In the laundry room, Hadley and I have discovered that one of our gerbils, Yellow, is dead. Yellow belongs to Harper, and she doesn’t know he’s dead yet. Hadley is poking him with the spout of the gerbils’ water bottle to be sure.
I’ve always wanted a laundry room. Jesse and I have been married for almost 20 years, lived in six places, and we’ve always had laundry closets. But this house, our first house, with a backyard and a deck and a front yard and a garage, has a room off the basement that, when Jesse and I first looked at it, both exclaimed, “This would be a great laundry room.”
I write this last sentence and I wonder what the 22-year-old Callie and the 23-year-old Jesse would think of the 42-year-old and 43-year-old Callie and Jesse’s plans.
“Lame,” I’m pretty sure they’d say.
Twenty-three-year-old Jesse might’ve said he’d like to turn it into a baseball card collection and video game room. Twenty-two-year-old Callie would’ve wanted to make it into a dance studio, or maybe a giant closet. Doing the laundry would’ve been the last thing on this starry-eyed, engaged couple's mind.
But a laundry room is what we turned it into, and it’s nice. Jesse painted the walls a blue that looks like the sky above Lake Michigan on a summer day around 2 o’clock, and on the floor, he painted thick grey and white stripes. We have bars to hang clothes on, and a brand new washer and dryer that plays a cheery song when a load is finished. Along the back wall are wooden shelves that we store items from our monthly trips to Costco on: pretzels, canned beans, animal crackers, pasta. Jesse loves Costco, another revelation the boy at 23 would be surprised to learn if he was talking to his 43-year-old self. “Costco?” he’d say. “Dude, seriously?”
Harper meets us in the laundry room now, and Hadley makes an attempt to pretend like everything’s OK. That’s a solution I’m fine with, frankly. The three of us have about five minutes to get to school and this news will surely make us all late. And sad. It’s Friday. Nobody wants to be sad on Friday, but I realize I need to let Harper find out about Yellow. I think we need to get him out of the cage, and I think we need to take a few minutes to be there for Harper as she deals with this. I think we need to wash our hands thoroughly after that.
This is not what I imagined myself doing in the laundry room. I imagined scooping homemade laundry detergent out of giant glass jars I stored on shelves above the washing machine. I imagined ironing Jesse’s shirts to perfection, folding Hadley and Harper’s shirts and pants and putting them in color-coded order, scrubbing and rinsing out stains all while listening to podcasts on being intentional and present. I’d have designated laundry days which would coincide with grocery lists and shopping days, and I’d have clipboards on the shelves in our homemade pantry with ideas for meals and ingredients to get.
In reality, Jesse does most of the ironing, Hadley and Harper’s clothes might get folded but by the time they get taken upstairs they look like colored tissue after a birthday gift has been opened, I’ve never pre-treated a thing in my life, and I break out in a rash when I hear the words “intentional” or “present.”
In all my dreams of domestication, I never imagined standing in front of a gerbil cage with my 11-year-old daughter bearing witness to death, and watching my 9-year-old daughter face it—her face falling, her breathing getting heavier, “Oh, no’s!” turning to whimpers, turning to sobs, and “Yellow! Yellow! Come back, Yellow!”
Here I am, though.
“Mommy,” Harper says, “I can’t get him out with Dash trying to climb up my arm.” Dash is our other gerbil. He belongs to Hadley.
“Dash always seemed a tad stronger,” Hadley says with her arm around Harper.
“Hadley, that isn’t really helpful right now,” I say, and Hadley nods her head knowingly, as though telling this piece of information wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. Someone had to do it.
“Oh! I know,” Hadley says. “We can scoop him up with a ladle!”
“My new soup ladle?” I whine. “I just bought that.”
It’s the second ladle we’ve had since Jesse and I were married in 1999. This ladle was the last item on my grocery list when I went shopping last week—right after bedding for the gerbils. I got both at Meijer. That’s the grocery store of choice for me, and I’m sure 22-year-old Callie would bop me on the head for saying so. In college, Meijer was the place for picking up Diet Coke, flip-flops, PopTarts, maybe bananas, and, because I was always with my friends, Meijer was the place rich for practical jokes.
“Seriously, Callie?” Twenty-two-year-old Callie would say, “You’re getting groceries where you had a grocery cart races down the cereal aisle?”
“You can get everything here,” I’d defend.
“You rode the penny horse at Meijer in your pajamas your senior year of college.”
Twenty-two-year-old Callie is right. I was crazy and carefree and Meijer was a playground, not an efficient, low-cost grocery store with an amazing produce selection.
I bought the shiniest ladle I could find and held it for just a second thinking about homemade soups and stews I believed I’d make before placing it in the cart—right on top of the gerbil bedding.
Now, the ladle and the bedding meet again as Harper plunges it into Dash and Yellow’s cage. She cries and cries while Hadley keeps one arm around Harper’s back, and with the other, scrolls the music on her phone until she finds Sarah McLachlan’s, “Angel.” She clicks play, and while Sarah begins, “Spend all your time waiting/For that second chance/For a break that would make it okay,” Harper sobs quietly as she rests the ladle next to Yellow’s head, and I wonder whether in Sarah’s wildest dreams she ever imagined her song would be the mourning song for the death of a rodent.
