Ceremonies & epiphanies

This past Mother’s day weekend, my sons were both home in Cambridge (a rare event). On one beautiful, sun-filled morning, we all decided that it was a great day for a burial. We chose an Evergreen spruce as our stately monument, and everyone did their part to help: the mulch bed was laid, the hole was dug, and the deceased was wrapped in a lovely white pillowcase shroud. My wife got out her prayer book and read the Kaddish, or the Jewish prayer for the dead; it was a perfect ceremony, and I know he was looking down and smiling, despite the fact that I was there.  I am of course talking about… our old friend Diego, the bearded dragon lizard who has lived in our freezer since his untimely passing last year.

Diego’s funeral brought me some surprising insight and closure, as the best services often do. When he passed, my sons and wife were away and it was mid-winter, with full-on snow, ice and frozen ground – not great for burial. We weren’t sure what to do, and I’d happened to be reading Bed Bradlee’s book on Ted Williams where he’s frozen for the future… so I had a Eureka moment, threw Diego in a double bag, and into the icebox he went. That may sound cold (pun intended) as he’d been my housemate for 16 years, but as I’ve said, he was an odd fellow and not exactly what you’d call a “warm” pet. Lizards may seem low-maintenance, but in the last 10 years I spent more time at PetSmart procuring crickets for Diego than I did with most of my close friends. Then every night we’d play a fun game of “Bite the Cricket or Bite Me” – his second-favorite treat was my right hand.

Diego regularly went into hibernation, shutting down in what I can only describe as a Cirque du Soleil pose for anywhere from 2-4 weeks. So when he died, I honestly didn’t realize it at first, until my wife later paid him a loving visit. She had a wonderful way with Diego, and I was always jealous of how he nuzzled her whenever she’d reach in. But not this time: “Honey, he’s dead,” she announced within seconds from the next room. I wasn’t sure how to feel at first, but I’m ashamed to say I ultimately didn’t feel much besides relief. Reptiles were never really my thing since I ran over a garter snake on my tricycle more than a few years ago. Did I “love” Diego? Yes — he was my son’s pride and joy, entrusted to me while he was off at college, and I would want nothing to happen under my watch. But deep down, did I think he was ungrateful, unsightly, and mean? Yes. I felt I did so much for no appreciation and always resented my thankless job as his caretaker, grumbling in the PetSmart parking lot every time.

But then came his memorial. By total coincidence, a new pet came into our lives that same weekend: Linda came home with a beautiful young Persian cat, a gift from her boss (it’s a long story). I can’t even tell you how happy I was – jokes aside, the loss of Diego definitely left a void. I also love cats and have always felt like I relate to them: we’re both loving, low-energy, and territorial. So I was thrilled, and while I never consciously compared our new pet to Diego, I relished visions of us snuggling on the couch into the night… she would appreciate me like he never did.

After the typical first phase of wariness, the cat finally let me pet her, the sweetest validation I could imagine. I pet her again, and again, and again. Then the next day, right after the burial, she chomped on my index finger exactly as Diego used to… and almost struck bone. I was shocked, disappointed, angry, sad, and amused; we all laughed and chocked it up to her housemate silently ringing one up for Diego. But as I lay bed in that night, listening to the crickets chirp (ha ha), I realized something. It sounds so obvious, but it finally hit me as clearly as it must hit most: the problem was never Diego, it was me.

Better late than never.


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