Good morning, everyone. Happy Tuesday, and as always, grab a cup of coffee and make yourself comfortable.
Sip. Heading to bed last Sunday, I felt a glimmer of excitement around writing a journal entry on Monday. We cleaned our garage, swam in our neighbord's pool, and got caught in the rain at a sub-par burger restaurant. There would be plenty to write about. I lowered the shades and slid into the covers. I was minutes from sailing off to sleep. Then I heard a pleading voice from the dining room.
"Hon, something's wrong," said Marissa. "I don't think she's breathing."
You may have noticed we've been a little quiet about Ducky lately. The big move from Wisconsin was hard on her, but she survived. We had some trouble finding a place in this house that was warm enough for her terrarium. But she seemed to be getting better. She wasn't spending much time outside her hide, but I had gotten her to nibble on a few meal worms. We assured ourselves that she was still just getting used to the new place, and that was fine.
We grew more concerned with her heading into this past weekend. "I'm worried about her," I admitted. "I don't want her to die." Marissa winced, hearing the "d" word, and even I felt like I was being overly dramatic. Out of desperation, I returned from the nearest pets mart with a new sampling of heat lamps. I left a bowl of chubby, slow moving wax worms at the mouth of her cave. I used one of our old baking pans to give her a warm bath.
"We'll take her to the vet on Monday," said Marissa in soothing assurance.
When I joined Marissa in the dining room on Sunday night, I refused to believe that Ducky had passed. "She's cold-blooded, and we can't be sure she's dead," I said. Despite my suggestion being steeped in bullshit and denial, we went with my plan. We would leave her in her warm cave until the morning.
We went to bed, but we didn't even bother turning the light off. Marissa and I sat awake, silently panic-googling on our phones. If Ducky was dead, we had a narrow window of time to get her to a vet for a necropsy. She needed to be moved to the fridge.
"I'll do it," I gulped. I left the bedroom, but I didn't return. I don't know how long I stayed up with Ducky, but all at once it dawned on me what putting her body in the fridge meant. UV bulbs, heat lamps, warming pads, all her life our job was to keep her warm. Putting Ducky in the fridge, symbolically, was an admission that she was gone. It was the point of no return.
I stayed up with Ducky, crying harder than I've cried in a while. To give you an idea of how hard I cried, I had to use the same one-handed scoop-and-swipe maneuver on myself that I use to collect Miles' drool and boogers. I was a mess. Even though she had stopped breathing and started to grow cold, she felt so fragile in my hands. I wanted her to kick, bite, blink, and do something small to tell me she was still with us. It took me forever, but I wrapped her in paper towels. I plucked some flower petals from the vase on our dining room kitchen and made a bed. I cried for another twenty minutes in front of the fridge, ignoring the little alarm that sounds when we leave the fridge door open.
Marissa suggested that she had something wrong with her developing eggs. She read some facts about what it meant when lizards were "egg bound". "It kind of matches her symptoms," she said sniffing back her own tears.
We looked up her birthday. Marissa remembered the date was stamped on the deli cup, and we had plenty of pictures. To my horror, the black lettering on the sticker in the photo clearly read 8/22/2021. "It was her birthday," Marissa whimpered - and so began thirty more minutes of bitter sobbing.
She was too young to be egg bound. I must have been something about her environment - something we missed. I barely slept, waking up between nightmares, haunted by the image of our sweet little ducky fighting for her life while I drank beer and ate snacks on the couch in the next room.
We told Rodney the next morning. Hearing the news at the breakfast table, he stared off at her empty cage and made a frown. After a few lingering seconds of silence, he looked down at Minnie. "At least we have Minnie," he shrugged. With that final thought, he carefully picked a brown peanut butter flavored nugget out of his cereal and lowered it down to Minnie. He jogged off to meet the bus like it was a regular day.
I began calling around for vets. I had a hard time finding a place that offered care to geckos. One place nearby offered to do a gross necropy. "So you can do it, but it just... it won't be very detailed," said the friendly voice. "I... would find some place else."
She recommended an exotics vet in Lisle only twenty minutes away. Maybe I was too grief stricken, but in hindsight it was kind of amazing at how crass the nurse assistant was to me on the phone.
"We have a policy," she droned. "Necropsies are only for existing patients. If he was a patient of ours, we could do it." She didn't even bother to learn Ducky was a girl, and that rubbed me the wrong way.
"Can you recommend me somewhere that doesn't have this policy," I asked. "We just moved here, and we weren't set up with an vet..."
"U of I," she stated.
"U of I?" I repeated. "Like... the one in Champagne?"
"University of Illinois," she said curtly. "I don't know where it is, I just know that's where I'm told to send people."
I wasn't driving to Champagne on a Monday morning with a dead gecko. But luckily, Chicago Exotics in Skokie was a hundred times more accommodating. "What was your pets name?" asked the nurse.
"Her name was Ducky," I cracked.
The nurse explained the vet could perform the necropsy, handle her remains, and email me a post mortem report by the end of the day. "And, I'm sorry for your loss, I'm sure Ducky was special - they're never around for long enough, are they?" Sputtering through a new wave of tears, I spelled out my address and email while the nurse patiently waited.
