Writing Distraction #1: Family Pets

I’m one of those moms who lets her children have pets.

I have many friends who aren’t pet people.  I’ve envied them many times, especially when I come into their orderly, dog-hair-free zones, greeted by the smell of a clean house and not the smell of wet dog or a guinea pig cage in need of cleaning.

I grew up with household pets (dogs, cats, frogs, fish, gerbils), and my mother often pointed out how the work always fell to her — walking the dog, cleaning cages, purchasing food, etc.  She didn’t complain about it, really…she was rather matter-of-fact about her role.  Therefore, when MY children were old enough to ask for pets of their own, I wasn’t fazed by what followed:  blissful adoration for the first three days of ANY newly acquired pet, then the gentle reminders to “feed/water/clean/interact with/say hello to/stop putting clothes on top of the cage and remember you have a pet”.  I’ve always remembered how family pets made me feel, how much I loved them, even when I forgot to clean their cages or — eeek — feed them as a child.  Mom did that for me, and now I’m doing it for my children.  Funny, that.

So far, here are the pets who’ve touched the lives of our children:

–Dogs:  Chloe was a black lab mix adopted from the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago and lived almost 15 years — Mike and I considered her our “first” child.  When Chloe died, Maggie, our middle child and only daughter, was five.  A little piece of Maggie’s heart went with Chloe.

Maggie and Chloe. Sisters forever.

Maggie and Henry, excited to pick out our new family dog from  Thunder Labradors in Wisconsin.

After Chloe died, we waited a year, and then drove to a breeder in Wisconsin to find another family dog.  This time, we picked male yellow lab.

Maggie and Nate meet Jack

Even Henry, a non-dog-guy, fell in love with Jack.

Jack’s almost 4 years old now —  and he weighs almost as much as me.  He thinks and acts like a cat, cozying up to a roaring fire and climbing onto our laps to “nestle.”  Our biggest mistake with this dog was training him to stop counter-surfing by saying, “Off!”  Now, whenever he tries to sneak food off the counter (especially when guests are over), Mike and I sheepishly admonish the dog by shouting, “JACK, OFF!”  Guests’ eyebrows often raise when hearing that phrase, and explanations usually ensue.

–Fish:  The kids have all had them — beta fish, goldfish, and even the various exotic freshwater kind that require filters and air pumps and charcoal mechanisms to keep the water clean.

–Lizards:  Gekkos, green anoles, you name it.  One lizard in particular — “Veggie”, an Egyptian Euromastyx — found her way to our home when Mike’s boss’s son couldn’t accompany him to college.  Veggie was long and dragon-like and had a hard, spiny tail that thrashed to scare away predators (such as little 3-year-old brothers who tapped annoyingly on the tank).  Veggie’s various accoutrement included heat lamps, UV lights, a heated rock for basking.  We also made frequent trips to the pet store for her live cricket appetizers — so frequent, in fact, that I signed up as a member of the pet store’s “Cricket Club”.  When this delicacy wasn’t available, Veggie’s favorite meal was Bird’s Eye frozen mixed vegetables (thus, the name “Veggie”).  She passed away recently, after almost 15 years.  She had shared a room with Henry for five of those years.  And, although she wasn’t a pet he could cuddle or walk, she was a constant, reliable friend.  We knew she was near the end when she stopped eating and drinking.  Henry, 12, fought back tears talking about how he knew Veggie would die soon.  She meant something to him, and we talked about her over the next few days, recalling when we brought her home, entering her in the school science fair, feeding her crickets.  After she’d died, I realized I’d never taken a single photo of her; however, I recently found a blurry shot of her on Henry’s camera phone.

