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Susan Estrich: Dads, Dogs and Death, and How I Keep Remembering

My father died on March 7, 1977.

My best friend, Judy, died on March 7, 2000.

Coincidence, of course, but one that kicks me in the stomach every year when I light the memorial candles for these people I loved who died so young.

Technically, under Jewish law, they died on different days. Jewish law goes by a different calendar.

In my heart, it’s the same day.

When my father died, a friend told me that the pain would never go away completely, but that someday, it would be a part of my “history.” That was, I think, a nice way of saying what is certainly true: that time numbs but does not erase, that sadness can seep into your soul and live there, even amid the joy that life sometimes brings.

My mother’s mother died years before I was born. Her father remarried. No one ever talked about my mother’s mother. There were no pictures of her. My sister, Ruth, was named for her, and so was my cousin Ruth Anne — but all I knew about her was her name. It was decades before I met my mother’s cousin, Rowena, her only relative from that side of the family. When I finally asked my mother why we never talked about her, why there were no pictures or stories, she said she was always afraid of offending her father and his new wife.

I vowed to do “better.” I vowed that I would keep my father alive. I vowed that I would keep my friends alive.

But I have not done so well.

Last night, I took a friend’s daughter to dinner. Her dad died 22 years ago. He was one of my best friends. We spent the night telling stories, mostly me talking, telling her how much her father loved her. I realized that not a single one of my father’s friends ever took me to dinner after he died to tell me stories about him or how much he loved me. But how can I blame them when I have told my own children so few stories?

It is not easy to keep a person alive when you start crying at the memory of their death.

That brings me to my dogs.

I grew up afraid of dogs, especially big dogs. My Auntie Edie, my father’s sister, had a gentle black Labrador retriever of whom I was terrified. But in the year and a half that I spent flying back and forth across the country to see Judy while she was sick, there was no room for that old fear. Judy’s dog was Molly. There was a breeder in Hyannis Port, Mass., now famous as the birthplace of the “first dog” (a gift from the Kennedys), and one her prize Portuguese water dogs somehow found her way to a black Lab, producing a litter of mutts. Molly was one of them, one of the sweetest dogs in the world. Molly Jarvis taught me to love dogs.

When my children and I got our black Lab, we named her Judy Jarvis Estrich. That way, I could talk to my friend Judy every day. Somehow, it felt like a tie that death couldn’t break. A few years later, we got our second dog, and we named her Molly. And when we got our pug, a boy, it was easy: He is Irving A. Estrich, my father’s name.

If you don’t love dogs, maybe you’ll think I’m just a poor old fool. How could I name these dogs for the people I loved and lost? How could I pretend that talking to a Lab or a pug was like talking to my best friend or my dad? Of course it isn’t. I know that. It’s not about the talking. It’s about the remembering. About the love.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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