Things that End…
A friend with whom I sometimes share writing recently asked for a copy of a piece I had written about four years ago about my son’s pet hedgehog. She wanted to share the piece with a friend of hers whose little boy is about to get his own prickly pet. I had to go back through the files I’d saved on the hard drive of my old laptop (Dropbox was just a blip on my horizon back then) and search for the hedgehog tale which I, of course, had not titled anything remotely connected to hedgehogs.
Reading through it was like connecting with an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile–familiar and awkward too. Trying to relate the words of the mom I was four years ago who thought her high school freshman was growing up too fast with the girl who’s typing these lines right now eight weeks from the end of his senior year was nearly impossible. Yes, I remember the feeling I had then that it was all going so quickly…and I wondered as I reread the lines today if I truly appreciated then how much wonderful time was actually left…and the many growing up experiences we had yet to live through. I didn’t. I couldn’t. It left me wondering what else I don’t know right now.
So here I am this afternoon flipping through files looking for this piece, and the next thing I know, I find myself vigorously promising Future Me that I will remember to live in (and love) the moment and all that is good today…right now…this afternoon and tonight…instead of succumbing to my typical future focus. (Yeah, “to do” list for next week, you will just have to wait. You are NOT on my agenda for this afternoon.)
Word associations come easily to me, and suddenly I was reminded of this John Denver song we used to sing at summer camp when I was a kid. I loved belting it out at top volume and knew all the words although I’m pretty sure now I had no possible idea what they really meant:
“I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glories…I won’t live on promises winter through spring…today is my moment and now is my story…I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing…a million tomorrows shall all pass away…ere I forget all the joys that are mine…today.”
So…here’s the story of Joe’s hedgehog…
Things That End
We had a death in the family last night—unexpected, quick, painless. It seems almost laughable to share the details because the loss wasn’t a beloved grandparent, a dear relative, or even a close family friend. We lost a little pet…a hedgehog…my son Joe’s Hedgie, a creature who lived in our home for only five years, but I confess I cried myself to sleep, curled up against the pain of the aching hole this life ending left in my heart.
I went in to say good-night to my high school freshman as I do every night. Good-night used to mean lying down beside him under the warm covers and cuddling him close for a few minutes as we talked about the good things in the day and what tomorrow might bring to look forward to. When the kids were small, I always liked giving them the present of tomorrow when I said good-night… running over the gifts the day had given us—part organization, part prayer. Good-night used to mean that I’d pull his warm body close to mine for a few minutes, synchronizing our breathing and inhaling the smell of his hair as I buried my nose in his head and sniffed. “Quit sniffing my head,” he’d complain good-naturedly as he got a little older…and then…as he moved into adolescence…”Don’t sit on my bed like that; you’re smushing me!” which blended into “G’night, Mom,” as he headed upstairs on his own. Hedgie, in fact, was my excuse these past couple years to wander into Joe’s room close to midnight after homework and tv were done for the night and to look at him in bed reading Sports Illustrated and pretending he didn’t see me. I’d use Hedgie’s well-being as my reason for “checking on things” and peer into the cage on the floor ostensibly looking to make sure Joe had kept up the responsibility he promised me he was ready for in fourth grade of feeding and watering this little animal nightly. Sometimes I’d grouse that the cage needed cleaning and remind him that this animal depended on him. Sometimes I’d pick up some shirts draped on the floor and talk to the animal for a minute while I watched my boy or talk to my boy as I watched the animal because I’d learned that my seeming distracted by the pet often led to Joe sharing little things he’d never confide in the light of day. At night, the sound of the little animal running on his wheel mingled with the deep breathing of my boy sleeping soundly after a day of school and soccer practice and I would lie in my room listening to it—not irritated that the animal kept us up nights but at peace that our family was all under the roof safe and sound, another day done, all right with the world. I came to associate that wheel sound with all the good night sounds in a house where a family has come home once again at the end of a busy day in the world, and it made me feel secure.
When I looked into the cage last night and asked Joe why Hedgie was all curled up in the corner instead of nosing around his food as usual, I think I already knew. I knew as Joe poked around beneath the wheel in the cage and nudged the little body that this was the end of an era as well as a life. And when my tall, deep-voiced, nearly-grown son announced what I suspected was true and slashed a forearm across eyes that looked suspiciously bright, I almost lost all composure. “Are you okay?” I ventured. He nodded. “He was more than four years old, Mom,” he said with all the logic a teenager can bring to bear on the loss of things. “It was going to happen sometime soon.” And then…after a few beats of silence, he said, “Are you okay?”