–Gerbils:  All I’ll say is, our two gerbils lasted faaaaar longer than the gerbil books predicted.  And, they bit.  And hid.  And peed.  And gnawed their way through 3 cages.  When those gerbils, Drake and Josh, finally died (within two days of one another, which would have been romantic had they not been brothers from Pet Smart), it was the dead of winter.  Maggie wanted to bury them properly, but the ground was frozen and covered with snow.  Mags wanted to bury them in the local cemetary off Sheridan Road.  I considered that scenario for an hour or two — even driving past the entrance gates, hoping we might dash in and “bury” the brothers under dark of night — but decided a backyard burial might prove more meaningful and legal…in the Spring.  And so, Drake and Josh R.I.P.’ed in an Oberweis Milk cooler in the backyard through that winter, waiting for their proper burial once the ground thawed.  In April, Maggie and I dug a deep hole near the backyard fence, and said a few prayers and goodbyes.  We gently placed the brown paper bag holding Drake and Josh into the hole, and Maggie clutched me and wept.  I hadn’t thought about these gerbils for months.  My seven-year-old daughter cried and wished them peace, then did an amazing thing only a young, innocent heart might think of.  She leaned over the hole, letting her tears fall on the bag.  Then, she looked up at me, wiped her eyes, and said, “We can fill the hole up now, Mom.”

Big sister Marshmellow greets her baby sister, S'Mores

–Guinea Pigs:  We’ve gone through three, and it’s been a lovely yet painful process.  Following the death of the gerbils, Maggie asked for a guinea pig for her 8th birthday.  Instead of one, we got her two (and that was entirely my doing:  I felt the poor little thing would want a friend).  Pig #1, Marshmello (spelled intentionally that way due to her temperament) was a white fluffy angel.  Pig #2, S’mores, was cursed from the start.  We brought her home from the pet store, wondering why he was so skittish and frantic…and learned months later, after a trip to the vet, that she had an incurable skin disorder beyond treatment.  We had her put to sleep at Terry Animal Hospital in Wilmette and then took her home in a box lined with a towel.  On the drive back to Evanston, I called Mike and said, “We’re coming home, and we need to bury S’Mores.”  Without a word, Mike put aside what he was doing and started digging a hole under a pine tree in our front yard.  We pulled up to the house and Maggie ran to her dad’s arms.  The hole was already dug, and Mike held Maggie tight as I brought the box over to them.  We held a little ceremony right there, and Maggie wished S’Mores peace and comfort in her eternal slumber.  One huge lesson:  Guinea Pigs don’t have eyelids.  Thus, the open-eyed stare of a deceased guinea pig is not the “peacefully resting” image you get when burying, say, a couple of gerbils.

We found a new cage-mate for Marshmellow, and named him Bear-Bear.  He was a feisty little fluff of a friend for Marshmellow, and Maggie had high hopes that the two would create a litter of their own.  Children would approach me on the playground at school saying, “When your guinea pigs have babies, can we have one?”  The progeny never appeared — Marshmellow died five months after Bear-Bear arrived.  Her death was entirely unexpected.  Mags and I had just returned from an out-of-town trip, and when she went up to check on Marshmellow, she found her guinea pig lying quietly in her crate.

Very quietly.

Maggie came downstairs and excitedly reported that Marshmellow was “lying down” (in hopes, perhaps, that she was in labor).  When I went up to check on her, it was obvious that she was gone.  Bear-Bear was sitting quietly in a corner of the cage, clearly confused.  This event happened, again, in the dead of winter.  And, once again, Mike and I decided a Spring burial would be in order.  So, Marshmellow is waiting patiently in the backyard for her time.  I think a spot next to S’Mores, under the pine tree, might be the perfect spot.

