When I was 3 years old my dad found a puppy wandering alone on the railroad tracks and brought her home. It was around Christmas time, so he gave her to me on Christmas Eve as a present. I named her Cookie. She was my constant companion during the day and slept at the foot of my bed every night. She was loyal and taught me about unconditional love. As a young boy I remember lying in bed at night, Cookie pressed against my leg and crying because I realized she would die before me.
Growing up I lived as though my life would always safely contain my mom, dad, sister and Cookie. We lived in the same house in Ferguson, Mo. from 1953 until 1965. From my perspective now, that doesn’t seem like a very long time. But those were my formative years and so for the rest of my life that house on Moundale Drive will always feel like my true home.
Next door were the Howards, an elderly couple who never had children. When mom started working and I was in elementary school, Mrs. Howard took care of Cookie and me if I were sick or there was no school for some reason. I loved my time with her. We developed a routine together. We watched television in the morning, three game shows in a row: The Price is Right with Bill Cullen, Truth or Consequences with Bob Barker and Tic Tac Dough with Gene Rayburn. For lunch we often had chicken noodle or tomato soup and Braunschweiger on saltine crackers. She made her special sauce of catsup, mayonnaise and I don’t know what else, to spread on the Braunschweiger. I always raved about it. She also had special treats for Cookie. I was the child she never had and I came with a nice little dog.
Missouri has crappy weather much of the year, but as a boy it didn’t phase me. I loved being outside any time of the year, riding my bike, exploring Moline Creek or just tromping around. My friends and I went to January-Wabash Park to swim in the public pool in the summer and ice-skate on the lake in the winter. And on the fourth of July, they put on a big fireworks display. My friend, Paul, lived nearby and he was always eager to do something together. It’s not easy being a kid and I had my struggles, but in general life was good and full of love and support.
By the time I got out of the Army, everything had changed. Cookie died while I was in Vietnam. My mom didn’t tell me until I returned home. She felt I had had enough grief in the war and didn’t want to add to it. My heart had closed down in Vietnam for survival purposes. I had witnessed too much cruelty, death and suffering. I remember thinking when she told me about Cookie’s death, You think I’m going to get upset about a dog dying, after what I’ve been through. I had no feelings at the time, even though my lifelong loyal companion was gone. My parents moved to Kentucky and so whenever I visited them, it was in a strange city where I didn’t know a soul. The Howards had moved back to Decatur, Illinois. I never saw Mrs. Howard again. Sometime in the 80’s I got a letter from Mr. Howard telling me she had died. He had enclosed a photograph of her headstone. Paul was away at college and we could only see each other rarely. The life I counted on for those 12 years was gone.
But I carried the essence of my childhood with me as my life unfolded. I had internalized those values learned in the ‘50s growing up in Ferguson. I had other pets, each one unique, and each one responding to the love and loyalty that Cookie taught me. I knew how to give and receive love in a family, because I learned that from my parents and my sister. I also knew how to be a supportive loyal friend, because of my lifelong relationship with Paul.
It took me two tries to find the right partner, but practice makes perfect. When I met Katie I knew right away that she was the one. There is nothing better than sharing your life with a person to whom you give your heart completely. When our son Ben was born, my heart was ripped wide open. When he died at age 28, I would have given my life in exchange for his without a moment’s hesitation.
My path is the path of love. Love is the purest and most satisfying of human emotions and sometimes it hurts like hell.