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Loathsome pet rats like Marissa adorned thousands of local dresser tops. Girls loved them because they were cute and cuddly. I hated them. They were the final, foul-smelling insult after years of grubby, drooled-on stuffed bears and glittery-maned plastic ponies.
Every rodent in suburbia is purchased with the usual exhortations about responsibility, the animals-aren't-just-for-cuddling lectures. But when the sun sets, it's Dad walking the dog, feeding the cat, or scraping hamster poop into garbage bags while holding his breath. Still, Marissa's death was bad news. I wouldn't mourn the hamster much, but the loss would only heighten the sense of tragedy and injustice that in recent weeks had come to loom over Emily like a dark cloud and would, I was reliably informed, remain for a year or so--if I was lucky.
I had listened for years to horror stories from unnerved parents of teenagers. I'd always nodded sympathetically but chuckled inwardly with the self-righteous certainty that these ills afflicted other families, not mine; other dads, not me. I was a perceptive parent with an adorable--and adoring--daughter for whom adolescence would be just a little speed bump on the driveway of life.
After all, I was a new and sensitive male. I knew the names of all Emily's friends and teachers and kept her schedule burned into my brain. I knew precisely how brown her morning toast ought to be, and which brand of mint-chocolate chip ice cream was acceptable. I had never once left her standing abandonedat the school bus stop or required some clucking SuperMom to remind me that I'd forgotten to pick her up at Kimberly's house.
In fact, I basked in the glow of my own warm opinion of my parenting skills. During my Wall Street years, I hadn't a clue about what Em or her big brother Ben did all day. Now I was their gatekeeper and schedule-maker, the all-purpose, pile-up-the-mileage, yak-with-the-moms, shop-till-you-drop Master of Ceremonies.
And yet one Monday morning just before Christmas this changed instantly and forever. Ben had already left for his bus stop. Emily had staggered downstairs to face another day. "Hey, what's up?" I asked, as I always did. Instead of answering, she stared at me in shock and revulsion, as if I was something that had fallen from a horse's behind.
If I'd been arrogant enough to think I'd escape this fate, I was at least realistic enough to recognize the awful truth instantly when I saw it. Adolescence.
"What's wrong?" I wondered.
"Nothing," Emily hissed in exasperation. "Why do you keep asking me that?" I raised my hands in surrender and backed away.
"It'll just be a couple of years," my wife, Jane, soothed, with a rueful laugh. She should know. She'd finally completed her training to become a psychologist and was accepting her first private patients. "This round is between you and Em," Jane said, wisely if cravenly. "I'm staying out of it."
I knew this was a phase. It was a phase Ben had already embarked on, with sometimes painful consequences. I also knew, therefore, that the sweet Dad-and-daughter days had vanished in the blink of a breakfast greeting.
Overnight, I had morphed into someone unspeakably stupid. Everything I said was ignorant or embarrassing. "Jeez, Daaaaaad!" became Em's new motto for everything I thought, cooked, said, did, or didn't do. I didn't understand the simplest thing about her life, a life I was in the process of ruining beyond repair. Sometimes I had the feeling it was all Em could do to avoid throwing up when I came into a room.
A kind of war had been declared in which much depended on my not fighting back. I had to keep repeating the mantra I'd gleaned from Jane and all the books I'd begun to ingest: This is a healthy way for a healthy child to separate. The more she's attached to you, the more she needs to do this. She'll need your love more than ever. You have to stay constant while she rockets up and down. Don't take the bait.
So I didn't. But it was tough, because no matter how much I read, a lot of the time I wanted to kill her. I found Emily just as annoying as she found me. She was thin-skinned, self-absorbed, whiny, obsessed with how she looked and--here was the sad part--so uncomfortable in her own skin that she often looked as if she might jump right out of it.
And Marissa had picked this point in history to end her life. I had just brought my sullen daughter home from her voice lesson. Although it was late in the day, I planned to get back to my office in the American Way, a dingy '50s mall a few miles outside our town. I had some overdue reports to finish up. I hadn't said a word in the car; since discovering that "How was your day?" had suddenly become a profoundly offensive question, I'd learned to keep my mouth shut.
"Dad. You better come up here! Please! Hurry!" When we heard the shrieks from Em's room, Percentage, our black Lab, and I both headed upstairs on the run. I beat him easily, though to be fair, his right rear leg was still game from his having been poisoned during one of my early cases. I would have beaten him up the stairs anyway, though. Percentage was the Ferdinand of Labradors, a deep thinker and flower sniffer, not really into running, hunting, fighting, or retrieving.
Em is no stranger to pet deaths. We've had tropical fish roasted alive by a malfunctioning aquarium heater, a cat run over, innumerable mice who succumbed to old age. We even have a Rodent Graveyard in a corner of our backyard where past casualties rest in peace. We used to put a flower on the grave, observe a moment of silence, and offer a few reflections on the dear departed. This sort of loopy ritual is widespread in Rochambeau, the child-centered New Jersey suburb we live in. But an unexpected benefit of adolescence was that these rites were no longer cool. And Emily's nearly twelve, after all. Much of life revolves around being cool.
