A few years ago I decided happiness is an “event” emotion, a narcotic, spurred by a calorically dense dinner or finding a five-dollar bill in a parking lot. I figured I could only achieve that feeling through sporadic event spending or hard liquor, and both options have harrowing comedowns. So I stopped looking for happiness and started looking for peace, because I haven’t ruled out its sustainability. Maybe I can still find that.
There are prompts. I think I can find peace on the road, not on freeways or in cities or obsolete beat poetry but the actual road, where I can float by people without damage and be an abstraction in a car, imposing my will on nobody. The idea comes from a long-held and unsubstantiated suspicion that peace is a place, or movement toward a place. It’s not an enlightening book or movie or conversation or anything, but some concoction of light, wind, and weather. So when I go outside, I’ll stand in a place and wonder if I’m peaceful there. Nope. Walk a few steps. Am I peaceful here?
It works sometimes. Usually it’s places where my peacefulness isn’t intruding on some larger narrative. Places where I can’t dream up any baggage or images of dissolution. A place where I can step outside myself and not exist.
I didn’t check up on this theory very often though, because until last week I had a dog, and that was enough. I could listen to him breathing and know that my sense of impending doom was a defect. Because over in the corner was my dog, who made considerably less money than me, but somehow slept more soundly than I did.
I’ve been to funerals, and I’ve had other dogs that died, but his death was the first time I was aware of what undecorated adult grief was. First my brothers got out of the car to smoke. Grief. Then the vet put my dog on a stretcher and took him to the room, which, like every room you ever want to leave, was full of metal, and I heard somebody say “oh, he still looks so strong.” Grief.
Then I sat down across from my dog, and my brothers showed up, and I decided I should be right in my dog’s line of sight, and never break eye contact, so he’d know I didn’t abandon him, then 30 minutes later, the vet said “his heart stopped beating,” and I broke eye contact. Grief.
I’m pretty sure I couldn’t breathe until halfway home, when my brother said “I fucking hate four-way stops,” and I said “I had the right-of-way but she just barreled through like a CEO driving a Camry by accident.” That was an approximation of a normal conversation, and after that there was an approximation of breathing.
Then I was home, and saw the bowl with the food still in it, and the overturned chairs, and had to leave. I got my oil changed and decided it was critically important to get an apple fritter at 5 in the afternoon and kept looking for a place where grief wasn’t all I saw.
When Jiffy Lube charged me $63, I thought about asking if I could get $30 knocked off because my dog just died. “I need a gesture like this, so I can find peace, and you should never deny peace to a grieving man,” I’d say. And the fritter, please ma’am, my dog is dead and you’re gonna toss it out anyway. Roll a stop or two? Run a red light? Can’t I be excused from a negotiable 40% of the rules of society? Is this all there is?
But eventually I had to be home with all the grief. That dog put up with divorce, four moves, seven jobs between everybody, and his demeanor didn’t change. He put up with my brother’s 3 a.m. wake-up call and he put up with me pitching articles to him and asking — with steadily decreasing irony — for notes on rough drafts. He didn’t even try to kill the eight-year-old’s remote-controlled robot. No human being would tolerate that level of abuse, but he never complained and slept by the fake fireplace every night anyway.
The next day I realized grief can be a place too. I would be alright sitting in bed, but when I got up, I’d reflexively look toward his spot by the fake fireplace, and reflexively give him the “we’re not in too much trouble” nod, and realize he wasn’t there. And I’d turn the lights on and look at that spot and it was all wrong. That place was ruined. There was grief over there now. The whole house became wrong. The rug we put down in the kitchen to keep him from slipping on the tile was a monument to grief. The bag of dog food we bought and didn’t use. The three towels my brothers used to get him outside when they were drunk and unqualified to get him anywhere. His entire pacing route in the living room radiated grief. Every stray hair the vacuum cleaner didn’t find.
Then I went in the eight-year-old’s room and noticed the dog had been in there on the night he stopped eating. I was sure he was looking for him, because all the LEGOs were knocked over and the quilt had been torn off the bed. My legs started to weigh 500 pounds. I wasn’t qualified to see that. I didn’t have enough gray hair to see that. My dog was still here, but only in his weakness.
I tried to diffuse the situation by being sentimental. I printed up an 8×10 of the dog and got a boring old wood frame for it, and put it above where he used to sleep. And I instantly figured out why people do that. It’s because memory is an unreliable witness. It turns into a curated reflection of your current mood, and then into a lie. I don’t have to trust my memory when there is a picture. I can just look at it and feel weightless remembering all those nights when I didn’t know where my next paycheck was coming from, and looking at my dog’s eyes made it all better somehow. And that’s not peace, but it’s a start.