On the coldest day in two decades, I am standing in the driveway over the body of Casper Frogpants, who was my son’s first pet and is now my son’s first dead pet. The tadpole was a gift from his Auntie Harriet. “Here’s to arms and legs in 2014!” her card read. He’d arrived in the mail in the middle of a blizzard so it really was kind of magical to slice open the transport bag and watch him wriggle with life. “I have my own pet, Mom!” Jackson announced. (We have two cats and two dogs, but he understood that Caspar was his.) He took this responsibility more seriously than I imagined, dutifully checking every morning on his pet, who had been placed on a high, cat-proof shelf, then asking me to carry Caspar’s aquarium down to the kitchen so he could “be with the family.” He drew pictures on sticky notes and stuck them face-in against the tank so Caspar could “have art.” For better or worse, it’s my fault he’s this way. Not long after Caspar arrived I announced to my husband that although we were leaving the dogs and cats behind when we traveled to New York City for Christmas, the tadpole was coming with us, though in the end I decided the car trip would be harder on the little guy (the tadpole, not my husband) than the loneliness.
While I tend toward the soft and cuddly, I, too, fell hard for our Caspar. I loved changing his tank, making it all fresh and clean for him. I loved watching Jackson compare him to the pictures of tadpoles in the books we’d borrowed from the library. I loved being part of the nurturing process by which he would one day turn into a frog. I felt lucky. And he, well, he was the luckiest mail-order tadpole in all the land.
When I found him at the bottom of his aquarium, he was flashing me his long bright belly. Instead of popping to life as he usually did the minute I moved the tank, he made a half dozen rolls across the plastic bottom. I started to cry—for my son, my Caspar, my own history of animal loss.
First was our family’s afghan hound, Easy, when I was four. She collapsed in the kitchen, went to the animal hospital, and never came home. My Scottish Terrier, Agatha, died when I was seventeen, one month before I went to college. I had to take a few days off from my summer job because I couldn’t stop crying. (I had a forgiving boss: my dad.) My cat, Pearl, the summer after. Another cat, Joon, when I was twenty-eight. Each time I swore I’d never love another.
When I told Jackson we’d lost Caspar he turned red for a moment then promised a bit too emphatically that he was fine. I told him it’s OK to be sad. He said, “I think I know why Caspar died.” “Why?” “We didn’t bring him downstairs today.” Then he pressed “play” on his Buzz Lightyear CD player and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City came on. He looked out the window as I walked into the kitchen to clean out Caspar’s tank and figure out what to do with the body. He was right. We’d forgotten. It was the one day Caspar had had no family time. That’s when Jackson came in with one of his baby blankets. “We can wrap him up before we bury him,” he said. “But Mommy, we have to bury him very deep in the snow so that no animals step on him.” Except he said it aMiNals.
I put on my parka and boots while he entertained his sister in the living room. I wrapped Caspar in a paper towel (I had love for the little guy, but not, it turned out, a baby-blanket’s worth). “Ready!” I shouted, heading into the living room with Jackson’s boots in my hands, admiring how good at dead pets—one of the things I find most painful about life—he already was.
“Mommy, I have an even better idea,” he told me from the couch. “How about you go and bury him by yourself and I have a little iPad time.”
Before lowering him down, I feel the top of Caspar’s head, simply for how strange it is to have had an animal I didn’t touch until he was dead. I choose a spot along the side of the driveway near where a toad that visited our porch every night last summer finally got squished. I don’t believe in God, yet somehow I know these two should be together.
My husband appears in the window holding our daughter. I wonder what I look like to him, alone out here, burying a baby frog before our dinner guests arrive. The woman he thought he married? A lunatic? Both?
Rest in peace, Caspar Frogpants. You were the best first dead pet my son could ever have had.