Sayonara, Baby Beardie: A short tale of a short life
First, the tip of his tail broke off the way a burnt pizza crust breaks.
“Wilbur’s dying,” John said.
John had incubated the clutch and taught the neonates to eat—first roaches, a colony delivered by mail, arriving in the cardboard box marked “delicate” on the same day the chirpy exterminator came to evict the native pests in our apartment. Then John coaxed the neonates into hand-fed vegetarianism, with ribboned kale and dandelion.
The little guy Dying, capital D? That made no sense. People didn’t expire from broken arms. Lizards shouldn’t expire from broken tails.
Wilbur was the runt; runts are supposed to live a runty, underdog life, giving us something to root for. They help us see the runty parts of ourselves, tucked behind our competence.
I protested, “But he’s so cute! Take it back” As if the universe had ever once made exception for cuties. A special primordial panic sets in when anything in your care is dying. Pity the fly. Pity the spider-plant.
There should be a rule: if you have just been born, you can’t die for a bit. Amnesty.
But there is no such rule, no such amnesty, and no such guarantee. Infant mortality is still a major employment opportunity for The Stork’s dark brother. Clearly, life does not work differently for lizards than for any other creature.
When Sunny was pregnant, and too skinny for the job, I could feel her from the other room. Not an “animal person” or even “kind of an animal person” (get it?), I communed with her unabashedly.
You know how women’s menstrual cycles will synch up when in one another’s extended company? So I worried about her Calcium dust and nutrient ratios. Before she was “with lizard”, it had been hard to remember that she existed, tucked away in the boys’ room under the heat lamp. Occasionally it was good fun to watch her put up with Drako’s male dominance dance, head-bobbing atop her; it looked like the volatile prayer of the ultra-religious with a little James Brown.
Yet once Sunny was gravid, the whole house seemed pregnant. Eventually, she dug frantically in the dirt box that John had prepared in the middle of the night. At sufficient depth, she dropped her clutch, covered them, and forgot they existed. So we took over their survival.
The eggs nestled in a Tupperware filed with dirt in a humid, heated, unused fish tank, well covered up against the descending autumn chill. It was hard not to anthropomorphize the situation: how could she let go of these new lives-on-the-edge, and not care for the fact that they were growing into form mere feet from her tank? Imagine if our gestation happened at a short, cold, unacknowledged distance from the womb? There are freaky movies about such things.
Eventually, the lizards hatched, rested and leapt forth, with extraordinary little burst of life facilitated by the handy egg-tooth. It made me really want an egg-tooth. John and the boys lay on the floor and stared at them, these little prickles of creation. And I stared at the three beloved boys staring at life. This may be something like what yoga means by “the Witness.”
Wilbur was the runt, and so he always needed more naps than the other eight. Just getting up from one nap necessitated another nap to recover. The rest of the brood stepped on his head, while climbing up the stick towards the heat lamp. Wilbur just took it, as if he was part stick.
His body was little, much littler than his head. It looked like he could have big thoughts about lizard things, but never gain that much ground.
We favored him. When we gave away the brood, we were going to keep him. In Charlotte’s Web, the runt not only lives, but also becomes a famous speller. Could we not hope as much for Wilbur?
But once the tail broke, once the pummeling started, even easy spelling words weren’t in the cards—only one, the Big D, the Big I, the Big E. The huge spiders zip-lining in our bathroom could write it all out for him.
The universe was sucking the meat back from his body through an invisible straw. Every day, Wilbur’s skin hung on him more and more. He was the world’s youngest old-man lizard.
John does not give up on any creature, of any size, of any species, no matter how unfriendly the creature (or human) might be toward him. In this we unite. But aside from weeping over a few failing tadpoles as a young person and trying to poke them onto a rock with a pencil tip, I’d never really tried to resuscitate an animal.
He pried Wilbur’s mouth open with a tweezer and fed him through a syringe, squeezing in a last-ditch drink of dandelion-leaf and egg whites we’d made with the hand blender, the kind of meal a paleo-athlete brags about. Most of this concoction came right back out of Wilbur’s mouth. He hardly had the energy to open up. Luckily, he would never have to go to the dentist.
