My kids have crushed insects, witnessed the death of a flattened bird on the streets of Melaka with its guts spilling out and handled dead lizards, but no dead animal would burn in the kids’ memory as much as losing their very first pet.
For all who know us and have visited, you would know Ben, Becks and Nat have pet terrapins. I embarked on a responsibility project for the Kao kids last August when we went to Nanyang Aquarium to pick out three terrapins. Each of them chose one and their task was to learn to be a good pet owner. They named their terrapins Jay, Jillybean and Jojo and have had them for company since then. They fed their pets, walked them (yes, they did), brought them out of the tank to play and even talked to them. The only area of slack was the cleaning and changing of fresh water for the tank (and you would know that water smells foul every two days). The complaint was that they would make a mess handling the pebbles at the bottom of the tank (well, they did try), and so my helper would rather do it for them instead.
Even when we left for Bangkok for 3 weeks, we left them in good hands.
My sis would send an update to let the kids know that the three Js were alive and well.
It was until we returned from our trip last December that we realised that one of the terrapins never grew. It remained small while the other two have tripled in size.
We thought that the bigger ones may have deprived the smallest from food, and so as a family, we went back to Nanyang, got a separate tank and made sure the smallest ate its fill every day.
Nat and Ben were in charge of making sure every terrapin was fed. These boys, I have to say, have more guts than their mother and sister. I can never watch them feed their terrapins. They don’t throw the food in the water. They hold the pellets with their pincer grip and make the terrapins come to them. (I wished I’d taken photos of them doing so!) They would pat the little fellas on their heads even though those fellas looked all ready to chomp my boys’ fingers.
I would shriek and ask them to stop for fear they might break a bone. They would laugh and shrug their shoulders, and give me the roll-eyes-at-their-mother look .
My little girl, still slightly afraid of anything remotely resembling an animal, was always happy to have her brothers do her pet-caring job.
Unfortunately, the isolation gig didn’t work and the smallest, which the kids identified to be Jay, was still not growing. They decided that Jay was too lonely and needed to be with friends, and so he went back to the bigger tank and continued the fight for food with the other two.
Until he lay motionless with his eyes shut last Saturday morning.
The Kao kids went through the four stages of grief pretty much within the same day upon discovering the lifeless terrapin. The denial bit was witnessed throughout our Mother’s Day dinner. Once in a while, I would ask them about Jay and how they were feeling, and they would come up with suggestions that he wasn’t really dead and we (the adults) were all mistaken.
He must’ve been taking a nap! Just closing his eyes what.
Well, I saw him move lah.
Yea, he was swimming.
Fatherkao reminded them that we’d have to do a proper burial and they got so excited about where to bury him, forgetting that it was their dead pet they would be burying. The conversations in the car revolved around topics like how to dig a hole, where to find a shovel, what would happen if it rains, and where in the world in our vast ‘downstairs’ can we bury a dead terrapin.
When we reached home, they checked on Jay to see if we were all really mistaken. And clearly, we were not, and so the anger stage set in almost immediately.
Someone picked a terrapin with a defect!
It got sick!!!
Why did it not grow? We’ve all done our best to feed it!
The other two are the naughty ones that always snatch food from Jay!
And when they were finally done with all the talk, their father sat them down, took an old shoe box and some old wrapping paper, and proceeded to pick Jay up from the tank. It had gone limp and its shell had turned soft. Fatherkao asked everyone to bid Jay goodbye and we all said ‘See you in heaven’. He wrapped the lifeless Jay up in the paper and put him in the shoe box. Then he covered the box.
And here comes the teachable moment. “Let’s remember that it is the weak we need to protect. We all could have done better,” he said.
The kids were very quiet by now, and the third stage of depression was starting to set in. Jay was thrown down the chute after the goodbyes. We didn’t bury him because it was late and dark, but the loss – whether we had a burial or not – was already keenly felt in their hearts.
How did I know?
When I held Nat and thanked him for taking care of Jay every morning, he hugged me tight and wailed like a baby.
I saw – for the first time – that look of helplessness in his eyes, as if to say, he’s tried his best.
I saw tears filling Ben’s eyes.
I saw Becky sit in silence.
I watched my 3 kids sit around quietly to draw memories of Jay.
Nat draws his impression of Jay – he specifically looked for this shade of green
Ben draws Jay’s life from Day 1 in his sketch book
Becks writes what she knows and draws herself feeling sad
And so through drawing, they went through the last stage – that of acceptance – before the day ended.
I am grateful that I got a chance to watch all these emotions from my children unfold. To see loss through my children’s eyes, and to behold that capacity that they have within themselves to feel sad and yet be able to handle that sadness.
Though things will not be the same again without Jay, I am glad that Jay gave them a lesson that no school or textbook can teach.
They handled their loss with compassion and acceptance, and with much finesse and quiet strength – even if it was meant for a small creature like a terrapin.