I know my son. I know that whether he will ever say it or not, my reactions to life are one of his gauges, his compass, true north. And so I knew I couldn’t share with him the overwhelming sense of loss that this little animal’s passing meant to me. He didn’t need that. He wouldn’t get it anyway…and breaking down into hysterical tears over a small prickly rodent in a cage on the floor of a messy bedroom really wouldn’t teach him anything about how we deal with life’s inevitable changes and things that end. So I said, “Oh yeah. I’m fine. He was a really good pet though.” And we both nodded.
I hugged my son, his body a bit unyielding, his head too high for me to bend and sniff and inhale the scent of him and kiss his hair as I used to do when he was small. I promised that tomorrow we would figure out a way to make the frozen ground yield to a shovel so we could bury Hedgie in style, and he nodded and said, “It’s not like we’ll need that big a hole.” And I nodded and didn’t tell him the size of the hole I felt we’d need to bury all that this animal represented.
As I lay in my own bed with my husband asking me what was making me so sad, I struggled to find the words. What was making me so sad? Was I going to miss making sure this animal got fed every night? Listening to the sound of that damn wheel going all night long? Setting up someone to care for him every time we left town for a weekend soccer tournament or a family vacation? My mind whirled through the memories searching for just what I would miss…and I saw a little boy saving all his money and gazing through the plastic cages at the dusty weird-smelling Pet Jungle store wishing for “a real one, Mom, not a stuffed one…” Remembered the all-important day he plunked $90 down on the counter there ($40 of it in change) and we left with a cardboard box making scrabbling snuffling sounds held like precious treasure in our hands and a plastic container full of disgusting looking meal worms that were supposed to be a great treat. Remembered the emergency trip to the exotic animal veterinarian (who knew?) to discover that when a hedgehog gets a skin infection it means that the human mom he lives with must chase him around with an eye dropper full of penicillin three times daily and bathe him in special expensive lotion in her kitchen sink, drying him with a dish towel she will never use again for any household task all while reassuring a fourth grade boy that no this pet will not die on her watch. I remembered trips to the pet store for more special food, and the day we arrived to find the Pet Jungle going out of business and had to search for a new food source online. Post-it notes on my kitchen counter scrawled in a young boy’s hand “almost out of hedgie shavings.” And four years of growing up that passed so quickly I barely noticed.
Four years is a long time for a small animal to live, and in that time a fourth grade boy gets taller, gets braces, goes to middle school, has his first girlfriend for whom he buys a necklace with her initial on it at Kohls before ultimately breaking up with her because she’s “too much trouble”, wins and loses soccer and basketball games, builds muscles, deepens his voice, starts using deodorant, peers at acne in the mirror, learns to shave, begins driving the car around with his dad in the elementary school parking lot down the road on Sunday, and pulls away into that foggy territory of adulthood just a bit more each day. In the time it took for Hedgie to become part of our family, my little boy grew into this young man who took the death of his beloved pet in stride before my eyes and reassured me that it would be okay. When did that all happen? Where was I?
I searched for words to explain all this to my husband as I sobbed into his shoulder, huge wracking ugly- sounding sobs. “I know we’ll never get another one,” I tried to explain. “Why not?” he asked perplexed, maybe thinking that the new flashy pet store five minutes from our home didn’t have the same stock as the dingy but interesting old Pet Jungle. “Because the little boy who wanted one isn’t here any more,” I sobbed, and I felt my heart would break. Tom was silent for a moment. “Oh I see,” he said. And then there wasn’t any more to say, and he just held me while I cried.
Today, Tom looked at me closely as I put English muffins in the toaster and sliced strawberries and bananas for breakfast before school. “You gonna be okay?” he asked. Why does everyone keep wondering that? My eyes filled with tears again. “Sure,” I lied. He pulled me close and said into my hair, “I know you don’t like change but this is going to be okay. There are more good things coming.” And even as I nodded my understanding that this is the only way to approach the passing of time if we want to survive it, I wondered if I would continue to mourn like this for each small thing as it ended.