Force-feeding kids is a big NO NO. Pediatricians, child psychologists, even Nanas—who live to watch their grans eat farmhand breakfasts of slab bacon, eggs, and flapjacks—all agree upon this: Let a child eat only as much as he likes. Let him dine, at his pace, undisturbed. His body will tell him when he’s full. To foster a healthy attitude towards food, just put the plate down and walk away…
But how about lizards? Does the same rule apply to finicky class pets you take home for the summer? The school science lab was divesting of its living teaching tools for summer break and my son begged for the bearded dragon. At the end of June, I wheeled the travel tank home atop my shopping cart. But where to put him? I was cautioned against setting the tank down in direct sun or draft. The habitat had to be central. My only option: the dining room buffet. I pushed aside crystal vase and covered cake plate to make room for canned worms and crispy crickets. The tank stretched the length of the silverware drawer; its wood chip litter undulating with all stages of the beetle life cycle. Dinner time next to the lizard tank was not for the squeamish.
He came to us without a name. “That’s sad,” I observed. “We should give him a name.” Everything with a heartbeat that you take into your home should have a name. Hmm…scaly with sharp talons, this beardie had a cute way of cocking his head to greet you when you stepped into the room. Fluffy. It fit him. I promptly fell in love.
It was my own fault that he came to hate his tank. In the day his domain was my garden, a paradise of overgrown hosta and neglected roses. He would scamper from corner to corner, flailing his little legs awkwardly. I don’t know how I expected a lizard to move, but it wasn’t like that. I fell a little harder. “Fluffy would like sand,” said my six-year-old in the surf at Coney. So we scooped a Nathan’s cupful and watched Fluffy frolic on that bit of beach in the backyard. Returning him to his glass cell at nightfall, he would nap, then wake around 10 and watch me on my laptop at the dining room table, blogging well into the night. He’d paw the glass and press his snout into the corner closest me until I relented. I exchanged my lap dog for a lap lizard. Fluffy gave off no heat, but it was pleasing to run my index finger down the ridged furrow of his spine. I moved him to my chest, over my heart. I wondered if he felt my heartbeat? I liked him there, my little reptilian blogger muse.
In early August I had an interview in the Science & Nature Program at the Museum of Natural History. I didn’t get the job, but I did get a bag of live crickets. Until then, I had no reference for bearded lizards. The museum beardies were plump and rosy. I was shocked and scared. Fluffy was half the size and sallow. I’d never actually seen him go after the teeming life in his tank, and his food bowl was untouched. I’d chalked up his lack of appetite to moulting. Sitting around a low interview table (kid-friendly but adult-hostile), I mentioned that Fluffy had the weird habit of flipping himself over onto his back and getting stuck. He couldn’t flip back. “That’s not a good sign,” said the director, not destined to be my boss. Fluffy needed intervention. She encouraged me to force-feed.
I started with a medicine dropper and applesauce. Once I got over the fear of losing a finger, it was easy, and intensely satisfying to pry open his jaw and watch that skinny lizard wake up to the pleasure of chomping down on mangoes and Jersey peaches. Better still, a live cricket: “There, there Fluffy…” stroking his gullet to help it go down. Dammit, the school lizard was not dying on my watch.
But he did.
Theodore was destroyed. “I’m never taking home another school animal. If we’d just taken him to the vet, he’d be all right. This is your fault mommy.”
I agreed. I’m better with plants than animals. I haven’t met a fish I couldn’t kill with overuse of aquarium chemicals I don’t understand.
Little brother William piped in: “We should have taken the turtle.”
Flashback to first-grade: Last day of school. I take home the class mouse. One week later I have seven mice. The metal wheel spins non-stop: mama mouse runs frantically to escape her offspring, unable to keep pace, spinning round and round behind her, upside-down for hours... And they stank.
I nestled Fluffy in an Italian cookie box, along with William’s half-eaten biscotti. Granddad buried him in the woodlot of the family farm. The woodlot: final resting place for all family pets. My brother’s pit bull, beloved Susie, was wrapped in a wool blanket and buried in a shallow grave in the woodlot. Too shallow. Something dug her up and scattered her remains. The kids still don’t know.
My father-in-law turned 91 in June. Bless him. Unfortunately, in September, he started to fail. He lost his appetite. Like Fluffy. His daughter arranged for him to say goodbye to each of his eight grandchildren. My two, the youngest, spoke to him last. Poppi was unintelligible. It’s not clear what they made of that phone call. My ten-year-old went to the funeral, and held the hand of his thirteen-year-old cousin through the whole service. He returned home, older.
Walking my senior poodle one dank late-summer night I notice his right hind leg isn’t bending. Instead it swings out to the side as he steps. And he pants, almost from the moment he leaves the gate. He’s sixteen, or thereabouts. Shelter dogs don’t come with birth certificates.
My old pooch wakes from naps to walk or eat. Otherwise he sleeps. Sensing his fragility, my sons cuddle him, wrap him in their hoodies, and whisper close to his ear. “Gigot! Best dog in the world! I love Gigot…” He can’t hear them. He’s deaf as the microwave oven. Nana’s a little deaf too. The boys know this.
I’d prefer to forget my own Nana’s wake, but I can’t. The open casket was bad, the wailing, worse. This stiff imposter in the satin-lined casket could not be my Nana, a hummingbird in a housecoat, in constant motion, shampooing my hair and towel-drying it in the sunshine... and serving me little star pasta, pastina, with big pats of butter. It was awful experiencing Nana like that, no longer smelling of Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, but of the stench of funeral home Easter lilies.
I still don’t get open caskets, but I understand wailing now. In that funeral parlor in Tarrytown, my mom, at her own mother’s wake, cried the Hudson River at its widest point. She was unhinged, and I saw that. She cried for months after too, and then it was over. Maybe she still sniffled at night, into her pillow, with the starched and pressed pillowcase, but in the day she was back to normal. At Christmas, the stockings were stuffed with new socks and chocolate oranges, and there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on the dinner table.
What will I look like to my sons when the dog dies, possibly as soon as November? Unhinged. I will recall driving home from the shelter in East New York, ll shivering pounds on my lap, matted and reeking of dried feces. I will comfort myself with the thought that he’d had a good life of gnawing soup bones and chasing balls on the beach. I will remember that he was a pound puppy living on borrowed time anyway. I will mourn the loss of a companion, always trailing me from room to room. I will cry the East River, the lower harbor at it’s widest point. I will wrap him in my old cardigan and bury him, with his favorite ball, beside Fluffy, in the woodlot. I will bury him deep. Then I will stop crying, blow my nose and help Nana roast the turkey and serve it on a bed of fresh sage. I will watch my sons’ eyes widen to the bounty, as they and their cousins hold their forks, improperly, around the Thanksgiving table.
Rest In Peace Fluffy.