“Mom, how come you signed your last emails with just, ‘The Adlers?’”
This was my kid’s first question when we picked him up from his two weeks at sleepaway camp. Like many parents, I emailed my son daily during his stay. I kept the first seven emails upbeat, and, in the spirit of family, I signed the emails with the usual “Mommy and Daddy” alongside the names of each of our menagerie of pets: gerbil Buzzy, guinea pigs Trevor and Andy, and fish Brigade, Ballista, Bomber, Bulletproof, and Bazooka.
The reason why I stopped adding our pets’ names to the emails? Andy tragically died during my kid’s short stay at sleepaway. “Pet meeting his maker” was one of the top ten things that I did not want to happen while my kid was away.
During the two weeks our son was at camp, friends commented how fun it would be for me to be alone in the apartment with my husband. Are you having sex in the kitchen? Um, no. Primarily for two reasons: First, the letters from our kid were not great; let’s say he was not the happiest child in the Poconos. Papillon expressed more joy and optimism in his letters to his parents than my child.
Second, we noticed that Andy was not eating — not a good sign. So, my husband and I were googling “guinea pig not eating” all night long. And, after unsuccessfully trying different foods, we took our now emaciated mammal to the vet, who thought Andy was not eating because his teeth were too long. The vet filed Andy’s chompers and we hoped that was the cure. All I kept thinking was: This animal cannot die while my kid is away. If he does, he will never go away again. And, I feared he would blame me for his death.
I already felt a pang of guilt for even sending my tween to sleepaway. He was on the fence about going, and I convinced (OK, pressured) him to go. I come from serious, camp-loving family. As a girl, I went to sleepaway camp for a full summer for several years. There, I learned how to take care of myself, navigate friendships, and waterski. I wanted that for my kid. And yes, I wanted that time for me, too.
But while our son was away, my husband and I spent the majority of our time devoted to guinea pig care. When Andy’s health and appetite wasn’t improving, we upped the care. We took the morning off work and took him to a renowned animal hospital in Manhattan. My one question to the vet: “Will Andy make it to next Sunday, when my kid gets home from camp?”
I worried about how, when I picked up my son, he’d tell me he’d hated camp. And then I’d have to tell him his guinea pig died. But in the meantime, I had been corresponding with my kid — optimistically signing all the pets’ names — and letting him know everything was great at home.
Andy was diagnosed with a rare infection; he needed surgery to remove an abscess. I had a feeling the cost was going to be high when the vet asked if we had pet insurance. (We did not). The procedure would cost $700, which we figured was worth not having to tell our kid that his guinea pig died. Following surgery, Andy was put on antibiotics, painkillers, and special food that could only be given by syringe. My husband and I stayed up until one in the morning giving him all his meds. If I could, I would have breastfed that pig to keep him alive.
Unfortunately, Andy did not survive the night.
We had one week to figure out how best to tell our son about Andy’s passing. We decided it would be best to tell him once we got home — we loathed the image of a crying child, stuck in a car for the three-hour ride home.
But, I still had to write and sign daily emails to my child. And it felt like a federal offense signing a dead mammal’s name, so I ended the letters with our last name. At pick up, when my kid asked why the change in signage, I lied. I said I thought it would be more fun and inclusive to use our common last name.
As planned, when we got home, we sat our son down on his bed and said we had some news about Andy — something our son intuitively knew was not good. He sat there, expressionless, while my husband recounted what happened, starting from Andy’s lack of appetite, to the vet trips, diet changes, surgery and, finally, his passing.
Our kid let out a few sobs and made a face plant on his bed. I sat with him and rubbed his back; it felt good to be able to comfort him. Then, he sat up, thanked us for taking such good care of Andy. Then he paused, and asked: “I’m not sure if it is too soon, but can we get another one?”
In the end, I realized it might have been for the best that our pet died while my kid was away. Life happens. I cannot control everything. And, as it turns out, in spite of the letters we received, if you ask my son what he thought about sleepaway camp, he would say it was “pretty good.” I’ll take it!
And should he return next summer, I will sign my emails with just “Mommy and Daddy.” The pets can write their own letters.