Some people must wonder: “what kind of parent introduces so many pets into a child’s life, knowing death will come sooner or later?”  I will acknowledge that the pain of watching or learning about a pet’s death is heartbreaking.   However, the joy each pet brings into our family is so much greater.  The communication we share, as a family, about the care, the changes, the challenges, the cuteness, and the special moments with these pets is invaluable.  The lessons the animals teach us as a family — about caring for more than just ourselves, about patience when learning new behaviors and about stretching our hearts with love for another living thing — they’re lessons I can’t teach my children any other way.  We witness the cycle of life, and see firsthand that after the extreme pain of loss comes an understanding and appreciation of the memories created long ago.  Maggie sees the spirit of Chloe, our black lab, in the fiesty idiocy of our yellow lab, Jack…and helps us keep perspective.  Maggie believes that Jack’s raucous dog dreams are filled with romps with Chloe…and we’ve come to believe her.  Children really help us see what’s right in front of us.

Maggie is clearly our animal lover.  She’s done with guinea pigs, and now has a fluffy velveteen rabbit named Bella.  As Maggie has matured, so has her love and care and level of responsibility for her pets.  Now, if we can just keep Jack the labrador away from Bella the bunny, we’ll all be good for another winter…

Full Disclosure:  Because Maggie was so sad about our beloved black lab’s death at age 15, we decided to empower her — we took her back to the Anti-Cruely Society of Chicago (from which we adopted Chloe) and held her 9th birthday celebration there.  Maggie asked her friends to donate food and pet toys to the shelter in lieu of presents.  The staff was so touched by Maggie’s love of animals, they created “Junior Volunteer” badges for the girls and let them interact with the dogs and cats up for adoption.  It’s been one of the most meaningful experiences of Maggie’s life.

Maggie cuddles a black lab mix, Candy, at the Anti Cruelty Society of Chicago

I must sign off …a dear friend just stopped by to let me know her youngest daughter dropped a bit of hand lotion into her older daughter’s fish tank…looks like they’re headed to the pet store to find a replacement fish (I think they’ll be calling him “Ted Jr.”).  I think I’ll forward her this post…

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5 responses to “Writing Distraction #1: Family Pets

  1. LOVED this post. Laughed out loud at “Jack Off” and the eye-lid-less guinea pigs. Now I don’t feel so weird that we have “Soldier Boy,” one of our pet frogs who went to the Great Beyond, resting on the bottom shelf of our fridge (on a suitably cozy bed of white cotton in an old Ann Taylor jewelry box), waiting for the Spring thaw. We take him out every few days and inspect him, seeing how his withering skin and emerging skeleton resemble the “Dissect a Frog” plastic model that Santa brought. We remind each other that his soul is already in heaven. The somber farewell to his earthly self will come in Spring.

  2. Where to start? First, LMAO about “Jack, OFF!” Hysterical.

    Second, as owners of The Animal Store, I must say we love pet people like you and your family (although I hope you’ll visit us soon, instead of that other chain pet store you mentioned).

    Kenn thinks Euromastyx look like ET, and he uses them all the time in his Traveling Animal Shows. Sometimes I see it and sometimes I don’t.

    I was not a pet person, myself, so explain to me how I ended up married to a man who owns a pet store (sometimes I think he’s more married to the store than me!). Right now, our house is down to one dog and one hermit crab, but we’ve had: a cockatiel named Rosie (for her cheeks); a Pacific Parrolet (the world’s smallest parrot) named Pipsqueak; another hermit crab (Blue passed on, we still have Maize), a gorgeous 115 gallon salt water marine tank w/live coral and colorful marine fish that kept my babies entertained for hours. Whenever my kids want another pet, I tell them they own hundreds of them and they can go visit them and Daddy at the store.

    Off to Twitter about this great post.

  3. I think you are doing the best thing letting your children have pets and learn about death through them before they have to learn about it via a much loved adult. I too had many pets when i was young and i never took care of them as i should but now im my household i am still the only one who wants pets, apart from the cats as my husband loves those. I am getting some guinea pigs to breed from very soon so i really enjoyed your post.

    best wishes
    Gill

    • Thank you, Gill. You understand exactly where I’m coming from. Good luck with your guinea pigs. They sure make wonderful pets. They squeak when you enter the room to let you know they’re happy to see you.

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