(We named him for Steven Biko, the anti-Apartheid activist who is also in the Peter Gabriel song, Biko. It’s pronounced Bee-Ko.)
Today would have been my mom’s birthday. So: a heavy day, for me.
When Ella woke up this morning and grouched at me, I went into my closet and started to cry. It’s been that kind of day.
I’m not going to be a very hands-on parent today. I’ve handed over the reins to my husband and he has taken them out to lunch.
Although they know he’s sick and at the vet’s, I haven’t told the kids about Biko yet. Mainly because I’m too emotionally scrambled to pull it together and tell them in an adult manner. I’m afraid if I say anything, I’m going to lose it and start crying. And I don’t want to be melodramatic when I talk to them about death. Also, tomorrow Fi leaves with her father for violin camp where the two of them will be for two weeks, and I don’t want to put a pall over her – she’s never been away from me for that long.
Maybe I am just being a coward. I know that children are resilient. I know this is an opportunity for me to talk to them about death – that the death of pets in childhood lays a kind of foundation for deaths in the family to come. That it’s okay to cry sometimes in front of or with your children. I know all that.
But I’m dropping the parenting ball today because I am so sad I can’t deal with it in a rational manner. I’m triggered from the pet-deaths in my own dysfunctional childhood. I’m feeling an old kind of sadness and when I feel this way I know it’s not about the present as much as it’s about something unresolved in my past.
When I was 10, I had a parakeet. His name was Astro. I loved him.
He got sick.
My parents weren’t so good at helping me care for our animals – dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, the parakeet – because of their disease. So when Astro got sick I was pretty much on my own. I was 10, the same age Fi is now. When it was clear that he was really sick my mom took me and Astro to the vet. The vet told us to keep him warm. So when we got home I put him in my mom’s bathroom in front of the heater vent and he died.
No one told me that putting him in front of the heater would have been too hot for him – I was ten. No one checked on us. And he died.
I felt responsible for him dying, but I couldn’t put it into words. All I know looking back was I didn’t have any help. I don’t know where my mom was or why she didn’t check on us but all I remember is I was on my own. When he died, I was beside myself with grief.
We had two hamsters. They were supposed to be female, but it turned out they were a girl and a boy, so one day I found babies in the cage. Apparently you are supposed to separate a new mom from the male and I didn’t know that. So the mommy hamster ate one of the babies right in front of me and my mom. We took them to the pet store and gave them back.
When I was in my twenties and living on my own, my parent’s dog, Winston, was taken from them by the SPCA. He had been found running down the freeway and had been hit by a car. They said that his fur was so matted that his penis was stuck to his side. The SPCA said they had not seen that kind of neglect in a decade. They euthanized him. I can’t begin to tell you the feelings I had about this dog. It happened at a time when I had moved away from my parents and had stopped trying to help them. I was in some pretty intensive therapy so I hadn’t seen them or Winston in a about a year. When I told my therapist what happened to Winston, he said, “If they can’t even take care of a dog – how could they care for a child?”
The grief I felt over what happened to that dog was probably also displaced grief that I should also have felt for what happened to me when I was in their care.
In April, when we thought Biko was a goner, the vet called to tell us he was going to die. So the girls and I rushed down there at 9 o’clock at night to say a proper good bye. We said a prayer, and right after that Biko rallied. So we had his surgery and he came home with only one kidney. We spent about $3,500 on him but we thought he would be okay. We had these last 3 months with him and he was happy and fine. But then two days ago – in this heat wave – he began to show the same symptoms: lethargy, dehydration, pain. I brought him back to the vet this morning. They said if we do the surgery, it would probably only prolong his suffering – that euthanizing Biko is the kindest thing we can do.
I couldn’t talk to the vet anymore because all these pets – Astro, Winston, the hamsters – and my parents – crowded into my heart all at once and I got triggered (this happens to ACOA’s) and started crying – so my husband had to take the phone and talk to the vet to make the arrangements.
We decided not to take the girls back to the vet to say another good bye. We decided to not tell them today since Fi is going tomorrow and it would be hard on her. We have told them that he is very sick, and will be at the vet a while. We will tell them sometime next week after we know that Fi is comfortable at camp – or maybe when she gets back from camp. We may not tell them that we euthanized Biko (is that omission a lie?) – just that he was in pain, and the vet tried but could not save him, and he died pain-free.
I’m not sure we are handling this right but that is what we are doing.
So there you have it.
Sometimes despite my best efforts at putting on a good front, I’m a mess. And just for today, I’m going to let that be good enough.