I can’t adequately express it, though I’m sure I’m showing symptoms of grief over Todd’s suicide. The moments of intense sadness, the inexorable hunt for details in the hopes of finding an explanation, the repeated listening to Satie’s sad piano compositions, and the morbid fascination with the bureaucratic wake that an unexplained death leaves: I’m unwillingly absorbed by it.
I found out after a long evening of dinner and a movie with my New York friend K. We had steaks on his Wall Street firm’s bill and then went and saw John Ritter’s last film, Bad Santa. To answer your inevitable question, yes, you’ll love it. It might make you sad to note that it’s his last film, but then, death’s in the air this December.
I was about to get back on my motorcycle for a cold but satisfying ride home when I noticed Sarah had called from Boston. I called her back.
Sarah: I have some bad news, Todd’s dead.
Shabbir: Todd in San Francisco?
Sarah: No, Todd Stewart, he committed suicide.
Todd was our dog trainer, and the person we named in our will to help re-patriate our dogs should Sarah and I both perish in unlikely fiery crash. Our friends, family, nephews, and nieces could all take care of themselves. But our dogs were helpless. If they weren’t already in Todd’s care at the time of our demise, we hoped our executor would contact him immediately. (They’d be hungry, too.)
Sarah’s answer to my subsequent question “Why?” on that phone call will never satisfy. She doesn’t know, so it won’t do any good to get mad at her.
The next day I started doing what many people connected with a suicide probably do: look for answers. I found the Washington Post obituary and of course, saved it along with the short piece from Dec. 7th. I called the answering machine message to hear it for myself and saved that, too. I listened to it over and over again looking for answers.
I asked someone I know with access to various legal databases to try and find some evidence of a lawsuit or a judgement against him, but to no avail.
And of course I read the website.
Todd recorded his message on Nov. 5th, and the paper doesn’t list his death as occurring until Nov. 8th. I think of all the people that he could have spoken to, all the people that could have provided him a positive word. He probably didn’t even pick up his phone during that time, just stewed.
And then I realize, it wouldn’t have mattered. The thing that sealed Todd’s fate was his incredibly comparmentalized life. He never told us he was married, we never even saw his farm, just took his word on the conditions of it. I’ve looked at half a dozen kennels for my dogs, and found that universally the conditions were worse than the descriptions advertised in the marketing.
I had to go to a good bit of trouble to get Hagrid, and subsequently Zisa, from the DC Humane Society. So when it was time to go out of town I visited places with names like “Blankity blank Farms” to see how it looked. Oh there’s a farm there alright, but after much prodding they took me to see the dogs. Row after row of cages too small for any dog to be comfortable in, caged in a large room of barking dogs. You know how that works, one dog starts barking and then they all get into it. My dogs would be angry and traumatized by the time I returned. I couldn’t do it. I went through that drill over and over again.
And yet when it came to Todd, I took his word for it. His extreme compassion for animals and his almost psychic ability to read both people and dogs meant that I didn’t have to worry. If he wanted to snow me he could, but he wouldn’t. I trusted him and never regretted it.
Several other people that knew Todd have mentioned in retrospect that they thought that Todd often was repeating a script he used for different occasions. Sure, he had developed a set of phrases and sound bites that expressed his dog lessons well, but that can also be a way of avoiding interaction and personal revelation. I don’t hate him for it, but it means that when it was time for him to open up, all of us dog owners would never know there was a problem. He’d spent an inordinate amount of energy compartmentalizing us, and only as his last effortful act could he drop the dividers.
My favorite piece of Todd advice comes with autumn. Todd always tells his students that the fall months are when their dogs are most active. Because of the lowered temperature and dog’s physiology, their noses are going to be in overdrive during the fall. Every fall we heard the advice, “This is when your dogs are most active. Keep a tight leash, they aren’t going to be able to hear you when they’re focused on something.”
For better or for worse, I don’t think Todd could have heard us either.