My son Benjy is addicted to animal videos. Three, four times a day he pulls me to the computer and makes me watch with him. For about a year, the videos were almost always about small mammals: irritable fennec foxes, clever mice, and in general anything cute and furry, with chubby a decided advantage.
After the Era of Chubby Mammals commenced the Period of Birds. This bird stretch has been unusually long–sixteen months and counting. I have probably seen every crow encounter, zebra finch escapade, and cockatoo dance available on the Internet. I coo and laugh and wax indignant as required. I feign interest in the sixth talking raven video of the afternoon (“Nevermore! WakaWakaWaka!”). And I think to myself, this kid is adorable, but man, is he nuts.
If Benjy were merely obsessed with viewing animals on the computer I would shrug it off–I have had manias far darker than that. But his goal is to win me over to the charms of the foxy and avian sets, so he can convince me to buy them. The fennec fox could live in a habitat under his desk. The finches would do just fine in a large wire cage in the living room. I’m not sure where he imagines the Russian tortoise or the bearded dragon will live, but I’ll bet he’s got it all mapped out. His primary work these days is mapping the humans who live here right out of the house, to make way for the ducklings and every other species he schemes to bring in.
Benjy has contracted Animal Madness.
My husband Lars and I try our best to nip Ben’s tendency toward animal hoarding in the bud. Not only do we aspire to a certain standard of non-slovenliness around here, but we would like everyone in our household–human or otherwise–to live sated, sheltered, and not enveloped in his/her/its own shit. We would also prefer no resident here chew its own foot off in lieu of species-appropriate nourishment, entertainment, or love. Every one of Ben’s pleas and wheedles whittles away another sliver of my heart. I’d love to give my kids every object of their wayward desires, but, in the immortal words of the guy who fixed our house up this summer: hey, whatcha gonna do? The dog, the fish, and the hermit crabs keep me busy enough as it is.
Although I like to pretend that any craziness on the junior varsity level comes from Lars’s side, I have to confess that I, like Ben, inclined toward animal hoarding as a child. If it had four legs and fur, scales, paws, or hoofs, I wanted one.
So naturally, I needed a piglet after reading Charlotte’s Web at age eight. I mean, I REALLY NEEDED A PIGLET, PRONTO.
I begged and begged. My parents declined. This went on for weeks if not months. My mother finally bought me a small porcelain sow pushing a carriage with three little piggies tucked inside a blue blanket. This was cute but merely a cheap imitation of true pigness. And it did nothing to quench my desire for a porcine friend.
After a while the pig obsession was replaced by an overwhelming dog-fancy, and I devised all kinds of schemes for getting my hands on one. Couldn’t have one at home because Mom knew she’d get stuck with the pooper scooper? How about a puppy at the farm my father’s friend had recently purchased with his new wife, only an hour or two (or six) from our home? This man was a hoarder himself–not of animals but of small, inanimate things like napkins and ketchup packets from the local Ponderosa Steak House. A kindred spirit. He was agnostic about dogs but willing to give it a try if my parents agreed. I was so close to a win, I could practically taste that rank Eau de Wet Dog odor I loved so much it actually hurt. But my father’s friend’s new wife, who was not big on dogs, put her foot down.
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” she said nastily.
When a dog did not materialize I asked for any old animal I saw, on the principle that Beggars Cannot be Choosers. It didn’t matter if it was a species not commonly available, because reason and sense and sensibility and all those things were irrelevant in the context of my love for all creatures–great, small, cute, devilish, or Other. I clocked a good twelve years lobbying for otters and seals and a dolphin in the bathtub and this plump little thing called a marmot I saw once on a nature show on TV.
Needless to say, I never received any of them.
What I did manage to wrangle out of my parents–apart from a hard-won elderly mare who trotted in and out of my life in the space of a few years, a story of heartbreak and betrayal best saved for a venue that does not potentially attract lovers of elderly mares–was a posse of rodents. Hamsters, primarily, and a pair of gerbils I won in a sixth grade lottery, the first time I ever won anything worth winning.
All of the rodents came to untimely ends. There was the beloved angora hamster I named Nosy, who seemed one evening to be dying of old age, and whose demise I hastened with warm milk and an eyedropper. I absolutely did not intend to expedite little Nosy’s admittance into Hamster Heaven by way of asphyxiation, drowning, or whatever horrible death a relentless stream of warm milk, forced by a ten-year-old girl with an eyedropper into its mouth, will bring a small rodent. I cried all night, and the next day my father and I held a private graveside ceremony in the back garden, he officiating as clergy and gravedigger. After lowering the corpse, in its little hamster-and-gerbil-treat-package coffin, into the hole, he plucked out a round stone, held it aloft, and announced, “Alas, poor Yorick.”
“Her name was Nosy!” I screamed.
