“Mom, can I keep Bochy’s bones?”
Boch was our gerbil who’d just passed away.
Big Bro was brushing his teeth before bed. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this bone question, as he is a deeply sentimental child; he has been known to hug broken chairs left at the curb. He cannot part with his own baby teeth to the tooth fairy.
It was after a delectable lunch of leftover cold pizza when I’d found Boch, cold to the touch (not yet rigor mortis), her white belly prone against the side of her tank, eyes tight shut, but jagged-yellowed front teeth obscenely prominent in her tiny open mouth. One paw frozen midair, splayed, as if waiting for her nails to dry.
Her sister Rosey seemingly oblivious, tripped over her, chewing a toilet paper tube.
Cold hard facts: As soon as we became dog owners, our gerbils, though not neglected by Mom (who changed their water and feed, and hoarded toilet paper tubes), were largely forgotten by their rightful initial owners, my now eight-and-ten-year-old sons.
Still. I did not look forward to breaking the dead-Boch news to my boys after school. Their only experience previously with lost pets was hermit crabs and beta fish, and neither had elicited much tears, just a desire for more crabs and fish.
But Boch had been cute. And cuddly. And funny. What personality! Brilliant in her own right. Ok, so she wasn’t a dolphin or anything….
I did my own brief grieving as I debated what to do with her; save her for a “viewing” after school? Nope. I scooped her out with a paper towel and dug a quick hole in the side yard, marked with a makeshift cross held together with rubber bands.
I wound up breaking the news to my boys in the car on the way home from school, in the rearview mirror. Not exactly my plan, but perhaps less dramatic than if I’d waited to sit them down on the couch so they might actually expect some far worse news than the loss of a rodent.
“I have some sad news…” I began.
Then it was Little Bro who piped up, “Boch, right?”
I turned to look at him. “You knew?”
He shrugged. “I saw her this morning…”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
He shrugged again, now looking a bit ashamed. “I thought she was sleeping.”
Sleeping? On her back with her paw frozen midair? Those yellow obscene teeth?
“What’s wrong with Boch?” came Big Bro’s high-pitched nervous voice. “She okaaaayyyyyy?”
Then I had to really break the news.
And Big Bro commenced his grieving with sniffles. By the time we pulled into the driveway, the sniffles were transmuting into sobs. He dropped his school bag on the porch and made his way around to the side of the house to the graveyard.
Little Bro didn’t tag along – he had to make his usual bathroom run, as he holds it in all day because he doesn’t like that the school bathroom doors don’t lock.
Our house plumbing is as roiling as an upset stomach, and I could hear the toilet flush from outside. A moment later, Little Bro was calling out the back door: “Mom? Can I have a yogurt?”
His latest after-school snack addiction is banana cream pie yogurts.
“Yes!” I called back and was about to call don’t let the dog out – when he let the dog out. Toby came romping happily around to the side of the house and straight across Bochy’s grave, which only escalated Big Bro’s grieving hysteria.
I snapped at Little Bro to get the dog back in.
Big Bro smoothed back over the dog-paw disturbed earth. Then he began “engraving” on a rock with a purple permanent marker for Bochy’s tombstone.
“He doesn’t even care,” he said, about rather cavalier, seemingly callous, Little Bro.
I placed a sprig of berries at the foot of the crooked twiggy cross, the closest to flowers one can find in the midst of disgusting gray old March snow:
“We all have our own ways of grieving,” I began, when Little Bro appeared at the back door again. “Mom, can I have another yogurt? They’re so awesome!”
Crouched there by the tiny rodent grave, with Little Bro’s constant interruptions, I was getting a bit annoyed with little Bro myself – at the same time, I didn’t feel the intense need for two deeply grieving children….
“Yes but don’t let Toby –”
…out bounded the dog again.
This time, I was the one to take Toby back in and to have a word with Little Bro.
I don’t remember the “word” but something about his need to respect that “some of us” were feeling a little sad at the moment.
“She was my gerbil, not even his. What’s he so upset about.”
Well there is a twisted truth here, if you can own a gerbil as possessively as you might your customized Xbox controllers:
Three years ago at the pet store they’d each picked out their own gerbil with as much deliberation as they had as toddlers, those toy cars strategically displayed at our Rite Aide’s cashier counter.
But in this snooty “my gerbil” declaration, I’d detected a hint of sadness. Little Bro’s eyes welled. And little Tough Guy who collects BrickArms tiny guns but still sleeps with blanky, had to look down at his dirty sneakers. “Well, can I?”
I brushed his hair back out of his eyes, kissed his cheek. “Can you what, hon?”
He pulled away, as embarrassed as if I’d actually kissed him in front of all his friends rather than only the dog.
“Have another yogurt.” He was already heading for the fridge. No more words to be spoken.
Eventually, Big Bro came inside for his far less healthy-than-banana-cream-pie snack, a stack of Oreo cookies, and booted up his computer for his daily dose of Minecraft.
And I thought that was that – until the bone discussion at bedtime.
To address the question about Bochy’s bones, for some reason I’d felt more at ease looking at Big Bro in our dirty toothpaste-splattered bathroom mirror. (Sadly, maybe that’s the only way I can talk directly to my children – in bathroom and car mirrors.)
“Well, you understand we’d have to…dig her up.”
Working his toothbrush hard against his back teeth, he shrugged. And nodded.
“Do you know anything about decomposition?”
He spat into the sink with his usual gumption that left toothpaste splatter on the faucets as well as the mirror. “We’re learning about it in school…”
“Well, then you know if you were to…dig her up…it might be better to wait a few months.” Truthfully, I have no clue how long it takes a tiny rodent to decompose.
I was reminded of how, when my mother’s cat died, she had dug him up from her own backyard; she simply hadn’t been ready to part with him. Lucky for her, the cat had been cremated and could sit on the mantel in a tiny cute little tin . . .
Big Bro looked at me in the mirror, wiping his dribbling mouth with the back of his hand. “I can wait….”
Oh, goody. Because I really didn’t need a carcass in the house. There’s enough rotting going on under this roof, half-eaten cheese sticks under the couch, Oreo cookies crumbs in every crevasse, dog food kicked under the refrigerator, molding yogurt containers in the playroom…. I could expound upon household decomposition, but might save that for another post.
Though as sentimental as Big Bro can be, he can also be cunning – I wouldn’t put it past him to sneak outside one night to dig Boch up himself, hide her in his room where he might dissect her as he would excavate fake bones out of those archeological toy sets:
Sandra’s first novel now on Amazon. Click on cover to go to issue: