Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

October 04, 2003

Lessons from a dead baby possum

If you’re up for it, everyday life offers you a million ways to teach something to your child.

“Why can’t I touch poop?”

Because it’s full of germs and you could get a tummy full of worms if you do.

“Where do the worms come from?”

From poop. Don’t touch it.

“Can I see the worms?”

No. They might fly into your eyes.

“Worms fly?”

No. Just wash your hands, OK? And stop crying. I was only kidding about the worms!

Poop isn’t the only thing that can turn you into a teacher. If your child has sharp eyes, as Lucy does, she will undoubtedly notice all sorts of things, like dead animals on the sidewalk. A couple months ago, Lucy and I saw a dead baby opossum, frozen in the cruel claw of death. If you’ve never seen an opossum, think of a rat that’s had Satan’s face sewn onto it. They’re hideous.

Still, to see a dead one, so young, was sad.

And so I used it as a way to explain to Lucy how careful we need to be around cars. I’m not sure the opossum was hit by a car, mind you. It could have just looked in a mirror and keeled over from shock.

But I told her it died because it crossed the street without looking, because I want Lucy to be really careful around cars. Ever since, Lucy has been very careful about crossing the street. I’d also like her to hold my hand for this, but she tells me that she prefers to hold her own. And so, across we go, talking about dead opossums while Lucy folds her little hands together in a mildly defiant package.

Sometimes, though, death doesn’t offer us neat lessons in traffic safety. What it teaches is much harder to fathom, let alone to accept.

My dog died a couple of weeks ago. She was 13, which is old for a golden retriever. And she’d been making a weird coughing sound all summer, so I knew she was sick, even though she was eating and playing and acting like her usual self. Still, I took her to four separate vets, with the understanding that after I’d spent all that time and money on her, she’d get better.

It was the deal I made with the universe, not because I cared about the time and money, but because my dog was in many ways my best friend and I really wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

Nor would I ever be. I’d had her since I graduated from college. She went everywhere with me, but more important, helped me invent a home and life for myself when I could no longer look to my parents for those things. For all those years, home was where Misty was. It was furry and it sometimes smelled, but it was full of life, loyalty and love – three things that are supposed to be eternal.

Except, they are not.

As I am learning, they are things we have to invent and reinvent along the way. And it’s not easy, especially when there is a three-year-old watching how painful this process is.

Since Misty died, I’ve cried a lot. At first, just from the shock that the universe had cheated me on our deal, but later when I started to realize what life would be like without Misty’s quiet, loving company. I keep reaching for her and not finding her. I keep listening for the clack of her toenails and the jingle of her collar, but she of course, is never there.

Lucy, who has cried alongside me, still keeps asking where Misty is.

“Misty died,” I tell her. “That means she’s not coming back.”

“But why?” she says.

I try to be factual about this. I tell her that Misty was old and sick, and that everything that is alive some day will die, even if we live right, hold hands, and look both ways.

I’m not sure, though, what the lesson in this is for Lucy -- or for any of us. When someone we loves dies, it’s hard to feel anything beyond the pain of loss. We can admire their grace and courage to the end, trying to find solace in that. We can sift through our treasure box of memories. We can pledge to make the most of every moment that we have, so we can’t be accused of squandering it.

In truth, though, the lesson of life is that it contains one true injustice: It ends. Neither Lucy nor I are ready to accept this.

We saw a big dog on the street a few days ago, and Lucy said, “Mom, I want a dog.”

“What kind?” I said.

“A big dog.”

“Well,” I said, “OK.”

“Actually,” she said, “I want a big, purple dog.”

And then she added just one more request, before I had time to explain the problem with the purple thing.

“I want a big, purple dog,” she said, “that never, ever dies.”

“Me too,” I told said, reaching for her small hand. Me, too.


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