Chow Chow, hamster number two, was never comfortable in his own skin–or in his cage on my dresser. Clearly, Woolworth’s had sold me a wild animal. He escaped his cage one day, much to my dismay. Six months later, in the middle of a kitchen remodel, the contractor discovered a little skeletal fluff ball behind the stove. That was a sad day for me. I rigged up a flag on the antenna of my mother’s orange Volkswagen and lowered it to half-mast. The gerbils, Poindexter and Doctor Jekyll, met the worst fates of all. Poindexter was perforated by our family cat, J.J., after I inadvertently left the top off his tank, and Doctor Jekyll died a nasty death a week after my younger brother applied a layer of airplane glue to his back. Every time I saw him staggering around under his cape of hardened glue, I stole something worthwhile from my brother’s room and broke it.
If you think I was relieved of my animal obsessions in later life, you are correct, but only partly so. Three cats were all I managed to salvage from my first marriage; they were the children we never had. I made a half-hearted attempt, in the year following my divorce, to overcome my wing phobia and the loneliness of an apartment occupied by a mere three humans and three cats. I purchased a beautiful pair of lovebirds, brought them home, and returned them to the pet shop the next day, the two bewildered lovers fluttering around their cage in the back seat of my car while I practiced deep breathing and tried not to listen. That was not my proudest moment,
The day I saw a baby snow macaque posed winningly with a large snowball on the cover of National Geographic magazine was the day I reached the pinnacle of my animal madness. I was thirty-one, not long divorced, and just out of graduate school. I could not stop dreaming about, talking about, gazing at, that blessed monkey. I thought: If only I could hug him, and cuddle with him, and help him with the snowballs, I would finally be happy. He had a red face and dun-colored fur, and would most certainly be warm and soft when I took him into my arms. I loved him, and he would love me back. What monkey wouldn’t? And then all sorts of other good things would begin to fall into place. My boyfriend, who was neither a lower primate nor, strictly speaking, available, would become a real and true and unattached boyfriend, because he would not be able to resist the macaque. I would get a job that paid more than three hundred dollars a week and my checking account would swell with coins and bills. I would be able to feed myself and the macaque and the boyfriend, and life would be grand.
The boyfriend who was not a boyfriend told me that if I owned a macaque it would likely fling poo around my apartment, and that the way I pronounced “macaque” made me sound like a Scotsman referring to his private parts. (Apparently it’s Ma-cack and not Ma-cock. To me, such trifles hardly mattered as long as I got the monkey.)
After the macaque drama and illicit love affair ended, I married Lars and had a couple of kids. I’m not sure if it was distraction or sheer exhaustion, but the three cats–who stuck with me for the entirety of three, extraordinarily long and beloved feline lives–were suddenly enough. I didn’t want any more quadrupeds scampering underfoot. And not a moment too soon, either, because Benjy has turned out to be a lot like me, and two of us in one household would be two too many. While his obsessions are stronger and more liable to interfere with everyday life than mine were, his yearning for creatures has as much to do with pangs of aloneness as mine did. I think I know what he’s feeling when he tells me he simply must have the Russian tortoise in the glass tank at Petco, or that if only I would allow him a pair of finches his paucity of friendships would not matter. He is filled with restless desire, crazy-in-love with creatures, feathered and furred. Without them in his life, he thinks he might die.
I get it, this swollen desire. I don’t exactly know what spawns it in a person–the existential emptiness of the consumer culture?–but I do know that Ben’s need for a personal menagerie is much like your neighbor’s need for a shiny, late-model Porsche, and his neighbor’s must-have McMansion. Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out we are ALL barking mad?
What’s your issue? we’d ask each other in group therapy.
Cool. Mine’s jewelry.
Guns, the big guy in the back would bark.
Twinkies! They’ve been retired!
Sex, the person of insufficient drapery would confess from a perch on the table in front of us all.
Sometimes we can detox on our own, without costly therapy. In my case, a recurring dream keeps me honest. I am going about my business when I remember The Pet. Usually it’s a horse. In the dream’s most recent iterations, it’s been a dog and a hedgehog. The thing is, this pet has been ignored for more than a month because I forgot I had it. No water, no food. And I am horrified by this grievous neglect. Filled with dread, I search for the animal, which has almost certainly gone the way of Nosy and Chow Chow. I walk and walk through a dark, labyrinthine barn, and just before I encounter the poor innocent I’ve passively murdered, I jolt awake, gasping for air. I did it again.
I hate waking in that troubled way. All I can do to make amends to the creatures I failed in the past is to kiss our slumbering dog between his cat-like ears, creep downstairs to the kitchen, and slice a piece off a bruised apple for Benjy’s hermit crabs.
I could do a lot worse than that. Thankfully, for a very long time I haven’t.
Originally written: Summer, 2010
The Resident Expert on Everything
The first time I heard the word “Asperger’s,” I was pregnant with my second child and lying on my side on a massage table, a pillow under my enormous belly. The massage therapist had just told me about an adolescent boy with an obsessive crush on her. The boy had Asperger’s Syndrome.
I know this is so South Park, and clearly beneath me, but I was woozy with pregnancy and Swedish massage, and I heard her say “ass burgers.” This conjured images of donkey-meat (or worse) on a bun.
“He eats them?” I murmured, emerging from the sublime straight into the ridiculous.
“Eats what?” she said.