But Marissa's death was not peaceful. The fat little brown hamster was backing up, charging across the cage at astonishing speed, and ramming her head into the glass wall. Over and over. Before I could get the top of the cage off, she took one last ferocious plunge, hit the wall with an impressive thump, keeled over, and lay still. Percentage, knowing he was a hunting dog of noble lineage and thus expected to do something, wagged his tail, then jumped onto Em's bed and went to sleep.
Emily was stunned, though not all that torn up. "Jeez," she said, forgetting for a moment what a repulsive slug I was and taking my hand. "Why do you suppose she did that?"
"Well, she gave birth to those dead babies"--I nearly gagged at the thought of that waste disposal operation. "Maybe Marissa was depressed about it." Good work, Deleeuw. A crackerjack detective. Solved that case in seconds, using your vast knowledge of hamster motivation.
I almost made some smart-ass crack about Marissa's never having learned to share her feelings when I realized this would be further evidence of my insensitivity. So I shut up quickly.
"Sorry, Em," I mumbled. "She was a . . . a good hamster." Talk about lame. Besides, I'd never known a good hamster.
All in all, I thought it was a smart move on Marissa's part. She shared a room with an adolescent girl. More than once, I'd thought of ramming my head into a wall myself.
It's tough to lose a pet, especially when one kills itself right before your eyes. But Em didn't seem traumatized, just sad. So I was sort of relieved when my pocket beeper went off. I peered at the number on the little screen. Evelyn, my secretary and the organizer of my existence, was calling from the office.
I picked up the hamster cage. "Sorry, Em. Gotta run. Mom should be home in time to make dinner. Don't be too blue. Love you. Bye."
She waved distractedly, then looked over at her computer. By the time I'd disposed of the remains and could back my ancient Volvo station wagon out of the driveway, she'd be on-line pouring her heart out to some guy named Flashy432Z.
I toted the cage downstairs, emptied Marissa and all those revolting cedar shavings into a garbage bag, and dumped the whole thing into the trash. Percentage was uncharacteristically alert, sniffing and panting. "Don't even think about it," I growled, fastening the lid firmly on the can. He'd brought home worse from walks, holding various dead creatures gently in his mouth, wagging with pride, expecting warm recognition.
"S'long, girl," I said by way of eulogy. I decided to skip the formal send-off that usually accompanied entry into the Rodent Graveyard. I decided to skip the Graveyard, too.
I called Evelyn, who was probably obsessing over some insurance report due a week ago. Evelyn, a forceful retired librarian, had a way of putting her foot down when things got out of hand. It was wise to respond instantly and compliantly.
"Kit," she said. "I have bad news for you." She paused to give me a chance to collect myself. Em was okay, more or less, but Ben wasn't home yet, and I hadn't talked to Jane since morning. My young associate Willie was supposed to be testifying in a fraud case.
"It isn't Ben or Jane or Willie," Evelyn said, anticipating me. "It's Benchley."
"Oh, Jesus," I said, assuming the worse. My friend was eighty-one.
"He's had a stroke, Kit. They called from the Garden Center. It happened two days ago. He didn't come to work, and when they checked his house, they found him."
Two days ago? And no one had called me? "He's at Rochambeau Memorial?"
"No, Kit, that's the strange part. He was there, but as soon as he was stable, they sent him to Elston Manor, a private nursing home in Clifton. He was transferred there this morning. Benchley had apparently left instructions that he wanted to be taken there in the event of a serious illness. That's what Rose, his assistant, told me."
Benchley was my closest friend. He ran the Rochambeau Garden Center, amid whose flowers, shrubs, and trees he and I had spent countless hours, sipping lemonade in the summer, mulled cider in the winter, talking about life, work, movies, books--and sometimes death. Benchley was white-haired but lean and hearty. He had never stopped being handsome and carried himself with a natural grace and dignity that I'd come to associate with his being a Quaker.
The Garden Center was a haven not only for lawn- and garden-lovers, but for lots of people in town who just liked being around Benchley. He had provided me with some desperately needed encouragement during the scary times when my Wall Street career fell apart and I was struggling to keep my family intact, keep my house out of the bank's clutches, and find a new career. He was the first male I'd ever truly been close to. I had other friends--especially Luis Hebron, a one-time Havana defense attorney now managing a fast-food franchise called the Lightning Burger ("Food in a Flash"). But that was a more formal relationship. It was Benchley who taught me perhaps the single most difficult thing for men to learn: how to talk openly to another man.
I stood shaking at the news. Benchley's loss would leave an enormous hole. His suffering would be even more unbearable. Every day I seemed to hear more and more of these stories from friends and clients--older friends and parents suffering heart attacks or strokes, facing one kind of surgery or another, grappling with complex, expensive, and wrenching decisions.
"Evelyn," I asked. "Can you call Elston Manor? Find out where it is?" I hung up and decided to begin driving in the general direction of Clifton.
A stroke. I dreaded seeing the shape Benchley might be in. I prayed the stroke wasn't very serious. And if it was very serious, I prayed even harder that Benchley would die.