"What's your favorite part of the Odyssey?"
Over the course of 200 plus shows, there is no audience question I've answered more often than this one.
And though my responses have varied, there is no answer I've given more often than "The death of Argos the dog."
Here's the relevant passage (from Book XVII of the Stanley Lombardo translation, lightly edited) as a disguised Odysseus is shown around his home by the swineherd Eumaeus:
And as (Odysseus and the swineherd Eumaeus) talked, a dog that was lying there
Lifted his head and pricked up his ears.
This was Argos, whom Odysseus himself
Had patiently bred-but never got to enjoy-
Before he left for Troy. The young men
Used to set him after wild goats, deer, and hare.
Now, his master gone, he lay neglected
In the dung of mules and cattle outside the doors,
A deep pile where Odysseus' farmhands
Would go for manure to spread on his fields.
There lay the hound Argos, infested with lice.
And now, when he sensed Odysseus was near,
He wagged his tail and dropped both ears
But could not drag himself nearer his master.
Odysseus wiped away a tear, turning his head
So Eumaeus wouldn't notice, and asked him:
"Eumaeus, isn't it strange that this dog
Is lying in the dung? He's a beautiful animal,
But I wonder if he has speed to match his looks,
Or if he's like the table dogs men keep for show."
And answered Eumaeus:
"Ah yes, this dog belonged to a man who has died
Far from home. He was quite an animal once.
If he were now as he was when Odysseus
Left for Troy, you would be amazed
At his speed and strength. There's nothing
In the deep woods that dog couldn't catch,
And what a nose he had for tracking!
But he's fallen on hard times, now his master
Has died abroad. These feckless women
Don't take care of him. Servants never do right
When their masters aren't on top of them.
Zeus takes away half a man's worth
The day he loses his freedom."
So saying, Eumaeus entered the great house
And the hall filled with the insolent suitors.
But the shadow of death descended upon Argos
Once he had seen Odysseus after twenty years.
I've read that passage probably 100 times and it still gets me... to sum up:
Argos, who was a puppy when Odysseus went to Troy and is now an infirm 20 year old, recognizes Odysseus through his master's disguise, wags his tail, and dies.
So what can we infer from this story?
Well, for one thing we can infer that authors have been manipulating readers' emotions with animals for three millennia or more (cf: Marley and Me, A Dog's Purpose, numerous others).
And we can also tell that the sacred bond between dog and human has been around for authors to employ in their emotional manipulation for just as long.
And that brings me to my performances at The National Junior Classical League Convention in Troy (yes, TROY), Alabama, last week.
This was my sixth straight year at the NJCL Convention, an annual gathering of about 1500 mostly high school Latin students and teachers. It's an amazing event full of great, bright and enthusiastic kids, and I've cherished the opportunity to perform at every one to which I've been invited: my Convention performances are always among my most memorable each year.
But last week, as I landed in Atlanta and rented a car to drive the 3 or so hours southwest to Troy, it was a performance at the 2014 NJCL Convention that was on my mind.
Partially because the 2014 NJCL Convention was just down the road at Emory University in Atlanta.
And partially because it was my own personal Argos experience.
At the 2014 NJCL Convention, I was scheduled for 3 performances, one a day on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I left Chicago on that Tuesday, flew to Amherst, Massachusetts, for a show at a summer camp, and then flew straight to Atlanta early Wednesday morning to do my first NJCL performance of the run.
Later on Wednesday, I got a call from my wife: something was wrong with our nearly 14 year old Border Collie mix, Hendrix.
I adopted Hendrix in 2001 when I was 23 and could barely take care of myself. He was my companion through times good and bad: successes, failures, breakups, marriages, divorce, tragedy, love and loss... the whole time, he was there. He was a sweet soul, a fierce protector, and a constant presence.
He heard me write every bit of The Odyssey in my little bedroom on the north side of Chicago in late 2001 and early 2002.
He had a couple of health problems in his later years including a condition of partial laryngeal paralysis that left him more susceptible to pneumonia and eventually could have resulted in suffocation. He had also gone pretty deaf but in general was still getting around okay despite these ailments.
But that Wednesday things took a rapid turn for the worse. I sat in my spartan dorm room on the Emory campus as my wife told me he had started having severe coughing fits and was having trouble walking due to some paralysis in his hind quarters. She was going to check in with the vet on Thursday and come up with a plan.
That next day, Thursday, I had my second performance, this one attended by twice as many students as the first: a buzz was building around the Convention about my show. Afterwards I stepped into the Emory library to take in an exhibit of Seamus Heaney material and my phone rang: It was our vet.
I found a private room in which to talk and the vet told me what I'd feared she would: she recommended that if his condition didn't improve by Saturday we bring him in and have him put down.
I wandered around the library in a daze, surrounded by Seamus Haney's beautiful words, silent tears rolling down my cheeks.
After another night on the phone Thursday as my wife sat with Hendrix and tried to get him to Friday and my return home, I prepared for my final Convention performance. The room filled up with twice as many students as my second performance, almost completely full to its 130 capacity.
I was a wreck. My voice was on edge and I was emotionally gone.
But as I leaned into the beginning of the performance, something magical happened. I could feel the electricity in the air and I channeled my despair and emotion into my singing and playing... I reached a song in which I wrote the line "The dogs at the gate" and changed it in the moment to "that old dog at the gate," a tribute to both Hendrix and Argos.
I finished the performance and the audience rose in a standing ovation. I held back tears, maybe.
After a discussion session with the students, I raced back to my dorm, grabbed my suitcase, and hopped in a shuttle to the airport.
On the way, I formulated this thought (variations of which I continue to use today): "I'm a guy who sings a song about a guy trying to get home to his dying dog, trying to get home to his dying dog."
Back in Chicago, my wife picked me up at the airport and we were surprisingly greeted at the door by Hendrix: it was the last time he stood up under his own power. He wagged his tail, dropped his ears, and for a brief moment did his particular little greeting dance I'd seen so many times over the 13 plus years he'd been in my life.
A quiet night full of tears, a sniff goodbye from our cat, and the next day, August 2, 2014 (exactly 3 years ago the day this is published), we said goodbye to Hendrix and his flame blinked out as we held him in our arms.
This past week at Troy when I got to the line about "the dogs at the gate" it again became "that old dog at the gate," as it has been at every performance since that one on Friday, August 1, 2014.
When a student asked me what my favorite part of The Odyssey was, I responded that it was the episode with Argos but then proceeded to tell the story of my performance at Emory and losing Hendrix.
The lines of my stories have blurred, have bled together into one beautiful remembrance of what dogs have meant to their humans across time and it got me wondering: was Argos Odysseus' dog or was he Homer's?
The Greeks believed that in the telling of stories humans achieved a sort of immortality.
I know now that the immortality bestowed by story and song is not limited to humans but extends to companions of the canine variety.
Rest in peace Hendrix, Argos, and all their kin: I know they are running together in the Elysian Fields.