She laughed. “No,” she said. “He HAS it.” And here the anecdote ends, because at this point I dozed off.
I looked this Asperger’s thing up when I got home, because my daughter was at daycare and my husband at work, and there was not much else to do except clean the cat box, which was temporarily off limits to me.
Asperger’s Syndrome, it turned out, was a form of autism. I knew nothing whatsoever about disorders that began with the letter “A.” Nor did I much care, because the afflictions of my people began with other letters. I did have a sister once, whose name began with an “A,” but she was taken out young by an aggressive “C” – as was our paternal grandmother, her namesake. “C,” “H,” “T,” and “MHD” were our alphabetic demons. This Asperger’s/autism stuff did not concern us.
And I’ll bet you know precisely where this story is headed.
Twenty-four months after I first typed the “A” words into a search engine and was smacked in the face by a zillion and one unreadable studies and just as many lunatic rants, I found myself parenting a child I did not understand. This was not the child I expected when I was expecting. He was unlike his older sister, the children of our friends, and the hypothetical children featured in all the ”best” parenting manuals.
He might have been like children afflicted with autism or Asperger’s, but there was no longer time to look stuff like that up.
Now, my time was divided between poorly performed paid work and poorly achieved household and child management. It was all disorder, all the time around here: tantrums of the colossal variety, missed milestones, and a Wild West sort of domestic chaos. Benjy had no language, except the one he alone spoke; poor eye contact; no pretend play; no pointing at objects, and no clothes on his body when at all possible. On the list of yesses: perpetually inflamed emotions; hand flapping; oddly dancing eyebrows; idiosyncratic forms of locomotion, apparently never before seen by any resident of Greater Boston, given the startled/angry/amused reactions I did my best to ignore; that mad, poetic jargon he spoke, and an uncanny ability to drive my husband and me to despair.
What followed were years of various therapies, hundreds of visits to hospitals for tests and specialists for diagnoses, and on my part, lingering glances at inappropriate moments into the cardboard box in the basement where we stored the wine.
When the old baby-poetry was replaced with plain English, around the time Benjy turned three, we saw that he was smart. He shared these plain English words with anyone who would listen–and some who would have preferred not to–in robotic patter. Perseveration–stalling on one sentence, one idea, one request, for minutes upon minutes–came next. His initial diagnosis, received at age two (“Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified”) was re-named Asperger’s Syndrome. And around that same time emerged the next set of hurdles: social impairments, loneliness, acts of self-harm, and severe psychiatric illness. Along that sad, frightening route to adolescence some exquisite things made an appearance: a focused brilliance, deep and loving empathy, a keen but often frustrated desire to do well.
By the time Ben hit twelve I realized he was something of a savant–not in that stereotypical Rain Man way, but in the way of pre-adolescent boys who play videogames and talk about farts and then discourse endlessly and intelligently on evolution, or matters of deep space, or historical successes and failures of military strategy. Who struggle through two years of group violin lessons in elementary school and at their first private lesson, presented with their first example of musical notation, proceed to sight read “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” pretty damned well, considering they’d never been taught how to read music.
Living with a kid like Ben, you never know what the next hour will bring. Within a year and a half of starting private violin lessons, he was playing Bach’s “Air on the G-string”–except when he was curled in a fetal position on the couch while his teacher patiently coaxed him to at least watch YouTube videos of violinists playing whatever piece just slew him.
Disability parenting is a hard, cruel job. So are many others–coal mining comes to mind, as does working at places like Wal-Mart, to name only a couple. But I would not trade my life with Ben for a life of any other ilk–in spite of the rigidity, anxiety, and depression that can attach themselves to a child like him, and which sometimes plunge our entire household into despair.
Almost every day that Benjy is near me I learn something new. When he was still in the single digits, words like “coelophysis” and “sauropod” were regularly overheard in our home–and not from the mouths of the over-educated adults who live here. Do you want to know which species of dinosaurs living in the late Cretaceous Period were most successful, in a Darwinian sense, or why things were so darned big in the Carboniferous Era? Ask Ben.
If you should need to know the difference, say, between a Huey and a Chinook helicopter (hey, it could happen) you have only to ask, and my son will discourse on their genesis, differences, and histories. I’ve decided this is useful information for any mom to have, and that I will never again respond to his monologues by nodding vociferously and saying, “uh huh,” all the while mentally composing a shopping list. Life is just too tenuous for that.
I used to rush to my computer and Google what he said to confirm its veracity. Such as, “The dicynodonts were the most successful group of plant-eating therapsids.” True. Such fact-checking is no longer necessary. Ben lives away from home now, a freshman in a residential high school. I miss him and the lessons he taught us–our resident expert on everything. He does come home on weekends, thank goodness. On the rare occasion he makes some odd fact up, he manages to remain faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the thing.
Welcome to my author website! Today I’m launching a new feature: “Goodies for Readers.” What you will find here is the occasional essay or story, published only on the site–just for you!
I’ll also share anecdotes, media reviews, the occasional photo, and writing/publishing updates.
I’m so glad you dropped by. xo