If pets were a key part of my childhood, then my childhood was built on Lou’s Pet Shop in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Lou’s has supplied nearly all of the animals my family’s owned: a dozen fish at a time, five gerbils and a hedgehog. As a kid, going to Lou’s felt like a playdate; running to the pet store for fish food and gerbil fluff was one of the only errands I enjoyed. The shop was small, and we knew the owners, so my parents were comfortable letting my sister and I roam the store on our own. We’d laugh at the mice falling over themselves on their wheels and try to get the birds to chirp with us. Sometimes, after school, if my mom noticed I was feeling down, she’d say to me, “We need fish food. Do you want to come with me?”
This was code for, “Do you want to go to Lou’s and see the animals?”
There were a handful of not-for-sale animals kept in the store, but perhaps the most unique was Franky, an African spurred tortoise who was donated to Lou’s in 2007. With thick legs and a slow gait, he was free to roam up and down the narrow aisles of pet food and toys. I was five when Franky joined the store, but I can’t remember being introduced to him. Franky always just was. For years, while my parents would consult the owners over which fish would be comfortable in our tank or peruse for new cat toys, I’d slowly trail him around the store and run my hands along the hard ridges of his shell. I grew up alongside Franky. There was a joyfulness and comfort in knowing that he would always be poking about the store. At 21 years old, I’d still occasionally check in on Lou’s Facebook to see pictures of him snacking on lettuce.
On Oct. 30, my parents texted in our family group chat that Franky had passed away. It was a sudden death, they told my sister and I. He was only 26 years old, when he could’ve lived past 70 years. I joked that, on Halloween, I’d pour one out for him. I texted my friends in Ann Arbor: Remember the tortoise I showed you? Yeah, he f-ing died.
Humor is not antithetical to grief; I’d argue humor can be fundamental. But just laughing about Franky’s unexpected death didn’t help me cope. When I received the news of Franky’s death, despite my joking texts, I wished more than anything that I was at Lou’s. I wished I was giggling and petting Franky like when I was a child. Better yet, I wished I were a child again, when I could mourn Franky without shame. Really, it felt wrong to say I needed to cope at all.
I’ve experienced the deaths of people, of family, friends and figures who I’ve watched from a distance. These are the deaths I dwell on — the deaths that have shaped me much more than that of a tortoise. Somewhere along the line, anything less than the pain of losing people seemed to become trivial.
I sat alone in my room the night I learned about Franky, mentally kicking myself. I was caught between two camps of thought: Why are you so cold inside that you can’t just say you miss Franky? And why do you miss Franky when there are real people you could be thinking about? I sat between the two, wallowing in guilt.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve needed to confront my ambivalence towards grief and coping. We always had fish growing up, most of which we couldn’t tell apart, but there were a few we gave names to. Two of my favorites were GAWD, a silver dollar who was more than 10 years old. That’s an incredibly long time for a fish of that kind, so we named him GAWD as an offshoot of God — a name Mom disapproved of. There was also Beelzebub, a little orange fish who was the only survivor of dozens of surprise fish babies, and whose name my Mom also disapproved of.
In February of this year, I was lounging in a rocking chair in the Union, procrastinating the completion of my homework, when my sister FaceTimed me. During an ice storm across southeast Michigan, my parents had lost power for several days. Without any heat, my sister relayed to me, all of the fish in the tank had died.
“I want to cry right now, but I can’t,” I told my sister. I didn’t want to show such emotion in public, and even if I was comfortable enough to cry right there, it was as though my body wouldn’t let me. “This is so embarrassing.” We laughed, instead, at the absurdity of the situation, at the way we’d just lost years, if not decades-old pets in a single freak accident. If I were younger, I could see myself standing over a toilet bowl, singing a mournful song as we flushed the fish away to their resting place. Instead, I tried to clamp off any more wistful thoughts toward the fish. Despite my laughter, I was devastated. My “coping” ended there, at least on the surface.
There is no perfect way to grieve, but I think my younger self did a better job of mourning her pets than I do now. For many children, a pet’s passing can be their first experience with death. Personally, this rings true. Squeeky was a golden-furred gerbil; my first real pet that wasn’t a family fish. Despite not doing much except running on their wheel, my sister and I loved playing with Squeeky and her sister, May, the first of many beloved rodents in our home. Everyday after school, we’d take out Squeeky and May from their pen and sit on the floor with our legs straddled out, pressing the soles of our feet together into a diamond shape. We’d let the gerbils roam in the area between our shins and thighs, quickly grabbing them before they could hop over our man-made barrier. My sister and I would laugh and chase after the gerbils as they explored our kitchen, rolling around in hamster balls. I spent hours of my third grade free time building houses out of empty PopTart boxes for them to chew.
Grief introduced itself to me on a Tuesday morning in May of 2011. My sister and I were getting ready to leave for elementary school when my mom gathered us into the den and stood in front of the gerbils’ glass home. My 9-year-old self hadn’t noticed, but Squeeky had been growing weak, scratching at herself and balding. I don’t recall the exact language she used, but my mom made it clear to us that Squeeky wasn’t simply going to sleep; she was dying, and we needed to say goodbye.
I tearfully told Squeeky I loved her, and that she would be with God soon. We watched, solemnly, as she curled up in her gingerbread house and didn’t come back out.
As we huddled around the pen, the clock ticked close to 8 a.m. — the start time for our all-school Mass that day for the crowning of Mary. Instead of ushering us into the car, my mom looked over to her crying daughters and told us that we could miss church to bury Squeeky. We put her furry body in a little box resting on a piece of felt pulled from the sewing room. We laid her in the backyard dirt, among the budding hydrangeas and astilbe.
Perhaps it is morbid to describe my memory of this day as fond. Really, it’s a bittersweet memory, but my appreciation for my mom’s compassion outweighs the sadness of losing Squeeky. She was the greatest loss I knew when I was younger, a naivety and simplicity I no longer possess. But that morning, my mom mirrored for me, on a small scale, how to acknowledge grief, before I would grow older and face heavier deaths.
I do believe that anything is a practice for everything after it. I could justify my grief for Franky and others that way. If we grieve the little things — pets, severed ties, childhood memories — maybe we’ll grieve better, or more healthily, when worse losses come.
On the other hand, does this grief need a deeper meaning? A metaphor for my childhood being chipped away? My failure to appreciate what I had in the moment? Does my age have to play a factor? It could, sure, but can I let myself mourn a tortoise simply because he is gone, and I miss him?
When I learned that Franky died, I didn’t need to cry on my mom’s shoulder or hold my sister’s hand as I did when Squeeky passed — I just wanted to acknowledge that I truly missed him, without bogging myself down with notions about being childish or dramatic. Maybe the best way to grieve isn’t to justify it at all.
My sister visited home last summer, bringing with her two small painted canvases. The first was of GAWD, with glimmering silver skin and orange highlights, and the second was of Beelzebub, a speck of orange in a blue sea with little bubbles coming from his mouth. The portrait of GAWD now stands on the lid of the empty tank, and Beelzebub’s rests on my shelf. It’s a simple act, but looking at the little canvas gives me a small sense of comfort that even our fish are remembered. It’s still uncomfortable, reteaching myself to mourn my pets, but when has mourning ever been easy? Perhaps Franky could use a portrait as well.
Statement Columnist Elizabeth Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.