“C’mere, Yellow. C’mere, Yellow,” Harper pleads.
Hadley and I look at each other. Hadley mouths, “He’s dead.” I mouth, “I know!” Hadley mouths, “He can’t hear her.” I mouth, “I KNOW!” Sarah sings, “I need some distraction/Oh, beautiful release/Memories seep from my veins.”
“It’s OK, Yellow. C’mere, Yellow,” Harper continues.
“Harper, sweetheart,” I begin and I step forward so I can put an arm around her. “Yellow can’t hear you.”
“Yeah, Harper. He can’t move anymore.” Hadley adds, cutting to the quick.
“I know!” Harper wails. “I just feel so bad!”
Hadley gives Harper a hug, and Harper drops the ladle in the cage. Dash starts to chew on the handle.
“I want to bury him,” Harper says.
I don’t know the first thing about burying a gerbil. Do I use a snow shovel to dig a hole for it? That seems excessive. I suppose I could use the ladle.
“Harper, how about I find something to put Yellow in, and we can wait until Daddy gets home tonight?” I try to sound like I’m not begging, or desperate, but I have to get to work. The girls have to get to school. We all have to wash our hands.
“OK,” Harper mumbles.
Hadley and I look around the laundry room for a shoebox, but all I can find is a red canister. I bought it at Target several years ago when Harper was in a Bjorn, and Hadley toddled down the aisles singing, sometimes holding my hand, mostly not. The canisters came in a set of four. I bought them on a Friday. I know, because Fridays used to be cleaning, grocery shopping, and errand running days. I wanted to accent our galley kitchen with red, and I thought I’d put coffee in these canisters: one for decaf, one for regular beans. I put brown sugar and powdered sugar in the others, and they promptly turned to the consistency of cement. I had to stab at both with a sharp knife in order to chop it up. This canister has been empty ever since. I’ve been saving it for something else but wasn’t sure what. Now I know.
I hand Hadley the red canister.
Hadley walks to Harper, who has her hands on the cage and is crying but looks at her older sister and resigns herself to what needs to be done. Hadley opens the canister lid; Harper plunges the ladle into the cage, retrieves Yellow, and plops him into the canister. Sarah sings: “In the arms of the angel/Fly away from here.”
The three of us walk upstairs, Harper first, holding the canister to her chest. Hadley’s second, raising her phone above her head. I bring up the rear of the procession, unsure whether I should walk on beat of the song or not.
We walk into the dining room, and Harper places Yellow on the table between two candles. Sarah finishes singing.
“I think we need to go,” I say.
Hadley pulls a florescent yellow belt from her pocket, and uncoils it. She straps it diagonally across herself and then around her waist. She is safety patrol—something she’s wanted to be since she was in kindergarten.
“Yeah,” she says. “I don’t want to be late.” This is her second day on the force. “Also, Mrs. Baylor told us in our meeting that if we save a life, we’ll win an award.” She walks to get her backpack and opens the front door. “I really want to win an award,” she says and walks out of the house.
I am equally disturbed and heartened by Hadley’s motivation to take care of her fellow classmates.
I hold out my hand to Harper. “You ready?” I ask.
She takes my hand and stands up, but she says nothing.
We walk to the car together in silence.
I drive the girls to school and I wonder what 22-year-old Callie would think of this situation. I don’t think she would laugh, or roll her eyes, but I don’t think she’d be really sad about a gerbil’s death. This scene never played out in her head as she twirled her diamond engagement ring around her finger. She imagined children, but they were ideas—wishes—and so 22-year-old Callie had no clue what it would be like to love them. She had no idea the room that would take up her brain and body and soul for wondering and worrying about Hadley Grace and Harper Anne. She had no space in her heart for a dead gerbil because she hadn’t felt the one who loved him kick inside her, or call her, “Mama.”
Twenty-two-year-old Callie didn’t have a clue what she’d grow into, the capabilities she’d have, the woman she’d become because she would be a mother.
I can love a gerbil. I can let it live in my laundry room. I can watch as my daughters scoop up his no longer alive body with a ladle I was hoping to serve homemade Irish stew with. I can hand them a red canister—heavy with memories of when the three of us were years younger and spending all our days together.
I’m proud of who I’ve become; proud of what motherhood is turning me into. But I am exhausted, too. Being a mother is hard work, I think as I drive away from Hadley and Harper’s school, wiping tears from my eyes. Sometimes I want a few minutes with 22-year-old Callie. I want to step into her naïve, whimsical skin and dance for a while.
So I do. “Survivor,” by Destiny’s Child is on, and I turn it up. I know all the words and singing them, 22-year-old Callie comes back, and as I’m bopping my head and pretending to be Beyonce, I’m wondering if 22-year-old Callie ever left. Maybe that laundry room was her idea. Maybe she knows another place to get a better soup ladle. Maybe, in some ways, she’s survived.
But not Yellow. May he rest in the peace of our backyard, near the gate that leads out to the neighborhood pool. Harper will walk, run, skip, and leap past him everyday this summer, and all the summers she grows up in this house while stories of who she will be and how she will live swirl around like flower petals kicked up and tossed around by the wind. May she never forget who she was, and may those memories bring her to who she is.