He was violently thrust onto the six lane highway. The men laughed while grasping Coors Light cans partially crushed in their rough, scaly hands. Their beaten down, rusty blue truck teetered in and out of traffic; garbage from the bed of the truck circled above. He was a full-breed five month old Akita and he bolted across the highway as soon as he hit the ground.
Sean and I were on route to see the Grateful Dead who were playing a few night run at RFK stadium in Washington DC. The air was filled with a collective screeching sound of braking cars. We pulled over to the shoulder of the highway. The dog escaped to the safety of the grass median. He stood, shaking, bleeding, and snarling in front of us. His head hung low and and his body crouched, but his eyes were raised to meet ours. We trembled with adrenaline from the last few minutes and the possibility of the dog attacking . The wind from the cars and trucks continued to hiss and blow around us. Sean grabbed a rope from the back of his truck and in one swoop got it around the dog’s neck. I was quietly and forcefully insisting to Sean that the dog could be dangerous. He ignored my pleas and managed to pull the dog back to the truck. The dog reluctantly succumbed to the lure of granola bars, cookies and some fruit, though he was still frightened and continued to snarl .
We drove a few more exits to the stadium and began walking the dog around on a steamy July afternoon. The parking lot sizzled from black overheated asphalt, adding to the dog’s discomfort. We needed to take respite in the rare shaded areas of the lot. As the hours went by, we questioned people if they had ever seen the dog. Many concert goers offered to take the dog, but Sean was skeptical. In the end, he came home with us.
We tied him on a long rope to a tree in the large yard that belonged to Sean’s parents. We fed him and talked softly too him. His growls still continued but were less frequent. We brought the dog to the veterinarian. We were told that Akitas were an aggressive breed. The veterinarian used the term “time bomb” repeatedly. Sean bought the book How to be Your Dog’s best friend written by The New Skeet Monks. He scoured the book from front to back several times, determined to keep the dog. Although many approaches from this book were too extreme for us, we did practice the technique of treating the dog as the animal that he was. The dog was never given table food, and therefore never begged. This maintained the true nature of the dog as a pack animal. The dog came from a world of abuse and dog fighting. This was his reality before we found him. He was living on mice and rats and was severely malnourished and full of worms. His fur was matted down and patches of his skin were exposed and raw.
The weeks went by and Sean and the dog bonded. His fur grew back in, full, soft and healthy. He looked more like a wolf. He conveyed with his posture and stance that he was superior, and his strength out did any other. This would prove to be a life saving trait for us. Sean decided to name him Japhy Ryder after a character from Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Sean and I shared an admiration of Kerouac. We both harbored a desire to emulate Kerouac’s ideas. Kerouac’s books drew us together with a shared affection for his stream of consciousness narratives, and his heightened awareness of the world beyond the superficial. The dog we found that weekday afternoon would go on to live his next seventeen years on the road as a best friend, a warrior, a traveler, and a protector. He was a dog well worthy of the moniker of a Jack Kerouac character.
Sean was attached to Japhy in ways that I have seen others be attached to their pets. Some people have this immense amount of love and care to give, and they direct it towards their animals. This emotional transaction feeds their own needs. It is an attachment that is easier or perhaps safer to have with a pet, than with another human being.
Japhy was neurotic, but at the same time protective. He kept us safe more times than I can remember. The Akita is a quiet breed that was originally raised for babysitting and bear hunting in Japan. He would stand guard over the 1978 purple and green VW bus that was our home. He saw the Volkswagen as his own territory, and we were his pack. At rest areas on the road, Japhy and I would wait outside of the facilities, never waiting at the bus. When a man would walk past me, Japhy would lean into my body and let out his deep, drooling snarl. He would lock his eyes on the potential perpetrator.
On the tour of 1993, two women who followed the Grateful Dead were brutally murdered. They were last seen at a rest area in Alabama. Their bodies were found tattered, beaten and raped a few miles from that rest area. Flyers overtook the Dead community, warning of the increased risks to personal safety from the outside world-the real world. Sean and I were already aware of the dangers involving life on the road. People were scared of Japhy, and in fact, Japhy was scary, at times. He was also smart and remarkably gentle. He had an uncanny ability to use his vocal chords. Sean taught him to say hello. He would wag his curled tail, and bark a very intelligible hello in order to get a dog treat. We often found ourselves being questioned by inquisitive middle america folks. We were an unusual sight for many to see at their local grocery store parking lot. Sean would be repairing the bus and I would be making coffee on a camp stove. The conversation would begin regarding our Connecticut license plate. Then we would give a brief synopsis of our road travails to these wide-eyed, bewildered small town folk. We would blow their minds even more by revealing that “our dog can say hello.” “Watch.” Every time they would respond with a full belly southern-tinged laugh of amazement. It instantly connected us to people from different walks of life.
Sean insisted on never leaving Japhy behind. He would cleverly find ways to bring Japhy into places that a dog would not ordinarily be allowed to go. We brought him on airplanes, into stores, hotels and into concerts. We found that if you acted with authority people would defer to you. We did this in all aspects of traveling, our resourcefulness ultimately ensured that we could stay on the road with special privileges, and always with our dog in tow.
