We had a tragedy befall our pet family this week. When the kids and I headed out of town on Wednesday we left my poor husband at home in charge of not only the dog, the cat, and the rabbit, but also our four new fish: two guppies L. picked out, and two fish belonging to T, --one fairly plain orange one, and a gray and black spotted fish with large fanning fins she promptly named Spike before we’d even left the store. She had no explanation for why she gave him this name, but it popped right out of her mouth the minute she saw him at the pet store, and Spike it was. We had Spike for all of 48 hours and then the kids and I left for Maryland and Spike promptly gave up on life and died.
My husband and I have had quite a few whispered telephone conversations these past few days. For two seconds I even thought about pulling that classic switch—suggesting to Scott that he somehow acquire another spotted fish with roughly the same proportions as Spike. But this was a fleeting thought, one we half-joked about for two more seconds before we moved past that, and onto the reality of how we would break it to T. that her special fish—the one she had singled out with her little finger and nose pressed earnestly against the glass at the pet store—had died.
It’s so hard to explain away a pet’s death to a small child, even if the pet is just a black and white fish you’ve only had for a couple of days. No matter how tempting it might be to somehow dance around the facts and to postpone being the bearer of bad news--being the one just a little responsible for causing your child’s heart to momentarily shatter, you just have to do it. So I took T. on my knee last night and broke the news to her. She stared at me in confusion for one second and then her face fell, and she burst into tears—all-out sobs that made me almost want to weep myself. When she had cried out all her feelings and wiped her eyes, she got into her bath, her little mouth downturned at the corners, hovering between tears and being okay. She acted out a small scene about fish in the tub with the plastic dolphins my mom keeps for when the grandkids come to visit, and then she really was okay—the freshness of the loss of Spike fading away, as these things always do.
When L. was three we spent almost $400 on vet bills for a small, humble-looking guinea pig named Pepito. We had Pepito for almost a year, but he was, after all, just a guinea pig. Pepito got sick, and stopped eating, and while my Dad, who grew up on a farm no doubt would have advised a different approach for dealing with this, we took Pepito to the vet. In the end he had to be put to sleep, because paying hundreds of dollars for exploratory surgery on a $12 guinea pig you’ve already forked out nearly $400 for, just wasn't an option.
We agonized for days about how to tell L. that the guinea pig had gone to the vet to get better and had, in fact, died there, never to return. For days I read articles about how to talk about the death of a pet with a small child, and I lay awake at night, tears in my eyes, as I imagined breaking the news to L. Finally, one afternoon, Scott and I sat down with him on our bed and broke the news: Pepito's body had stopped working; Pepito had died and we couldn't bring him home. L. appeared to listen to us as he rolled a green plastic truck over the bedspread, but in the end, after all that agonizing, he didn’t appear to have any interest in discussing the matter at all, saying only “Oh” in a small, flat, voice, and then switching the topic immediately to something else—his truck, I think.
I’m not sure what I was prepared for—sobs, perhaps, or a long discussion about life and death. I think I felt a little let-down, actually, that I had agonized so much about the pet’s death and L. seemed to care so little. But parenting is one big learning moment, and what I learned was that children process things much differently than we adults do; and some children process things much differently than other children do. I knew then, fortunately, to swallow my own feelings; to back down and not push L. to talk about the guinea pig. Perhaps, even—could it be?--all that preparation and the tearful moments beforehand on my part were for me, not for my own son? We bought a flowering shrub and planted it one sunny March day in the corner of the backyard. We named the tree Pepito’s Tree, and filed away the experience, along with all the other ups and downs; the important and the insignificant. We didn't really talk about Pepito ever again.
I was completely surprised one night last year, days before we moved house, when L., in the bathtub one night, asked us out of the blue if we could move Pepito’s Tree with us—hire someone to dig it up and plant it in the corner of our new yard. That was it; a simple and touching request asked in L.’s trademark deadpan voice he uses when talking about matters of significance (you have to listen twice to what he says sometimes, a weighty sentence hidden in a flat, everyday voice); no sobs, no lengthy discussion—but that one question connected us immediately to the halting, difficult conversation we’d tried to have with L., some years ago, and made me realize again, for the one-millionth time at least, just how much my kids amaze me.