would lick your hand, or that would stare into your eyes and never blink?
I felt suddenly very alone. It was one of the first moments in my life in which I felt like I understood the gravity of something in a way that an adult didn’t. At the same time I sensed that my teachersaw something dire and dark in the death of Indira Gandhi that I couldn’t feel. All I could really see was that it mattered to her; it mattered to grownups that this woman halfway across the world had died. I only cared about Jess(i)e.
One of the strangest things about death is that it is always absolute but has no absolute value. This is a large part of why grieving is so often an isolating and even alienating experience. Indira Gandhi understood this absurd truth when she said in the last speech she gave before she was shot by her own bodyguards: “I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow.” So I write this to let you know that, even though I can’t properly write down her name, there was once a German Shepherd named Jess(i)e who lived in Brooklyn—and then there wasn’t.