When our son Elijah was born this introduced a new challenge in the care taking of Japhy. We took all the appropriate steps in introducing Elijah to Japhy. I remember walking into the house with Elijah for the first time, and setting him on the floor in his car seat with the anticipation of Japhy’s response. At first, Japhy did not pay much attention to the baby. Then we received out first visitor a few days later. It was someone Japhy knew very well. Our friend opened the door and approached Elijah who I was rocking in his baby seat. Japhy leaped up and defended the car seat. He snarled the way he did so many times for me in scary, dark places. Japhy had accepted Elijah as part of the family, and he was gentle with him. Elijah would walk past his giant dog, taking the side of his cheek and rubbing it against the inches deep sheep-like fur. Japhy would stop and quietly acknowledge this bond, standing beside him, patiently waiting for Elijah to be finished.
After Elijah was born we slowly left behind the road life. In the next years, Sean would change and would start to suffer from a debilitating mental illness. This led Elijah and I to pull away from our pack and leave behind Sean and Japhy. It was in the weeks leading up to my 39th birthday, that Sean began to exhibit powerfully visible signs of deterioration. Japhy’s health started to fail as well. Sean had for months been carrying the dog around in a trailer, pulling him by bike and pushing him. Japhy staggered along, his once bright eyes glossed over with thick signs of cataracts. He leaned to one side, suffering from chronic ear infections that affected his equilibrium. He was mostly deaf. His spirit still there, but less and less visible. On the evening of my birthday Sean suffered his worst psychotic break. He displayed ritualistic behaviors: quoting from the bible, reciting cryptic song lyrics, and exhibiting destructive behavior of his personal property. His hands were covered in cuts, blisters and blood. His fingertips were stained yellow from cigarettes. His clothes were ripped and dirty. I sat on the couch that evening while he called over and over. He left disturbing voice mail messages. He chanted bible quotes, saying he would be forgiven for doing such horrible things, for killing, and for releasing me into freedom from the chained life I lived. We would all be taken, including the dog. He made mention that because Elijah was the prophet, he would be left standing. Each message was worse than the last one. I had already obtained a restraining order against Sean, and I knew if I contacted the police again, Sean would go to jail. I never wanted this to happen to my son’s father. I also had a fear of Sean’s parents. I wanted to hold on to the hope that he would somehow get better.
That night I was speaking with a friend three thousand miles away who knew the situation, and had also been a target of Sean’s mania. He pleaded with me to call the police. Then my phone died. My friend Justin panicked and called the local police department immediately. Fifteen minutes later, I had a forceful loud knock at the door. I sat in my living room at almost two in the morning facing the reality of the police officer who had responded to the emergency call. I could feel the warm spring air come through the half opened door as I sat in my pajamas clutching my phone. I told him that it was my birthday. I assured him that everything was fine, and that my friend was overreacting. I began doing my own denial dance, telling him that Sean was just having a bad moment, minimizing the risks, and attributing them to his temporary mental issues. There was another knock on the door, and more police officers arrived. In an instant, there were five more officers standing in my tiny living room. I felt nervous, jittery and slightly annoyed. I continued to downplay the severity of the situation, making jokes and desperately trying to deflect. The largest of the police officers leaned towards me, his piercing green eyes glared inches from my face. I felt the warmth of his breath against me, and the intensity of his stare through the entirety of my being. He said: “mental illness is a very serious thing.” I looked away as he demanded my full attention. He continued, raising his voice: “Miss Roles, let me tell you, we scrape women like you off the floor all the time. He is a very dangerous person, a danger to you and to that little baby. You are endangering that child, as well as yourself by not allowing us to go pick him up right now.” I sat there, stunned and fully aware of the truth.
I was scared that the hospital would not keep Sean, and would release him. They rarely kept him more than a few days. I was afraid I would be in more danger after he was released. Once things quieted down, Sean’s parents would inevitably get him released or bailed out. The cadre of police officers assured me that they would take full note of the situation. They would request full protection. I gave them the okay to go get Sean. They pulled quietly into his parents’ driveway, and busted open the door of the small cottage we used to share. Sean had been caring for the barely alive dog. He was cleansing him with swabs of cloth in a ritualistic manner. He was combing his fur and swaddling him in clothing and blankets. When the dog took his last breath Sean pumped on his chest for over an hour, trying to breath air back into the lifeless dog. He stood over the dog sobbing, speaking in tongues in some warped made-up dialect. He told the responding police officers that he was the lamb of God, that he was the healer, and the God of Gods sent to fight against the Anti-Christ. They took him into custody, and loaded him in the back of a police car. Then they brought him to the hospital. Within twelve hours he was released. His mania was still in full-swing. Elijah and I were in full-survival preparation.
