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The Slimy Thing That Brought My Whole Family Together

Sometimes it doesn't take much to remind us that, no matter what, we'll always be there for each other.

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girlfriend, aarp, lizard, parenting
delphine lee
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This single mother of two lost her marriage and her job, and was about to lose her house. But now she’s the happiest she’s been in years. This is the second part of a four-part series, My Gluten-Free Nervous Breakdown. Read the first part of the series here.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes, and my 13-year-old son’s best friend, Stitch, came in several. Stitch is a Nosy Be panther chameleon that we bought online from a chameleon breeder in Florida, who shipped the then-two-inch creature, via FedEx, in what appeared to be a plastic deli cup. I was amazed he arrived alive. But he crawled onto my son’s hand, turning from asphalt black to dark green and then to aqua. The bromance was on.

It made me happy to see my son happy. It had been a stressful few months since the IKEA mugging. I got my house on the market, but despite the countless open houses and subsequent showings, we’d yet to get an offer. Chase and his 11-year-old sister, Mackenzie, had been good sports about being exiled during the constant open houses, but they did not want to leave our home.

But at least Chase had Stitch. For the next several months, my son took meticulous care of him, spraying the cage with water twice daily, dousing the food with calcium powder, making sure that he had adequate light from three different bulbs — ceramic, uvb and a daylight blue.

Then, the honeymoon suddenly went south.

“Mom! Help! Call the vet!” Chase screamed, running into the kitchen. “Look at what’s coming out of Stitch's butt!”

Chase thrust his beloved creature in my face. Stitch had something large, red and raw-looking poking out from between his hind legs. It looked like a bloody pencil eraser.

“Is Lilo OK?” I asked. Lilo is Stitch’s companion. She’s an Ambilobe panther chameleon, who is smaller with a pink body and black stripes. The reptiles live in a six-foot cage on a hibiscus tree I bought at Safeway. Between the two of them, they eat 50 live crickets per week. Needless to say, I’m a regular at PetSmart.

“Yes, she’s pooping, she’s fine! Hurry! Call the vet!” he yelled.

Reptiles, it should be mentioned, need to be examined by not just any vet, but an “exotic” vet. It was after 5 p.m. on the Monday of Labor Day weekend. After some frenzied googling, we were able to find one open an hour away in Virginia. Mackenzie, who was on a play date, was starting her new school early the following morning. I had a familiar moment of aching for my ex-husband’s presence, to help me deal with my agitated son and my daughter’s schedule, not to mention Stitch’s medical issue. But their dad died two years earlier, so I was as good as it got.

We called the vet, who instructed us to bring the chameleon as soon as possible. I paused, emergency be damned. What if we drove to Virginia, paid hundreds of dollars for the visit, and Mother Nature had already made up her mind?

And I really didn’t want to road trip it the night before Mackenzie’s big first day. Worse, I was hungry, a condition I try my best to avoid for the welfare of others.

“Please, Mom?” Chase begged.

Stitch was Chase’s little buddy. More than his buddy: his companion. My son had actually tried to get the chameleon certified as a therapy pet so he could take him into restaurants and on to airplanes. (Alas, Delta has a “no reptile” policy. Guess they’re still so over snakes on planes.)

I wondered what their Dad would have done. And I remembered that no matter his flaws, he always erred on the side of being kind.

“OK, get in the car,” I said.

As we raced to Virginia, I stuffed down a protein bar and instructed Chase to use my phone to text the mother of Mackenzie’s play date and ask her to keep my daughter longer.

When we arrived, we dashed from the parking lot into the clinic.

“Is the animal breathing?” the receptionist asked.

I had no idea.

“Yes, it’s breathing,” Chase said. “But look.”

The reception took a look at the reptile’s backside.

“Oh, wow,” she said.

We were led back to a room where we were met by the vet. She was wearing a white uniform and reminded me of the OB-GYN who delivered my babies. I trusted her immediately. She took Stitch into another room while we waited for close to an hour. I spent the latter part of that time fretting about getting back to my daughter.

Finally the vet reappeared. “It’s a prolapsed reproductive system,” she announced. “This is going to require surgery. We can’t do the operation until Wednesday. In the meantime you need these two medications.”

She handed me two prescriptions.

“I have to come back here in two days?” I asked, already dreading the commute. “Can’t I just leave him here?”

“You could, but that would be very expensive,” the vet said.

“Leaving him here would be expensive?” I asked, wondering how much it could possibly cost to board a creature that could fit in my sunglasses case. “How much will the surgery cost?”

“Mom! We’re doing it no matter what!” Chase interrupted, distraught.

“Let’s just see,” I said, feeling torn.

The vet disappeared to work up the cost, returning with a two-page invoice that totaled $753, not including the $152 for this visit and the $30 for the medications.

“So what would you like to do?” she asked.

There was an awkward moment. The vet’s eyes didn’t quite line up, resulting in an uncomfortable lack of clarity of whether she was looking at me or Chase for a response. The three of us stood there for a minute in a Bermuda Triangle of a staring contest. Finally, I took responsibility. I was the mother, and I was going to make the executive decision. I had lost my job a few months earlier and spending this kind of cash didn’t seem responsible.

“I’m sorry, buddy,” I said to Chase. “But I just don’t think surgery’s a good idea. Maybe nature should take its course.”

Chase burst into sobs, and not with a “I’m not getting my way” petulance. This was the sound of true, Old Yeller heartbreak. Listening to him made my heart hurt. But what if Stitch didn’t even make it? At $250 a pop, I could buy him three healthy new chameleons for that price. I stuck to my guns.

My son glared at me the whole drive home. At this point it was dark. At the clinic, I had been texting with the mother who was taking care of Mackenzie. When we arrived at my daughter’s friend’s house, Mackenzie was in the driveway waiting for us. I thanked the mom, apologizing profusely for having both daughters up so late before the first night of school before mouthing “long story.”

Safely at home, Chase stomped angrily inside, informing Mackenzie what had happened as he went. And so the negotiations started. If I would pay for the surgery, they promised to walk the dog, make their beds, and put their dishes in the sink.

I shook my head.

“You are supposed to be doing all of that anyway,” I responded.

I had fired the last au pair because she took my personal credit card to New York on vacation with her boyfriend and racked up hundreds of dollars shopping and partying, which, it turns out, is a felony. And she was a replacement for the au pair before her who at 5 a.m. got a DWI in my car — also a felony. So now I was the au pair, and the kids would be cleaning up after themselves.

They looked at each other.

Chase nodded.

Mackenzie proffered Plan B.

“How about you pay for the surgery and it will count as our Christmas presents?” she bargained.

“You really want this that badly, Mackenzie?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “I want him to live.”

Their solidarity moved me.

“OK,” I said. “But a deal’s a deal. You have to do your part, too.”

The next morning Chase came into my room with Stitch.

“Mom, it went back in!” he said, jubilantly. “Look!”

No more red thing.

“And I think Lilo is laying eggs,” he said. “She’s digging a tunnel in the dirt.”

Sure enough, the female chameleon had deposited 21 eggs, each the size of the nail of a ring finger, in the soil of the Safeway plant. The eggs were white, indicating that they had been fertilized. Stitch hadn’t been dying after all — he’d been on a booty call.

It’s easy to see the lessons in stories that end well, or at least not upset, but in that moment, looking at my son looking at the eggs, I realized that sometimes it takes a two-inch creature who arrives in a deli cup to bring a family together. To see in each other our strengths, as well as our faults. And to remind us that, no matter what, we’re in it together.