Farewell to the Odd Couple

My wife lost her first love this past weekend. She inherited him as a nuptial cast-off from a young couple pining for a fresh start. By the time I came into the picture five years later, this guy was a constant presence in her house. Sharing her bed. Sleeping on her sofa. Eating her food. My questioning glances during the early days of our courtship remained unnoticed. Soon his presence became part of the package. I learned to tolerate his car sickness. To dodge him when I walked into the house. To drop a few well-timed chucks of cheese to quiet his complaints. I viewed my reluctant kindness toward him as an investment in her.

Two years later, we brought another man into our house. This one was lanky and lean, a vibrant picture of youth. These two guys could not have been more different, but they complimented each other like a living yin-yang. The veteran would quietly leave the room when the rookie burst in. But he didn’t leave for long. They became our surrogate children, teaching us what it meant to set boundaries in the context of hospitality, helping us to practice parenting’s twin-paradox of loving discipline.

When our own kids came along, these two guys accepted them like the family members they were. They tolerated the ear pulling and piggy-back rides. They wore dress-up clothes and silly hats as if it were part of their job description. By then, the old man had lost his cheese weight and was frail enough to be carried by a toddler. The rookie never truly mellowed, but would gum his side of the knot in a game of tug-of-war.

These two also forced uncomfortable conversations with our kids. They introduced topics from basic anatomy to carnal physiology. We turned our embarrassed heads when the old man sat on the sofa and licked himself with leg-quivering abandon. We redirected the kids’s attention when the young guy began sniffing and prodding places previously labeled as private.

As the family grew, my wife and I lost our ability to multi-task. Despite our periodic negligence and intermittent irritation, neither man wavered in his loyalty. They stuck by us through four kids, three houses, two miscarriages, and one new city. They stayed up late to watch us feed the babies. They sat at the foot of the bed when the kids cried. They greeted our sadness by forcing wet noses into our laps. They never had to be asked more than once to go outside and play. In more ways than we could have imagined, this odd couple became a team, united by body hair and bowel gas.

Both guys learned to accept their role as supporting cast in our growing family. They shared a joint water bowl without complaint when we squeezed them into the same space. They respected the physical barriers and baby gates when we tried to reclaim corners of the house. As they aged, each developed a gift for incontinence, then willingly slept outside as a consequence.

When the old man died last weekend, our sadness was not from surprise. He had suffered a freak climbing accident that left his right leg paralyzed. Over a plate of doughnuts that morning, we celebrated a life well lived. But his friend couldn’t celebrate. He stopped eating. Then stopped drinking. Then stopped walking. Though eight years his junior, the rookie grieved the veteran’s loss with total shut down.

Two days later, he died.

We tried to make sense of this dual death. We tried to frame our tears as the sad side of love. We held a joint wake around our kitchen computer, pulling up pictures of the guys, laughing through sniffles and occasionally succumbing to chest-spasming sobs. In one moment of grief, we swore off ever allowing ourself to be vulnerable again. Then the slide show advanced, and we saw the indelible marks these guys left on our kids. On ourselves. We saw them in Halloween costumes, reluctantly wearing pink cowboy hats and sunglasses. We saw them under the Christmas trees, nose-deep in torn wrapping paper. We saw them in the yard with a frisbee, waiting to play.

We wonder how we could ever subject ourselves to the pain of a decade’s worth of pets dying in two days. But then the slide show advances, and I wonder if—and when—we will start again.

Farewell, old men. You are already missed.