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I spent this Christmas morning digging a grave. Never in my life have I felt this sad.
Fifi, our iguana, has been so much more than a pet to my wife and I for over 8 years. She’s been a companion, a friend, and the closest thing to a child that we’re likely to have. We found her at a Humane Society Shelter in Tocama Washington in April 2004. She was sick, emaciated, lethargic, brown and yellow in color, and sad. She was dying. While the Humane Society meant the best, they didn’t have the knowledge or equipment to properly care for an iguana, as they mostly deal in dogs, cat, and small mammals. We knew we had to rescue her, and took her home with us. We stopped off at the pet store, and purchased a large cage, heat and UV lamps, a food dish, and the like.
She had a number of severe medical problems, including skin burns, an infected cut/abscess on her finger, and issues with her heart and liver. We got her extensive medical treatment. She ended up having to have her left front arm amputated due to infection spreading in her bones. We gave her subcutaneous saline injections every day to help keep her hydrated. We gave her antibiotics. We gave her heart medicine and special vitamins. We fed her, and bathed her, and cared for her.
Not only did she not die, but she tripled in weight, got a healthy green color back, and grew to be healthy, active, and happy. Over the next 8 years her vets always commented on what a wonderful disposition she had, what a great patient she was, and how healthy she seemed. Her missing limb didn’t slow her down, as she climbed bookshelves, cage walls, chicken wire garden fences, Christmas trees, and us.
Most people, when they think of reptiles, think of them as being weird, cold, scary, dumb, personality-less, and usually can’t imagine why we’d want to have one. Everyone who’s ever met Fifi has been struck by how much personality she has, how sweet she is, and many people have fallen in love with her. She has had probably 100 pictures of her drawn by various kids, and many more photos taken of her. She had a very real personality, with likes, dislikes, moods, happiness, sadness, anger, sleepiness, joy, and excitement. She was always sweet and patient. She let kids handle her, and never bit anyone out of anger. She was good with other animals, although she was always dominant and was queen of her castle.
She quickly became a huge part of our lives. Every day we’d give her downies (put her down into the water in the base of her enclosure – as she got older she relied on us more for going up and down, I think not due to any actual disability, but simply because she realized she could make us do the hard work for her), let her do her business, and then give her uppies when she was ready to come out of the water. She’d let us know when by climbing up on a rock int he water and staring out at us. We’d make her a bowl of food: fresh organic collard greens, and some iguana salad (a mix of fruits and veggies that Emma made in bulk and froze every month or two). She’d eat and bask under her heat and UV A/B lamps on the top branch in her enclosure while we changed out the dirty water in the bottom with clean warm water.
In the summer she’d come outside with us, and lay in the sun on the deck, or romp around the yard, or lay in the hammock with us. We had to keep an eye on her because eventually she’d either want to come inside from the deck (she’d walk over and press her nose against the door glass, just like a dog wanting to go in), or if she was in the yard she’d want to go explore the woods, or she might get bored of the hammock and jump out to go exploring. She loved the sun, the grass, the trees, and exploring and tasting everything in sight. Other times she would hang out with us inside. She’d watch movies with us in the living room. She really perked up when we watched classic Godzilla movies and paid close attention to the screen. She had not-so-secret dreams of world domination, and Tokyo would be the first to go. She’d hang out in the kitchen while we cooked, occasionally getting treats of whatever we were making. She loved bread products: bread, pancakes, waffles, and the like. She’d hangout in my home office with me while I worked, staring out the windows down to the driveway and yard below, and then watching me while I worked. She’d snuggle down with my wife in our bedroom and watch TV. She loved to burrow herself under the pillows and blankets to make herself a little cave. When Emma would have cramps, Emma would put a heat pad on her stomach and Fifi would lay on top of the heat pad, and they would keep each other company. In the winter she’d hang out in the library with us, basking in the heat of the fire, stretched out on the back of the Diva lounge, while we read or listened to music. If she ever had to go to the bathroom she would always move off of furniture or carpet and make sure she was on linoleum or tiles. We held her and carried her around and petted her. She was our baby.
In the first house we lived in when we rescued her, we had koi ponds in the back, and she would climb around and bask in some low trees and bushes near them. When she’d get too warm she’d drop into the koi pond and swim around. The first time she did this she nearly gave my wife a heart attack She swam down to the bottom of the pool and stayed there. We didn’t know at the time that iguanas can hold their breath underwater for 30 minutes.
