It wasn’t the fact that his voice had dropped three octaves in the past six months. Something in his voice sounded different.
“Mom? Dad? I think Star is sick.”
I’ve heard that voice almost every day for the past twelve years. Delighted and distraught. Worried and wondrous. Crazy and crestfallen. Pained and petulant. But this…this was different. This was the sound of concern. But not the “I’m worried about my test” or “I’m nervous about today’s game” kind of concern. The deep monotone went deeper than the words in conveying that something was wrong. Something that may not be able to be put right again.
Kir and I followed Gus upstairs and looked into the tank. One frog, Comet, the younger of the pair, stroked in nervous circles, even more active than her somewhat hyper norm. On the other end of the spectrum sat Star, the more curmudgeonly of the two, who spent most of her time brooding inside the miniature sphinx sunk in the depths of the cloudy water. But instead of her normal squat, she was splayed out in the corner, almost on her side, a flipper resting oddly upward on the side of the tank. When Comet rocketed by, the elder made a slight twitch, but no more.
There was little room for doubt. Star was dying.
She had come to our home on a fluke. Gus was in 2nd grade and for science, the teacher had bought one of the “Grow-A-Frog” tadpoles and they watched it grow. Of course, once the experiment had reached its amphibian conclusion, there was that pesky question about what to do with the actual life that evolved before them.
And yes, we felt so “lucky” when we heard the exciting news out of that ecstatic seven-year-old that he had won the frog lottery. Star was coming home with him! With our permission, of course.
A grin of breathless anticipation. Giant blue saucers blinking, begging.
Resistance was futile.
And so Star became a part of the family. We explained to Gus that this was his frog to take care of. We would fill in for him if he was away, but otherwise Star’s fate would be on his hands. Earnest to a fault even at that young age, Gus took his charge seriously. He fed her to the letter of the instructions, and watched as she continued to grow. He asked for a larger tank for his birthday as he felt Star was cramped by her small school tank. And when we read up on the frog and found that they were social creatures, he made the decision that he wanted to grow Star some company. That’s when we received the mysterious box with nothing but a small bag of water inside that I threw away, realizing just before the garbage many came that it might just have a tadpole inside.
He had spent five years looking after this animal, his first real charge. Before that he had the odd carnival-won goldfish with the two-week average lifespan. I think we managed to get a couple of months out of one. The flush down the toilet was quick and painless. But for a 12-year-old, 5 years is pretty much your entire life. Those baby and toddler years would be no more than fantasy save the embarrassing photos and video. And those pre-K years are spotty at best. Elementary school is when memories truly take root. Those memories persisted every day when a few miniscule specs of food drifted their way down to the bottom of the water toward his grand dame.
“I don’t think she can make it back to the top of the tank to breathe,” he said. These were water frogs, but needed the occasional trip to the surface. “And she’s so skinny,” his voice dripping that that most wonderful, contemptible of emotions—empathy.
I flew to the Internet as Kir comforted him, noting that dealing with loss is an integral part of owning a pet. I Googled “Sick Grow-A-Frog” and gleaned enough information to confirm that at five years, Star had reached the average lifespan for her kind. It also noted that for a sick frog, a transfer into some fresh water can be helpful.
And so I dusted off Star’s old, small tank—the place where she first came to us. I rinsed a handful of white gravel and patted it evenly at the bottom, then splashed some distilled water until the tank was a third full. Then it was a turn with a more murky fluid, as I plunged an old Orioles souvenir cup into the larger tank and gently captured Star. With a carful pour I dropped Star into her new, old home. Gus immediately sprinkled a few grains of food in, hopeful that perhaps with the contrast of color Star might more easily be able to find sustenance.
“I think that’s the best we can do for her now,” I said. “We’ve made her as comfortable as we can.” Gus nodded silently and got himself ready for bed. As Kir and I left the room with a kiss on the head and a stroke of the hair, that middle-school voice warbled, “Good Night” – the deep concern beginning to crack through the determined monotone.
In the morning we peeked anxiously into Gus’s room, and found Star was still with us. Indeed, she seemed to be moving a little more. Kir and I both cautioned him not to get too excited, but if she showed some signs of progress that there was some medicated food available we could order. He went off to school not exactly a bundle of joy, but not singularly preoccupied, either.
A few hours later I went to check on Star and found her in a surprising position. She had managed to get upright, her eyes peeking over the top of the film of water. Two flashes of thought ran their way through my mind at that moment. One was “I wonder how much that medicated food costs?” The other, a little less base, recalled a moment with my dear Grandma Mary in her last days. We visited her in the hospital, watching as she lay there, a slip of a woman haloed by flow of tousled white hair. And, for just a little while, she came back to us. Having been fed through a tube for days, she sat upright and talked to us. The doctor asked if she’d like to try anything to eat, proffering Jell-o and broth. She responded with a clarity we hadn’t heard in weeks:
We all laughed, and the doctor smiled and said, “not quite yet, Mrs. Nathanson.”
She left us just days later.
Gus came down that evening, eyes wide like a Second Grader, but this time with not beginnings to be found, but endings.
“I think Star died.”
We rushed upstairs, and there she floated, flat on her back. There was no think about it. Star’s ascent was that last bright flair. A final feast of chicken our old cat Peter had before we had to put him down. A hearty laugh of my Uncle John as he gave me tips on how to win over this new girlfriend I had named Kirsten while cancer overtook him. A Christmas hug my Father-in-Law Andy gave me before cancer stole him from us.
Kirsten rubbed his back and stroked his hair. I carried the tank that once held that little tadpole out of sight. And there was a new noise. Gus cried. But much like his deep monotone, it was a different cry than I had ever heard before. It wasn’t getting hit by a pitch or insulted by some bullies. It was the knife of loss etching its first real scar on his soul. For even though he still remembers his Pappy Andy and felt the pain of his passing—this death was his to own.
Gus took a few days, allowing the sorrow to dilute into sadness, and decided to dispense with anything too drawn-out for Star’s resting place. He did want her committed to water, but a swirl down the toilet seemed a bit too callous. So he and I crossed the street, a small Ziplock bag with enough water to make Star look like she was still swimming, and slipped her down the storm drain to float away to the local river. A simple “Goodbye Star” was all he wanted to say, and it was back to homework. The pain wasn’t gone. It would never be gone. But it had begun to index itself, tucked among first grand slams, Straight-A report cards, and a day when he brought a small tank home with the first life that was truly in his hands.
Now Gus faces another decision. A frog the owner no longer wants is looking for a home, and Comet could use a new friend. When I ask him about it, I see the struggle etched on his face. He wants to do for Comet what he did for Star, but to bring another life means invariably handling another death. It is an experience he is, understandably, reluctant to repeat.
Aren’t we all.
And yet we go on, risking pain because of that most lamentable, essential human condition – the need to love. It is a terrible and crucial truth.
Pets are a portal to that critical life lesson. No, not portal. They are a shovel. They dig the hole in which greater loss will be cast in. They dig away at the childish notion of the eternal. But all that is dug out is not lost. Instead, it builds a mountain of memories and responsibilities that temper the pain of a moment with the joys and headaches of living life, day-by-day.
…And thank you.