By David Congalton
My wife Charlotte and I liked to tell our friends, 'We always spell love with a T in our house.' There were
five special reasons why: Topper, Triptych, Tripper, Trio, and Tess.
Three cats. Two dogs. One big happy family. Then we came home from
a holiday party on December 14, 1997 to find the inside of our house
engulfed in smoke and flames. All five pets were dead.
Just like that. Not one was spared.
Instead, every pet loverís worst nightmare,
multiplied by five, suddenly, dramatically, unfolded before our
eyes. And in the weeks and months to come, we would have to learn
to face grief head-on and move forward.
More than three months after the fire, the crying
bouts continued. I'm 44 years old, reasonably intelligent,
and somewhat responsible. Yet, I have sobbed uncontrollably, almost
daily. One minute I would seem fine; then suddenly, unexpectedly,
I would start bawling like a baby. I cried more in the first three
months after they died than in my entire life. Part of me felt shame,
embarrassment, for not being able to stop the tear parade, for not
being able to control myself. I wondered if it would ever go away.
The night of the Academy Awards in March 1998,
I was supposed to meet Charlotte at an Oscar-watching party hosted
by two of our closest friends. I dutifully showered and dressed
to go out for the evening. I was looking forward to being with everyone,
but I never got close to the front door. My mood suddenly shifted;
I felt completely helpless.
Thinking of our beloved pets flared up ugly flashbacks
to the fire-one painful memory leading to another, a complete emotional
chain reaction. The teary meltdown began before Billy Crystal cracked
his first joke. Overcome with grief, unable to move, I suddenly
just wanted to be alone. More memories. More tears. There was no
way I was going out to any party, friends or no friends. About ten
minutes later, I managed to compose myself long enough to call Charlotte.
She was in her car on the way to the party.
"I can't make it, I blurted through
the tears. I just can't."
"What's wrong, David? my wife's
voice crackled on the cell phone. Is everything OK?"
Long pause as I struggled. "I can't
leave tonight," I stammered. "I need to stay here."
Charlotte, who had battled through a few crying
spells herself, understood immediately. We had been married for
almost nine years, but never had been closer than during those first
three months after the tragedy. We took turns being the strong one.
"I'm coming home," Charlotte announced.
Statement, not a request. I didn't argue. After hanging up,
I buried my face in my hands and slumped down in the hallway. Sitting
there, crumpled up, I didn't understand what was happening.
I wasnít sure anyone could.
There were certainly those who claimed to understand,
those "I-know-exactly-how-you feel" folks. They don't.
Then there are those who should, but couldn't-or wouldn't.
Certainly not members of my own family. Some relatives never even
bothered to bring the subject up during a visit barely two months
after the pets died. My editor at the newspaper constantly urged
me to find something else to write about. "Enough is enough,
Dave," he argued. Even our close friends appeared to assume
that everything was OK with Charlotte and me, that we had gotten
on with our lives somehow.
No one really understood. But how could they?
I wasnít even sure that I did. Three months after the fire
and I still had enough tears to sink the Titanic.
So Charlotte rushed home and we huddled quietly
in front of the television, blocking out the rest of the world,
half-watching the awards ceremony, trying hard not to think of anything,
or anyone. Later that night, when things had stabilized somewhat
and my wife drifted quietly off to sleep, I sat alone, again replaying
the events of the past three months in my mind.
Enough, I finally decided. I can't go on
like this. No more nights like tonight.
So I forced myself into our converted office and
plopped down in front of the computer; the words seemed to write
themselves. I cannot explain this sudden call, but it is a familiar
ritual. I write a twice-weekly column for the local Knight Ridder
newspaper in San Luis Obispo, California. During the last five years,
I've often turned this computer into a public confessional
to share much of what is happening in my marriage and my personal
life--our five animal companions were certainly an important centerpiece
That night in March was another harsh reminder
that my heart remains shattered in a million tiny pieces; that I
am far from the happy and smiling man I so pretend to be publicly.
I decided to put what was left of that heart on paper. At the time,
I didn't know where my words would lead. Nor did I know if
they would make any difference about the emptiness I felt. So I
began. Words and thoughts about five very special animals. And sudden
loss. And grief. And ignorance. And love, especially love.
As I wrote the story of my journey through this
unbelievable loss, I quickly realized that this was also a celebration
of having animals in our lives. There was never any hesitation for
Charlotte or me to open our lives to animals. Topper, Triptych,
Tripper, Trio, and Tess were always an important inspiration for
my writing. Some of my favorite pet-oriented newspaper columns will
be sprinkled along the way, little markers to underscore the extent
of our great joy, and profound loss.
I do all this for me, and for Charlotte. But most
of all, I do it to celebrate and remember them--Topper, Triptych,
Tripper, Trio, and Tess. Three cats. Two dogs. Five reasons why
the tears still refuse to go away.