We took her on a picnic in the Seattle Arboretum. She laid on this big horizontal branch in a tree, and we spread out our picnic blanket beneath her and the three of us ate and enjoyed a lazy afternoon in the sun. She wanted to go swimming in the pond there, but we figured she would be hard to catch again.
She came with us when we drove across country, moving from Seattle to Boston. She didn’t like being in the car. She hardly ate. But she was SUCH a good girl and was calm and quiet and traveled so well. She got to sun herself at rest stops all across the country. One of the only times she ate was when I got her a plain pancake at a Perkins in a hotel when we were rolling out in the morning. When we stopped at Mount Rushmore, we smuggled her in to the no pet area and got her photo with the giant stone faces in the background.
She was featured in a calendar starring disabled pets. She competed in a couple of Halloween pet costume contests with quiet dignity, even though she felt ridiculous in her outfits. She was the star in our family Christmas cards every year.
She came to the beach with us this summer. She laid in the sand and watched the waves. I half buried her in the warm sand.
This summer we built 3 foot high chicken wire fences around our raised garden beds to combat the bunnies and woodchucks (I’m looking at you Mr Whistlepig!). Fifi was used to being able to just jump up into the gardens. This fence thing was an unwelcome surprise. After many attempts, she finally made it all the way up, and over the fence. We were so proud of our three legged beauty that we let her romp around and eat live collards and stomp on squash and do whatever she wanted. She’d earned it.
She loved climbing around in our Christmas trees every year. We used to have a fake christmas tree which we kept in her room back in Seattle when it wasn’t December so she could climb around in it. One night we came home from having dinner out and found her very stuck in the built-in wires for the lights in the tree. She’d gotten herself stuck good. We had to cut the wires to get her out and then remove all the wires from the tree. Silly lizard!
When ever we were out of town, we’d always worry about her and hearing from whoever was watching over her while we were gone always brought a sigh of relief. When we got home from any trip the first thing we’d do is to go check on Fifi and give her a kiss. When were away we’d often talk about how much Fifi would enjoy being wherever with us, or doing whatever we were doing. When we were in Aruba we fed a ton of wild iguanas Starbucks and talked about Fifi.
When she was irked or annoyed she’d snalt at you. When she was happy you could see smile. Sometimes she’d close her eyes and pretend you weren’t there. She was like a cat in that sometimes she’d want nothing to do with you, and other times she’s snuggle her head in close and curl up on your and sleep.
When she was comfortable, safe, and content she would flop her front leg back behind. We’d stroke the soft pad of her paw when she did this and comment on how cute she looked. When I carried her around I’d usually hold her sort of like a football, with her head near my elbow and her back legs on my hand and her tail drooping down in front of me. Sometimes she’d prefer to be held higher up and closer to my body. She’d tuck her head into my neck as I walked around.
Once we moved to Boston we had a huge enclosure made for her. It was over 7 feet tall, 6 feet wide, about 2 feed deep. it had real vine branches, a full size pool in the bottom with a water fall and heater. It had UV bulbs, heat lamps, a nighttime heat emitter, multiple levels she could climb around to, and a place we could secure her food dish. It was her home, keeping her warm, humidified, and giving her a high perch to look out over the world.
She lived a long full rich life. She did things no other iguana has done. She was loved by so many. She was lucky to find us and have us take care of her. We were luckier to have her in our lives.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, we went downstairs and discovered that she had vomited and had diarrhea and didn’t look like her usually perky self. She’d thrown up once before years, due to an unfortunate combination of too many Mother’s Day pancakes and some rocks causing a blockage in her intestines. I’d made waffles a couple days before and had fed her a couple small waffle treats over the last couple of days. A houseguest had fed her some waffle as well, more than we’d usually allow her, but he didn’t know and she is a voracious waffle monster. She loves waffles so much. So I figured she’d just made herself sick with waffles. We took her down to Angell Animal hospital just to be safe. They checked her out, took some X-rays, and she had a bowel movement, complete with a large rock and a little blood, while they were examining her. They’d diagnosed her with a rock related blockage, and said she just needed to pass it all and we should keep an eye on her for the next couple of days, and if she didn’t get better, to setup an appointment after Christmas. It seemed reasonable so we took her home and gave her some antibiotics they prescribed. She had another bowel movement with some blood (and some strawberries), which had us worried, so we called the vet, who assured us that we’d likely see a little blood in her next couple of stools, but that it just had to heal up on its own and would be okay. She didn’t seem to get any better, and then took a sharp turn for the worse. She was pale, and couldn’t hold her head up. We called Angell again and got her into the car. She passed away in Emma’s arms in the car before we even made it to the highway. We still drove down to the hospital breaking the speed limit every mile of the way and crying non-stop. There was nothing they could do for her. She was gone.
