Waltzing Matilda

>> Monday, March 31, 2008

“Well, Matilda’s dead.”

I was talking on the phone with my Mom and I looked over to see Michael holding Matilda’s shell in the air while her body dangled limp beneath it.

“OH! Crap. That’s awful.” My heart sank.

In a matter of seconds, three adults had three opinions as to how to handle the death of our hermit crab.

“I wouldn’t mention it,” suggested Grandma. “Remember that episode on King of Queens? (Where the parents tricked the son into believing his dog lived for nearly 30 human years...) You could just keep getting new ones.”

I realize it's a popular solution, but what my Mom didn’t know is that I don’t want to get new ones. Once these guys kick the bucket, I think I’m done with crabs for a while. No offense to crab-lovers, but I think a gerbil or Guinea Pig will be our next caged pet. Our family is way too demanding and insecure for hermit crabs -- we need pets that respond.

But still, I was not happy that Matilda died and her decomposing body was, well, disturbing. I couldn’t smell it, but I imagined it must smell pretty rank to hang like that. Which didn’t make sense, because two days ago, I SAW her walking around. I gave her fresh water, fresh food, fresh lettuce. Everything was fine.

“No, I’ll probably tell the girls a little later,” I said because I can’t hold on to the big lies for too long. Not to mention, the girls survived the deaths of our cats (who were around before the girls were born) AND the death of Lizzy’s beloved Boris the Goldfish who we loved (with apparent intensity based on Elizabeth’s reaction to his death) for a good 22 hours before he crossed over. I’m sure they’ll survive another pet death.

“Let’s get the girls and have a burial in the back yard,” suggested Michael.

“You think?”

“Sure, it’ll be fine.”

“Should we show them the body?”

“Why not?”

He had a point. Many cultures all over the world handle death differently and more realistically than we do in the U.S. We tend to sugar coat it with embalming fluid and silk-lined caskets, whereas children in some cultures play with the skulls of deceased relatives and dance among their tombstones. I suppose I fall somewhere between the two extremes. Either way, death is death, and perhaps helping the girls to understand this clearly will enable them to appreciate life.

Or, it will traumatize them and give them nightmares.

Clearly, I was over-thinking it. It’s just a hermit crab, right? We eat crabs, for crying out loud. It’s one of Elizabeth’s favorite foods. She watches lobsters in the lobster tank at a restaurant before one shows up on our table for dinner. She has no problem with the food chain. Not to mention, the girls barely pay attention to the crabs.

Yet, for some strange reason, I was heartbroken over this tiny death. Why? Why do I care? Is it because I’ve grown fond of these crabs? Perhaps. Was I worried how Samantha would react to the loss of a pet whom she had named? Maybe. Or, perhaps I am still haunted by the tragic karma of Colorful.

Oh, yes -- poor Colorful.

When I was ten, Mom bought me a beautiful little Eastern Painted turtle who I named Colorful. He lived and swam inside a large pot in my bedroom filled with rocks and twigs. I always liked reptiles (turtles, frogs, lizards) and I was thrilled to have such a cutie for my very own.

However, as often happens, my ten year old life was filled with distractions -- my mom started dating again; I was confused when kids liked me one minute, hated me the next, and then liked me again; and each day I plotted how I would someday marry a young Scott Baio, long before he became a cheesy reality TV star.

One day I was playing in the back yard with a friend of mine, when suddenly Colorful popped into my mind, right out of the blue. A feeling of total dread washed over me as I realized this was the first time I’d thought about him in over a month -- and it had been my job to feed him. I ran into the house, through the kitchen, down the hall and into my bedroom only to find the shriveled, dried remains of my turtle with two hollow sockets where his eyes used to be.

Apparently, love can not make up for a complete lack of responsibility and requires, at minimum, a daily supply of carrots and fresh water.

Colorful’s ghost haunts me still -- that feeling of having forgotten something plagued me my whole life. Occasionally, the same feeling of dread washes over me and I wrack my brain trying to recall what I must have forgotten -- something urgent and important. Did I leave my purse at the restaurant? Is the oven still on? Did I leave my baby in the car? What is it?! But when I search my memory, all I see is Colorful, laughing from the grave.

Which is one reason I fed and watered these crabs dutifully since the day we bought them. I placed their aquarium in the middle of the house so we’d see them many times each day. I bought plenty of Crab Pellets. I kept full bottles of water nearby so they’d always have a fresh supply. They may be boring (they don’t really cry out for attention and in fact resist it as much as possible), but I wasn’t about to let them die if I could help it.

When Michael held up Matilda’s remains, all I could see was Colorful’s ghost, watching me fail once again.