What happened the next forty-eight hours continues to linger within the depths of me, deep in my subconscious, and at the core of my being. In telling this story, I am attempting to purge some of it away. It was a very clear turning point in my life, and a place of turning away from Sean. Sean’s father, who worked as a prominent attorney in town, was instrumental in getting his release. The morning after Sean’s arrest, he was picked up by his parents. That morning I told Elijah about his dog dying. It was the first time as a parent that I saw my child cry out of profound sadness. I sat consoling him; his deep sobs were ones of real loss. The cries came from a place of longing for a part of life we could not change or even hardly understand. Elijah’s heart was broken. He was unconsolable. He cried for the animal that he loved and that had been part of his family in his young life. In his child’s mind, he thought that Japhy would be around indefinitely. All the while that Elijah was coping with this loss, I was fiercely protecting him from the reality of his father.
Sean walked to the veterinarian’s office where the dog had been transferred, and told them that he was going to bury him in his parents’ back yard. The vet had known the family for years and was skeptical of releasing the dog, but felt cornered. Sean stuffed the dog in his frame pack, swaddling the dead dog in clothes and pages from the bible. He set out on a sweltering, hot April day and headed north. He was delusional, but still managed to get a few rides from unsuspecting drivers who were unaware of the dog carcass in his backpack. The vet called Sean’s parents and informed them of Sean’s outlandish behavior. They in turn called me. The anger they had towards me was subsumed by their need of my help. This was the normal yet dysfunctional pattern we maintained. Sean may have been inaccessible at any level, but I continued to have a way of getting to him that eluded his aging parents. Several days passed. I received regular phone calls from Sean. He would not disclose where he was. He obtained a shopping cart and made it as far as Springfield, Massachusetts. I called the Springfield police department and asked them to go find him. They tracked him down in a park and told me that while his condition may be irregular or even aberrant, there was nothing they could do. Sean explained to the police officers that he was bringing his dead dog around in a shopping cart because he was in route to bury the dog at the ocean. I sat in my house unsettled by all of this, with the churning memories of Sean and Japhy bouncing around in my mind. I could not fathom how someone could lose touch with the world so entirely. I felt alone and scared for all of us. I thought of how Sean used to be so uneasy about even a bad paper cut, and now he was a person transformed. I wondered how he was managing to carry a dead dog, a ninety pound dog in sweltering heat. The carcass would be decaying quickly. I imagined him maneuvering this animal around in a shopping cart and inside of his backpack. The backpack’s zipper had broken and fur was slightly visible, in its limp and decomposing state.
Sean’s parents and I were working together to get Sean and the dog back; we were all afraid of what he was capable of doing, especially under such emotional stress. From a place of unconditional love, I helped them. I helped them because they had a sick child. Over the years, I have tried to see Sean’s parents as separate entities from their son. This enabled me to give them support and love in spite of the hurt or pain they may have caused me or my son. We are defined not by the easy moments in our lives, but how we respond to the most difficult and trying people and situations. I am compassionate because that is the hard thing. It is the one thing I can control.
Sean’s elderly parents arrived in Springfield and drove aimlessly around in search of him. They drove to the park where the police had previously discovered him. They found him, but he refused to get in their car. So I intervened, and bought him a bus ticket. I called the Springfield bus station and explained the situation to one of the bus company employees. I excluded the information about what was exactly in his backpack. I was able to convince Sean to go to the bus station, but when he arrived for his bus, they would not let him board. They said that his stench was unbearable. They said he was not allowed on the bus with the dead animal.
As I wrote these words I am struck about how I have not revisited this memory in a long time. It is only now that I can partially grasp the reality of my last several years; the reality of my son’s other parent. In the end, Sean was brought back to his parents’ home and he buried the dog. He took over twenty-four hours to dig the hole and carry out his self-mandated rituals, blessing each pile of dirt. Then he was placed in the hospital for several weeks. I think back to my time with the dog, and at my own attachment to animals. In death as well as life, I am always dealing with those tenuous moments that make up every second of our days. This is something I work on every day. From early on in our relationship, I knew Sean did not have capacity for dealing with death. He was so sensitive. It wasn't merely the pain he felt or his devotion to a dog; it was how something ordinary took him someplace else.
People die. Animals die. These processes are not only part of our lives, but there is also a certain beauty in them. It is the realest thing that can happen to us, to our loved ones, and to our lives. It forces us to process a place that we never want to be in. That process is life's undeniable circle of all things connecting. I knew this time that Sean was different from me, and different from Elijah. He had crossed lines that were never meant to be crossed. Elijah and I snuck onto his parents’ property while Sean was in the hospital. Elijah drew on a rock while we were there. He wrote: “I love you Japhy. The best dog ever.” We placed it on the rocks that Sean had intricately placed over the freshly dug hole that was Japhy’s grave. We sat there cross-legged in the damp grass, holding hands. I gripped my child's hand relieved that these days were over, relieved that we were temporarily safe from Sean. We slowly walked off the property and climbed over the fence that separated the yard from the church next door where we parked. Simultaneously Elijah and I glanced back, looking back over the vision of the grave site, of our former little cottage, and of the broken down VW bus. We had clear thoughts of Sean, of Japhy, and of our life as it used to be. In that moment, in that slightly overcast, cool late spring day, we stood in trickling rain and I let out a heavy sigh. I knew then that Sean was gone and nothing was going to bring him back.