I’m not an emotional person. I tend to be stable, stoic, less empathetic. I internalize and quash most of my emotions. We joke and say that I cry once per decade. In my 20s I cried from happiness during my wedding vows. In my teens I cried from a breakup (and probably other times in my earlier teens). But I don’t really cry much. I don’t express or talk about strong feelings much, especially “negative” ones. When I was in my early teens, we had to put down our Rottweiler, Anya. I grew up with her and was very close. I’d learned that when they put dogs down, they use a drug that paralyzes their diaphragm so they stop breathing. There was good evidence to support that the dogs brains remained active for up to five minutes after they stopped breathing. As such, when they put her to sleep, I had her head in my lap, and I petted her and talked to her for about 10 minutes after she’d stopped breathing so she wouldn’t be alone or scared and would know how loved she was. I felt choked up, but I didn’t cry. I was a pallbearer in my great-grandmother’s funeral. I miss her, but I didn’t cry. Obviously this situation is different. I’m older. She died unexpectedly, not in old age after a slow deterioration to help you prepare. There’s lots of things that are different. But whatever the reason, I’m a complete wreck. I cried almost non-stop for hours and hours, until I fell asleep, woke up cried some more, etc… I cried while digging her grave. I cried while we wrapped her up. I cried when we buried her. Today, I woke up, showered, came back in the bedroom, sat down, and cried for 10 minutes uncontrollably, before I could finish getting dressed. I’m a mess.
I feel so incredibly sad. So lonely. So angry. So upset. When I’m not crying, I feel empty and pale. I’m not hungry. My favorite treats taste like cardboard or ashes. All I want to do it curl up in the dark in bed and sob. Writing this post keeps bringing me to tears. I’ve never felt this sad in my life. Much less for three days running. The times between breakdowns are longer today, but I’m not feeling any better/happier. My heart is broken and all I feel is loss.
The house is hard to be in. Her enclosure which sits empty. Her favorite spots to hang out in every room where she’ll never lie there again. Her pictures around the house. Her Christmas cards on the wall. The Christmas tree she can’t climb in. The fire she can’t bask by. Our bed she’ll never snuggle down with Emma in again. My office where she’ll never keep me company and look out the window again. We’ll never make her breakfast in the morning again. All the little things that we keep finding. Her medicine bottle, her collard greens that I just bought from the store, her pillow, her nail clippers. All of it just triggers an unresistable wave of sorrow. I escaped to the office today for a few hours, because I just need a break from keeping falling apart. Of course I’m writing this now and making myself dissolve into tears again anyhow. I’m hoping that by writing some of this down, instead of having it repeating in my head endlessly that it will help somehow. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.
I’m so angry too. I’m angry at the vet that misdiagnosed the seriousness of the situation. I’m angry at myself for a 100 reasons. I should have recognized that it was more serious and forced the vet to do more. I should have prevented her from eating that rock. I should have done more. I should have spent all day with her, instead of going to the grocery store, assuming she just had some indigestion and would be fine. I should have gotten her out with us every single day, and not let her sit in her enclosure alone on days where I was “too busy”. I should have told her how much I love her 100 times a day. Unlike humans, she was so dependent on my care. She was my responsibility. I was in charge of making sure she was healthy and happy and I failed her. She died too soon and in pain and it’s all my fault. There isn’t anything I can do to fix it. She’s gone and I failed her.
I know there’s probably nothing that realistically could have been done or anything that would be different, but I can’t help feeling responsible and she was sooo sweet and so good and she deserved so much better. Animals are so much more pure than people are and she was so dependent on me and I was so blessed to have her in my life. And now she’s gone and I feel like all the joy in the world left with her. I knew she wouldn’t live forever, but I wasn’t prepared and I wasn’t ready and it’s not fair. I’m so sad and so lonely and so angry and so upset.
Fifi, I love you and I miss you and I’m sorry. You will never be forgotten.
UPDATE: I’ve added lots of photos and videos from Emma. Please take a moment to check them out here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/devondragon/sets/72157632350095104/
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