I took a deep breath and performed a gut-check. Should we be honest with the girls about Matilda’s death? Yes. It might not be easy, but it’s the right thing to do. We’d perform a little ritual in the backyard and allow the girls to grieve.

“All right, let’s do it.”

“Let’s put her in a box, first,” Michael suggested. I reached into the aquarium to retrieve poor Matilda. Her remains were lighter and less decomposed than I anticipated. I didn’t smell anything. In fact, upon closer examination it didn’t look like there was any substance to her remains at all -- just a thin paper frame of what her body used to be. I could easily crush it to dust with my fingers if I wanted to.

This doesn’t seem right, I thought. I just saw her walk around two days ago. She couldn’t have dehydrated that fast. The humidity level is good in her aquarium. She has water. What happened?!

And then a wonderful feeling of hope washed over me. Could it be true? Is it possible?!

Inside the aquarium were four empty shells. Once a crab outgrows its shell, it crawls into a new one like a good, upwardly mobile yuppy, so we had a nice supply of condos readily available. With renewed optimism, I picked up each shell and shook it gently. “Hello, Matilda? Are you in there? Hello?” But alas, each shell was lightweight and empty, their For Rent signs still visible.

Then I picked up Matilda’s shell -- the shell from which her body dangled. This shell was heavier than the others -- a little too heavy. I peered inside. Deep, deep within the shell’s coiled center, I saw the clean, pale gray claw of the very alive, very clean Matilda! She hadn’t died -- she’d molted!

Like a demented Dr. Frankenstein, I exclaimed, “She’s alive! She’s alive!” Michael verified that she was indeed alive and tucked safely into her shell, tired from all the change she’d been going through. Instead of dying, Matilda had given herself the equivalent of a chemical peal -- like a good, upwardly mobile yuppy. Hopefully, her new condo will be next.

Thank God. There would be no backyard burials, no nightmares, no hunting secretly for Matilda's replacement. Instead, we called the girls over and explained to them the fascinating “molting process”. We let them touch the discarded exoskeleton. And then I threw it away.

“When she’s done molting, I’m going to buy all new sand for their aquarium. And pebbles, too,” I told Michael later.

“That’s a good idea.”

Michael and I were sitting in the sun watching George (crab #2) walk amongst the grass. We’d been meaning to take the crabs outside since we bought them but always found some excuse for not doing it. George seemed to like it. Well, who knows -- he crawled around a lot which is about as much enthusiasm as he ever shows. Matilda was inside her aquarium, quietly resting. The girls were playing with their Barbies.

Perhaps Colorful will stop haunting me now that he sees my commitment to his shelled brothers. See, Colorful? I learned my lesson! Just like Dr. Laura says, Love is a commitment, not a feeling! (Gah! Excuse me while I gag over the Dr. Laura comment... I apologize.) Perhaps now Colorful will walk his little turtle ass into the light and give me some needed peace. Who knows.

So long, Colorful. Hello, Matilda.


Rima March 31, 2008 at 12:06 PM  

Now THAT is a happy ending if I ever heard one. I can only begin to imagine that horrible sinking feeling you had when you first realized you hadn't fed Colorful in a month. I had nightmares like that when I was pregnant with the V-meister and I still get that feeling sometimes. I'm glad this little scenario turned out so well, complete with a science lesson, at that.

P.S. Put the Dr. Laura book DOWN, Melissa!!!! Put it down and back away slowly.

Dating Trooper - Dating is Warfare March 31, 2008 at 2:01 PM  

Yay! I'm so happy Matilda lives! I bonded with her (or George, well one of them) for quite some time at Thanksgiving so I was starting to get a little sad.

What really got to me though was your Colorful story. Because, like Rima, I also have that nightmare every once in awhile that I had a pet (usually a rabbit) that I totally forgot about and when I ran to go find her she was dead. Terrible enough in a dream, I can't imagine having it actually happen!

I do remember going to find my real pet rabbit missing, only to find out that my a-hole brother fed it to his python because I said it bit me. But, that is another therapy session isn't it?

So glad Colorful's ghost has finally been put to rest.

Don Mills Diva March 31, 2008 at 7:21 PM  

I just found your blog and I love this post - I had 2 hermit crabs growing up - Wolfgang and Elvis!

Dawn April 2, 2008 at 9:20 AM  

Yay for a lively Matilda!

Michele April 2, 2008 at 12:21 PM  

I know I'm going to hell but I couldn't stop laughing during this post. It's not that death is funny but I could just picture the entire scene and that was funny. And then when you figured out Matilda wasn't dead afterall. This so could have been a candid camera thing.

gwendomama April 5, 2008 at 9:03 PM  

Perhaps now Colorful will walk his little turtle ass into the light and give me some needed peace.

THAT was some good reading!
what a great story.

seriously colorful, it's time to let it rest.

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