A few weeks after I had moved to Pittsburgh for the summer, I found myself ambling down the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh with a couple of roommates. We were new to the city and heard about a jazz festival and decided to go see it for ourselves.
On a whim, we stopped in a seemingly abandoned building. There were about a dozen cardboard boxes, each filled to the brim with used records and separated by genre. A self-designated jazz aficionado, I gravitated toward a few crates with the word “jazz” scribbled on them. I didn’t have a record player with me in Pittsburgh, but I thought I’d browse.
I pawed through a couple of stacks of records, stopping at “best-of” albums by Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, one behind another, and looked closer. My grandfather, Willie Schwartz, was Glenn Miller’s lead clarinetist. My grandmother and her sisters, “The Sentimentalists,” toured with Tommy Dorsey. I had known my grandparents were incredibly successful in the music industry, but something about holding records they played and sang on felt profound. Then came a twinge of remorse and, for a second, I missed my family.
Since childhood, I’ve been champing at the bit to be an adult and start my “real life.” The oldest of four children, I always was the most grown up and the most uptight. My mom would keep telling me to “relax” and “calm down.”
In high school, at my most rebellious and angst-ridden, I would show up to class late in the morning if I hadn’t finished the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle. I often didn’t finish my homework and was more engulfed in the reading I did outside of class than in my textbooks. I saw high school as a trifling matter and wanted nothing to do with it.
I was elated that I would be attending college 1,919 miles away from home and thrilled that my first summer would be spent at a distance of 2,442 miles. Being away from Los Angeles was fine. I’d be far from the long days spent at the beach, my entire back and face sunburned no matter how much sunscreen I’d used. I’d be far from strawberries from Ventura County — a California summer staple. I’d be away from the nights spent with my three younger siblings in our backyard swimming, watching classic movies and sneaking more and more ice cream while our parents weren’t looking.
This was a milestone, living away from home in Pittsburgh, a city to which I’d never been. This was adulthood.
Two weeks ago, a text message from my sister lit up my phone.
“Did you hear about Spirit?”
She was referring to our 9-year-old beagle, usually the topic of a lot of family conversation. I figured he had done something humorous, like fall asleep atop the kitchen table or escape from the yard and end up at the pound (where he spent Christmas night this year).
A brief message lit the screen again: “Call me.”
The conversation was brief. She was on the way home from the veterinarian. Spirit had cancer, and it had spread to his liver. It was estimated that he would live six months to one year.
The Humane Society has an entire website page devoted to coping with the death of an animal. So does PETA. I have yet to find a page devoted to dealing with the illness of an animal thousands of miles away.
Spirit has months to live, but it hurts deeply that I may not be able to say goodbye to him. Had I known that the last time I was home would be the last time I’d go running with him or fall asleep on the floor with him, I would’ve been nicer to him and less excited to get away. I would have fed him more off my dinner plate. I would have walked extra blocks with him. I would have let him off the leash and let him roam.
The day I graduated from high school, Spirit slid through an opening in our gate. As my family got ready for the ceremony, we heard his familiar howl, more faint than usual, and quickly realized he’d found his way into the neighbor’s yard, following his primal hound instincts as he hunted down an angry skunk. We crowded around him, dressed for commencement, and cornered him. The skunk turned and sprayed all six of us, plus Spirit.
I graduated from high school smelling like a skunk.
This was my family: embarrassingly dysfunctional, but in retrospect, endearing, hilarious. The crazy dog tied the pack together.
After I had heard from my sister, I spent an entire day holed up in my apartment. I didn’t want to tell anyone about my dog — I felt guilty for being upset when people every day deal with much greater loss. I didn’t want to trivialize the horrors of the world by sharing my insignificant grief with other people.
If I saw a beagle on the street, though, I would stop and pet it and talk to its owner. I would get derailed on my running route, chasing down a beagle just so I could see a young, healthy dog that looked like my own. I felt neurotic and guilty for literally running after animals on the street, just to cope.
I felt guilty for feeling homesick. I felt childish, and I felt out of control.
It occurred to me then, as I was running down the Boulevard of the Allies chasing a beagle and feeling insane: I’m 19 years old. I don’t have to be an adult today, and I don’t have to remain stoic, mature or even-keeled all the time. I’m allowed to miss my family, and I’m allowed to miss my home. I felt naive for having flung myself into adulthood, full force.
I slowed down and caught my breath. I picked up my cell phone and I called Mom. And I cried.
Kate Mishkin is a summer reporting intern for the Post-Gazette, returning soon to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where she will be a junior and managing editor of the student newspaper (firstname.lastname@example.org).