Grief is hard work. The emotions, the thoughts, and all the processing left me exhausted. I was tempted to stifle my emotions. After all, she was just a lizard, and we only had her for a year. Was I overdoing it? But you shouldn't stifle the grieving process either. You shouldn't put parameters around how long it takes - at least that's what the WikiHow article titled How to Process Grief said.
As tempting as it was to stifle the grief and move on, I'm glad I kept working through it. I contemplated why I felt such guilt over her death. I took a quiet moment to study the intrusive thoughts that had been rolling around in my head all day.
"I was her caretaker, and she died too young. It was my fault. I didn't keep her warm. I didn't give her the right vitamins. I didn't feed her food that was small enough. I didn't deserve her. I didn't really put the work in. I'm too lazy for a pet like her. She would have had a better life with someone else. While I was posting pictures of her on Instagram, she was probably cold, hungry, or in pain. She probably hated me."
The more I spelled out these thoughts, the easier it was to see where the guilt was coming from. So what if I made a mistake? This was our first gecko, and we did the best we could. Even to the bitter end, we managed to get her body to an exotic vet in Skokie in an eighteen hour window so we could learn from it. Even if the vet found it was something basic and avoidable that killed her, he had to respect the effort to become better pet owners. And why was I so afraid of feeling judged? No matter how many people reached out with supportive, kind words on Facebook and Instagram, I was hell-bent on believing that everyone was judging me for letting my gecko die. Even if it was my mistake, nobody has the right to judge me for it. She was my pet, and the sense of loss and sadness I felt was bad enough without this imaginary cloud of judgment hanging over my head.
Don't stifle guilt, no matter how small the loss. Yesterday, I realized the wisdom in that advice. If I had pushed Ducky back in my thoughts, I would have missed all this other stuff. The plain, boring truth was that Ducky was a lizard. She didn't resent me or carry her own hot takes over how good of a caretaker I was. Those were just my own feelings of guilt and fear taking the form of a lizard. I'm deeply insecure about how people perceive me, and too often I let these thoughts invade the things that bring me joy. I have an unhealthy perspective over my own mistakes. When it comes to learning new things, I treat my own outcomes like failure unless I immediately figure things out on the first try.
Marissa took an opposite seat on the couch next to me. We shared a weird moment where, unprompted, she said something that captured my thoughts perfectly. "Now that I worked through everything, I just miss her. That's it."
Ducky was a happy little lizard. She brought me joy. I miss her. That's it.
My phone chirped with a new email. The vet wrote a concise, somber paragraph describing the cysts and legions he found around her eggs. He was surprised that such a young age, Ducky was already fully sexually mature. The quick transformation may have led to some problems, like fat deposits on her liver.
It wasn't my fault, but thankfully I already came to that conclusion. But still, it felt like the email from the vet gave me permission to feel proud of how well we took care of her. "She had an amazing tank," reminded Marissa. "How many geckos get to watch the sun rise every morning?"
That was true. Ducky's enclosure was massive. Every time I walked in the room, she was exploring a new spot.
Ducky was adventurous. She explored every inch of her enclosure, sometimes leaving a solitary little gecko poop like a flag on new conquered territory.
She loved to eat bugs. She lived knowing the taste of butter worms, meal worms, horn worms, dubias, and red runners.
Ducky's enclosure was by our bedroom window. Early in the morning before I'd let the dogs out, I peeked open her curtain so she could watch the sun rise on our street. Not fake sunlight from a light bulb - real sunshine. It scattered off the snow on the street and sparkled like diamonds. Sometimes it made her tank look like Heaven.
We used to stay up way too late with Ducky. While all the other kids and animals in the house were quietly sleeping, we invited Ducky into the inner circle of late night hangouts. Most of the time, Marissa just held her in her hand while she wrote in her planner, but sometimes there were drinks and snacks all around.
It was hard to go to bed once Ducky joined the party. The three of us were like a secret nocturnal friendship.
Ducky may have only been with us for a year, but now that I'm scrolling through her photos and videos, finally letting tears fall freely on my keyboard, it's easy to see she was the happiest lizard in the world.
"Did you know that today was Ducky's birthday?" said Rodney at the dinner table. "Dad said she gets to have her birthday in heaven."
Marissa cracked a smile. "What do you think she got for her birthday?" she asked.
"Swimming pool... filled with worms," laughed Rodney.
"And she's just housing them," laughed Marissa.
"I think that even though she's in heaven, she still has a window that looks down over Union street," I said. Cue yet another twenty minutes of crying.
Goodbye, Ducky. I'm going to miss you so much. Your enclosure, wiped clean and packed away, looks so empty without you. I'm sorry you had to go so soon, but I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as we did. There's not going to be another Ducky. Rest easy knowing that you are the one and only mighty Duckasaur. Feared by roaches, climber of rocks, watcher of sunrises, and smiling late night friend. I hope you had a wonderful birthday party in gecko heaven. I'll miss you, and I'll never forget you.