John has a strong constitution; he can eat anything (expired meat), break anything (a few ribs), handle anything and still thrive. But stooped over, caring for this fragile creature, his physical strength was all in service to tenderness. This is the kind of strength I vow my life to. In John’s palm lay a husk of a thing, drained of will.
When animals give up, they don’t need to make excuses for it. Done, their bodies announce. And off they go.
We put Wilbur in the bathroom sink and filled the basin with water to rouse him enough to administer the syringe. Little Q was helper, but he was squeamish, not sure he really wanted to: “It’s not nice to force someone to eat,” Q said. Perhaps he was empathizing, since for his own mysterious reasons, perhaps mysterious even to himself, he often doesn’t want to eat the food set in front of him. (Unless it’s a cupcake. Bless the eternal palatability of cupcakes).
Wilbur’s mouth opened by dim reflex. We respond despite ourselves to the feeling of water.
Over and Out
Wilbur died just then in John’s palm, but John didn’t say anything. Wilbur had drowned in his liquid meal, the best he could have hoped for. A smoothie for the last supper. Certainly, this drink would at least give Wilbur an athletic boost over the Big Vault. Into the Lizard Unknown.
That night, John dreamed of his own father, also two years dead. His dad, opining, was sitting on our couch. The reality of the feeling itself let him know it was a dream. The horribleness of that fact came creeping on, like the feeling of one’s bladder at capacity while sitting in car traffic in a tunnel. Have you ever dreamed this way, woken to what’s worse, the loss made fresh? I’ve had this feeling after deaths, and I don’t know the word for it; I bet the Japanese do. It is bound up with yearning, but more existential.
Before dawn, out practicing with the Naga Buddha who, no matter what, clasps his-her hands in boggling faith, I could feel John’s sadness balloon in the bedroom; the sadness was another kind of pregnant, resonant as I had been with gravid Sunny. His dad could have been grabbing me by the collar and pulling me to the source of all sorrow. Sometimes love has you that yanked.
And when John woke up, he confirmed that not only was his dad dead, but Wilbur was too, and now he would wait for the children to wake up. Then, he would speak briefly about the beautiful frailty of life, and bury Wilbur in the biggest planter that we had. Ugh, death; ugh! Every little loss gouges my chest. Or maybe I, like Wilbur, was born with this gauge already activated. Creation draws up its funny contracts: Please check this box: I allow you to release my personal information to the universe. No, you cannot have an extension on your taxes.
Like attracts like: the planter where we put Wilbur held an overgrown corn plant, which didn’t look like it would make it either. Despite all the months it had seemed to be dying, a species of palm tree frightened of the Northern low light, it hadn’t done so yet. It pains me to have indecisively dying plants around that just can’t seem to thrive or expire. They don’t have to waste their lives: I’m wasting it for them.
John brought the plant home for my birthday last year; it had been given away by a couple about to have a baby. They needed to reduce the number of other life forms and space-hoggers in their apartment, and so also sold us our dinning room table, made from old telephone poles. Sit here and bless the yummies that sustain us. K and Q and John and I sit at the table and link fingers and thank every little thing on our plates, “and especially the mac n’ cheese for being awesome.” Yes, especially that. Objects, creatures, all in transit. Invented cheese, in transit.
A little stone marks little Wilbur’s spot in his little plot of dirt. Surely the casing of a body would deteriorate quickly, and where there had been a Wilbur, richer soil would be, giving the corn plant a chance, or at least company. And so the cycle of life goes on. Pretty much right away, Q and K set about aiming at the headstone with a water-gun, as very temporary grief becomes play for resilient children.
In the night, I silently place the little runt at the center of my heart into John’s sleeping, half-open hands. For safe-keeping and safe-tending; for this unmeasured journey onto which we embark.
When Wilbur weakened, arms and legs splayed, looking like a cave drawing of a lizard, his desiccated tail had seemed so odd, wrong-sized, misplaced. But when one crust breaks, so to speak, another dough is just rising. Feel, feel for the rising.
Note: This began as an essay I wrote for my 7th grade students as a grammar parsing exercise. Which goes to show that attention to grammar, and deep love of 7th graders, can lead one to seeing life a bit more clearly. Also below I am testing out moving away from MM’s longtime stance of representing humans by initials only. It is hard to capture love in words without strattling the utmost corny of expressions.