It should go without saying that along with a house full of kids, comes a house full of pets.
Most have been beloved and intimate members of our family. Medieval superstition got it right in calling certain animal companions “familiars.” Pets are entwined in the particular details of our days to a degree we’re often unconscious of until they are absent—avatars for whole chapters of our personal history. I know my boys will remember their “familiars” long into old age. But there’s one pet that didn’t stay around long enough to become familiar, who is still worth remembering, if only as an avatar for their mother’s personality. Let’s call him Sal.
Sal first appeared on a Saturday morning last November. Our eldest son was at college. The 16-year-old was away at a church youth retreat. Our 13-year-old was playing video games in his room, and their father was happily watching football. I had just returned home from an out-of-state trip, and was getting caught up on laundry. It was a scene of domestic bliss. So, of course, all hell shortly broke loose.
It began with the 13-year-old screaming: “The cat has a WORM or a SNAKE or SOMETHING!”
I ran to his bedroom, where the cat skulked on the unmade bed, looking defiantly up at my son. I caught a glimpse of something silvery and slick between his paws. Pandemonium ensued.
“GET IT! GET IT!”
“I CAN’T SEE IT. WHAT IS IT?”
“OH MY GOD; I THINK IT’S A CENTIPEDE!”
“AUGH! IT’S A LIZARD! ITS TAIL JUST BROKE OFF!”
At this point, two previously inert forces surged into action, introducing a whole new level of chaos. First, our 10-pound terrier pranced in, and to his great joy caught a freshly discarded, still-wriggling tail in his mouth before bounding away. Second, my husband became aware that something other than football was going on in his periphery.
“Huh? Oh! WAIT! That’s your brother’s pet lizard!”
There was no time for explanations. Instantly the mission pivoted from Operation GET IT! to Operation SAVE IT!
My 13-year-old pounced on the cat, who finally released his prize—a shiny, mud-colored critter about an inch long. Using a plastic sandwich box for a temporary container, I started searching my middle son’s room for anything that would resemble its living quarters. Where had he been keeping the blasted thing?
It was time to get some answers. “Since when does he have a pet lizard?” I demanded of my husband. He confessed to waking up in the middle of the night while I was away and noticing our son standing outside in the yard with a flashlight. Patrick, having asked what in the world he was doing, was told, “looking for bugs for my lizard.”
“And you had NO follow-up questions?”
“I was barely awake. I forgot all about it until just now!”
Disgusted, I text messaged the perpetrator, though I knew his phone would be powered off until Sunday.
“I FOUND your secret pet. And SAVED it from the cat. I’m buying it a PROPER habitat and the money will come from YOUR savings.”
Several hours and $70 later, we moved our guest into his new luxury apartment, replete with moisture-retentive bedding, heat lamp and humidity gauge. Apparently, reptiles are fussy. I sent photos to my son, its alleged person.
“The pet store clerk says the tail will grow back with proper climate control. He seems to be doing fine.”
I was already beginning to soften. How like my 16-year-old, so secretly tender-hearted, to nurture this stray creature. How excited he would be to see the beautiful new habitat. What a lesson in being able to trust his mom. How she gets him.
The next day, I went to pick up our lizard king from the retreat. Just as I was pulling into the church parking lot, his phone came back online. He emerged while I was still reading his message.
“Any way you could return that habitat?”
It seemed that the lizard rescued the week before had already lost its tail, presumably to our cat, and was released back into the wild the very next morning. The lizard who had lost his tail in front of my eyes? The vermin we’d wrested from the cat while doing HIS JOB? The grifter now enjoying the prospect of a winter spent basking under a heat lamp?
He’d never seen that lizard before in his life.
The pet store, as it turns out, has a wildly generous return policy. Our guest (or hostage, depending) was unceremoniously released back into the wilds of our suburban yard the very next day.
A few days later, while walking the dog, I came across the body of a dead rat that had been trapped and tossed into the gutter. I paused to contemplate its mortal remains and offer a few words of reflection on its fate.
“Boy, did you choose the wrong house to invade.”
Kyran Pittman is mom to three sons, sweetheart to their dad, and author of numerous stories about life with all four. Her memoir, “Planting Dandelions,” was published by Riverhead in 2011.