Posted by: Kate | October 29, 2010

The Past Tense of Splat

I have, to the very best of my abilities, done and said all the right things, over the course of the past two weeks, on one specific topic: the death of a beloved pet.

Emily’s guinea pig died, and it has rocked my baby girl to her core.  She has experienced loss: Willem’s father, Grandpa Norman and Grandma Ann, Grandma O, and Uncle Willem, all of whom loved and were loved by, knew and were known by, Emily. She cried when she learned of their deaths, and she asked all of the hard, important questions that children ask.

Her fish, Todd, died after four years of sitting in a bowl on top of the television stand, staring at his own reflection or solving complex abstract geometry problems or drafting a final and effective peace agreement for the Middle East, or just swimming. Whatever it is that fish do, he did it for longer than we expected, and even though the opportunities to snuggle with Todd were limited, Emily did love him. Death is a not-insignificant aspect of pet ownership that Willem and I considered before heading to the pet store. Grief feels different every time it rolls around, and there’s something different still about the loss of something that was smaller and younger and dependent, but she had some coping skills in place.

So while we were shocked to find Splat cold and still inside her little igloo – we’d only had her for two years, and from what I had read I expected more like 4-5 years – we weren’t entirely unprepared. I was already a couple of hours down the road, heading for a girls-only weekend in Rhinebeck, NY, for a Sheep & Wool festival and a few days with friends, knitting and chatting and just being myself for a while, not having any nurse visits or doctor’s appointments or children to keep alive.  For a brief moment considered just continuing along my merry way… but the conversation I had with Emily on the phone immediately after she found out just kept replaying in my head. “I loved Splat so much, and she always comforted me when I was sad or scared. When you were in the hospital, I would sit and cuddle her and she would make me feel better. She helped me believe that you would get better and come home soon.” It just broke my heart, and I applied the Five Year Test: In five years, will I remember that I turned around and went home to spend time with my baby, or will I remember that I spent two nights at Rhinebeck instead of one?

I knew Willem could handle it all, that he could comfort her and would use the same words I did, that he could handle the boys as well… but the mama-guilt was just too much. And I’m very glad I went home; it was the right thing to do. She and I had a sleepover in the living room, and then she came with me to New York and we had some very special mother-daughter time (“I thought it would be boring to go to a yarn festival and hang out with all girls, but that was really really fun. Can I come with you next year?”)

Emily has decided that she would like to bury the pig in my mother’s back yard – because that’s where she was when she first met Splat, and because my mother’s dog loved to come and stare at the cage and inhale until I thought she would pass out, so we all were sure that the dog was thinking, I just want to sniff the pig… come on, lemme sniff the pig… just one hit, that’s all I need. It’s not an addiction… I can stop whenever I want to. Emily wants the dog to be able to sniff the pig anytime she wants to, and Willem and I both agree that it’s better to bury the animal somewhere we can visit once in a while but not every single day.  Emily feels things so intensely, but she lives very much in the moment, and is able to put her grief out of her mind quickly when other things come along to distract her.  Then when she sees something that reminds her of Splat, she plunges into sadness all over again. Our Emily doesn’t spend much time in the middle of anything; she’s a high/low kind of kid.  Moderation is not her style.

So, that’s all fine. I’m happy with my choices, and feel like, at least for this one time, I was being pulled in several different directions – spend time with Emily, spend time with my friends, let Willem be Mr. Mom for a while, pay attention to my own wishes – and somehow managed to stretch and bend and generally be flexible enough to handle it. Fabulous.

But, my God, I am dying to let loose with wisecracks and black humor. Willem and I have always been prone to wisecracks at inappropriate times – there was that time in college when we were both nearly hysterical after we started riffing off about a sad scene in the movie Rudy. I know that it’s just a way of venting some of the stress or diverting some of the sadness, whether we’re looking at something in the media or something in real life. One of the beautiful things about a strong marriage is that we can make jokes that are wildly politically incorrect, but we know that it’s all just silliness, and so on… what happens in the living room stays in the living room, you know?

So I’ve thought things like, “I’m pretty sure the past tense of splat is splat… how convenient is that?” Or, “I will miss her squeaking; it was like a tiny construction worker whistling at me whenever I walked by.”  We have a guinea pig in a sealed cardboard box in our downstairs freezer, because we can’t get to my mother’s house right away… This creates any number of inappropriate meal-preparation references or comments about the importance of clearly labeling anything we put in there. “Let’s make sure we store the pork roasts on the bottom shelf and the guinea pig on the top, because she has just about the same dimensions…”  You get the idea.

We’ve occasionally involved the kids, like when workers came to cut down a significant portion of the tree in our backyard (“Quick, let’s go brush off Mom’s walker, looks like the tree is going to be limping around for a while. Maybe we can get it a handicap barking, err, I mean, parking tag…”). They’re learning that there are some things that are funny or interesting at the dinner table, but are not to be repeated on the bus or playground, blah blah…

But even though Emily has a keen sense of humor and is verbally agile, more than able to keep up with us when we start joking around, you just can’t joke around about this. The wounds are just too raw and new, and even if she looks and acts like a teenager sometimes, she still is a little girl. So I’m biting my lip and refraining from even the faintest hint of sarcasm. Out loud.



  1. Uh oh. I don’t know if keeping those sarcastic thoughts bottled up like that is good for you. A guinea for your thoughts?

  2. sniff the pig, eh? So thats what it’s called these days? I suppose we should all be thankful that there wasn’t a request to shave the pig and knit with her fur…naked splat…

  3. I just laughed so hard my husband felt the need to ask “what” several times. I finally just sent him a link 🙂 We’re the same. Damn. Way and currently our mama mouse has a litter (who are future food for our snake) and…yeah, you try to leave that alone. She had fourteen. One died. She ate another. We can’t really blame her for taking pick of the–SEE THAT IS WHAT I MEAN. Haha!

  4. Well, remind my fifteen-year-old about the time that we did CPR (yes, including the pulmonary component) on her hamster after the cat managed to get it out of its cage and use it as a cat toy. It’s been a few years, and only now can she giggle over the mental picture of my DH, at 2 a.m., doing mouth-to-mouth on this creature. along with chest compressions. Saddest part is, it actually worked, since we are both licensed in advanced life support (human) techniques, and the poor thing limped along for another 76 hours or so. This led to a whole lot of plotting of how to put the little guy out of his misery with a fair amount of residual (dark) humour at his expense. Only now, six years later, can R see some of the (albeit twisted) humour of that particular sequence of events.

  5. Too funny! We are glad to be your sounding board for all those can’t-say-in-front-of-Emily comments! 🙂

  6. I remember the day my mom was cleaning the cage to our pet finches our HUGE orange tabby hopped up on the table several feet away and one just dropped off the perch. It was so cartoon like…
    CHIRP, slid upside down and then dropped. Of course at 12 I was laughing hysterically – but it was my younger sister’s bird too not mine. My mom looks over at me and goes well I guess we don’t need to feed the cat he can just have Peepers. I guess my twisted point of view runs in the family.

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