Yesterday was a hard day for Eldest.
He ran upstairs, just before bed. Got into his pajamas. Arranged his pillows. Then, he turned to his dresser to feed his pet mouse, Tailor. Part of his nightly routine, his habit was to take a moment each night and feed her, hold her, play with her a moment before going to bed.
Last night, she didn’t greet him at the side of the cage. After two years of life, Tailor’s time here on earth was over.
My Eldest is a boy who feels things deeply, no part of life’s poignant, bittersweet nature escapes him. When he was six, he had a pet tadpole who died. I will never forget the thoughts and feelings that he went through that week….so raw and profound was his grief, his realization that life is unpredictable, shocking, unavoidably tragic at times.
“Mommy, I just feel so trapped!” He sobbed, nearly half his lifetime ago. “Everything we love here on earth is going to die some day. Every single thing!” I held him on my lap, rocked him like I did when he was a baby, wiped away his tears. “We don’t ask to be born,” he cried. “We don’t ask to come here and we’re just stuck here…and all we know for sure is that everything we love is going to die some day! And the only way out is that we die, too”.
Oh! My heart broke into a thousand pieces, hearing this little child’s words. It astounded me how the death of a tadpole, a pet he had loved for only a few short weeks, could bring up such existential thoughts in so young a mind. It was more than just a loss to him, it was a betrayal…a realization that the world that seemed so benign harbours a hundred thousand ways to break your heart, a million partings, shocks to the soul that cannot be predicted or avoided.
What do you say? What can you do? We muddled through. God is good, life is both beautiful and painful and that is just the way of things. We buried the tadpole, we prayed, we talked about the beauty that God created when he made frogs so unique among all creatures. We talked about God’s plan, how there is a reason for everything that happens and He uses even the hardest times for good in ways we don’t always understand. We talked…a lot…about heaven.
And the storm passed, growth and at least the beginnings of understanding came from the experience.
I have, at times, questioned the wisdom of letting children keep pets. These little animals bring so much joy, and yet they also take so much work. The feeding, the care, the cleaning up of the mess. The worry and vet bills, the reminders to scrub the cage, change the wood shavings, put away the bag of food. The knowledge that at best, a mouse’s life is very short. The waiting, knowing that one day it’s inevitable that this beloved little creature is going to be found dead, the hoping that you will be the one to find her that way, and not the child who loved her so.
Keeping pets reminds us that the joy of life is tinged with the knowledge that to love means to be venerable, to open your heart means to accept the risk that it will be broken. As painful as this lesson is, it does give a child something valuable, something even more important than the practice and responsibility of caring for an animal. It provides a chance to see life’s complete cycle, beginning and end. To think about the nature of love, to learn about the beauty of life and the tragedy of it and how, in the end, the risk that is Love is always worth taking.
Eldest is taking this well, considering. No boy ever loved a mouse more, or cared for it more attentively. It’s going to be awhile before he feels like thinking about another pet, but I am sure that we will get one. Today, we’ll have tears and sadness but also the joy of knowing…once, there was a little mouse who was greatly loved and cherished. We learned from her, and she gave us joy. It was worth the pain.