Losing a pet is hard. But less hard when it’s a cockroach.
We recently said goodbye to our beloved Cocker the Cockroach. He died the way he lived — mostly ignored. The worst part, said my daughter, was that we forgot to feed him. What my son will miss most, he said, was giving him water.
(We were always pretty good about the water part.)
At the backyard funeral beside the pine tree, we tried to send him off with all the pomp and ceremony deserving of a family pet with whom we’d shared 17 weeks of our lives. We offered a one Nerf gun salute, read selections from Shel Silverstein and Tennyson and then spent the next 15 minutes bickering over who got to use the shovel.
Once the hole was dug, it occurred to us that we’d forgotten the guest of honor. We’d spent so long preparing Cocker’s butter box casket that we’d forgotten to place him inside. No matter — my five-year-old daughter was on it. She ran back into the house to retrieve him. I took advantage of the quiet moment with my seven-year-old son to offer a few words of wisdom.
“Death sucks,” I said.
And then, the miracle occurred. My breathless daughter burst through the screen door.
“You guys!” she cried. “He’s still alive!”
I grew worried. The resurrection of a pet I didn’t want in the first place seemed precisely the kind of joke I’d come to expect from the universe.
Sure enough, upon closer inspection, Cocker reaffirmed his aliveness by way of a one antenna salute. It would take more than benign neglect to send him packing.
The kids rejoiced, while I grumbled.
You mean we dug that hole for nothing?
But the miracle was short-lived.
Within 24 hours, Cocker the Cockroach took a turn for the dead.
You’ll forgive me if I confide that I was not altogether devastated by the news. The truth is, throughout my stint in Alabama a decade prior, I’d become a highly-trained cockroach killer. My never-ending battle to rid their intrusions from our duplex had left me less than sympathetic toward their species. How many nights had I woken to the sound of dozens of legs clicking against the tile? How many mornings had I poured myself cereal only to find a cockroach alongside my cornflakes?
Moments after learning of Cocker’s actual death, my wife, children and I drowned our sorrows in pancakes at Randy’s Family Restaurant. Two pancakes deep, we lifted our glasses.
“To Cocker,” we toasted.
And then, much to the bafflement of the children, my wife began to cry.
In our household, it’s a well-established fact that my wife’s “love” for Cocker rivals my own.
Why, then, all the tears? the children wondered.
What I’ve neglected to tell you is that Cocker died on the first day of school. And that this wasn’t any old school year, but my daughter’s first. Within the hour, our little girl would slip an unseemly large backpack upon her shoulders and embark on the grand adventure of kindergarten. While I’d managed to block this new reality from hitting me smack dab in the heart, my wife’s efforts had proven less successful.
Because I’m a strong believer in the many virtues of a good, public cry (especially when I’m not the crier in question), I enticed my wife’s waterworks further by reaching for my phone and queuing up Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”
“Are you trying to make me cry?” my wife laughed through her sniffles.
“Shhh … let it flow,” I whispered. “We’re all going to miss that cockroach.”
She rolled her eyes until they settled on our daughter, whose impish smile had turned to worry.
At last, the reality hit me smack dab in the heart too.
The kids threw their arms around their mother, comforting her in the right way, though for the wrong reason.
“He was the best pet cockroach we ever had,” my son told her.
What could my wife do but agree?
Half an hour later — and just minutes before the first school bell of the year — the kids and I conducted our second cockroach funeral in so many days. This time, we finished the job.
“Cocker, we loved you to death,” my daughter whispered as she placed a shovel full of dirt atop his casket.
“Yeah,” my son agreed, “to death.”
As we laid that cockroach to rest in a Band-Aid box (we’d misplaced the butter box from the previous day), I was stricken with an inconvenient truth. Somehow, the same species that had thrived for over 280 million years — a species, I’ll add, that can live without a head for a full week — still couldn’t survive the likes of us.
We flattened the ground with the shovel blade, placed a rock atop the dirt, and then, following one last recitation of “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” hit the sidewalk ourselves en route to school.
By the time we arrived, the kids had mostly forgotten about the best pet cockroach they’d ever had. In the not-too-distant future, I imagine I’ll forget about him too. But I’ll never forget that cockroach’s greatest lesson, which happens also to be life’s greatest certainty: no matter how hard you live, or how much you love, we’re all destined for life’s long nap.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the second greatest lesson we might take from the enduring cockroach: if a bug can survive a week without its head, surely, we parents can make it a day without our children.
The bell rang and the kids vanished, leaving me alone on the suddenly silent playground. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was no one to comfort, no one to make cry, no one to bury.
At last, muscle memory kicked in, leading me home, one foot in front of the other.
Along the way, I lamented nothing. I celebrated everything.
And I hummed Fleetwood Mac with every step.
Next Saturday: Patti See on growing up in a cribbage family.