Proper Perspective When Your Pet (Project) Dies

gerbilFritz was, in a manner of speaking, a very good friend of mine. He had come into my life after the untimely demise of William Jr., a mouse I had caught in a live trap, relocated to a hamster cage, and befriended before he escaped and later had his neck snapped in a regular trap. So distraught was I over the murder of my friend William Jr. that my parents, no doubt grief-stricken and ashamed, promptly replaced William with a more suitable rodent – Fritz. Fritz the gerbil.

Fritz lived in the same rodent cage that William had occupied, but being a gerbil he was incapable of escaping the narrow bars that William had so deftly Houdinied through and remained safely in my care. In hindsight I can’t say much that’s positive about keeping a rodent for a pet. Maybe rats. Rats are smart. Gerbils, not so much. Perhaps that is why one day, many months after Fritz had joined my pre-pubescent world (a world in which animals were superior to humans in every way), he inexplicably attacked my little brother, scurrying at the finger my brother offered through the narrow bars and biting clean through little toe-head’s fingernail. I’m sure that whatever prompted Fritz to bite my brother was related to the fact that the next day, much to my shock and horror, I found Fritz laid out as if stretching after a great sleep, eyes squinted closed, long rodent teeth exposed in a grimace, legs reaching fore and aft. A stretch he never recovered from. Fritz was dead.

I was a sensitive child. Fritz’s death broke open the flood gates of my lament in a torrent. First William Jr., now Fritz the Gerbil. Sobbing, I carried my deceased rodent out to the edge of the field where William had once lived. A golden field of weeds and mouse holes and dirt stretching a quarter mile to the next neighbor’s house. There I dug a shallow grave in the chalky earth and chunked Fritz in the hole. It was as unceremonious as that. My grief passed relatively quickly. In a few weeks the hot summer days cooled toward fall. The winds picked up. Life returned to normal.

We had dogs. These dogs were only a little wild, being otherwise fairly well-mannered, and it must have been by these manners that they allowed Fritz to rest in peace for a proper amount of time before excavating his remains. I had no idea they had been at the grave until one, wind-swept afternoon I spied the flat, papery corpse of my former friend quivering on the grass tops of the yard. The discovery did not shock me. To see the shell of what I once held in such esteem now little more than a cardboard replica of that ideal was an epiphany of hilarity. Fritz the finger-nibbler had become Fritz the Frisbee . . .

For the next several weeks Fritz circulated the yard like a discarded ad, making the rounds in a swirling wind, at times near the edge of the electric fence that penned in the neighbor’s horses, at other times next to the brick patio where the family often enjoyed its evening dinner. Fritz was no longer what I had hoped he would be – a great friend and lifelong pet – but his presence continued to serve a purpose. His remains became an unexpected source of humor about the nature of life.

A different story: in 2012 I completed a 560 page novel that was going to be my great overture. A masterpiece on the first try. When I brought the printed baby home and laid it heavily on the kitchen counter I felt such a sense of pride. A living masterpiece of such girth and depth that I had no doubt it would live of its own accord and carry me along to experience all the dreams I had eagerly appointed it.


Alas, this pet project died, too.

Like Fritz the gerbil and William Jr., I put a lot of expectation on a thing that was never going to hold up.  My book was unfinished, and I didn’t have the vision at the time to know how to make it stand up. I was still seeing rodents as the king of the jungle.

Here is an important lesson I’ve learned over time. We must never go into a venture dreading the outcome. Many things we engage in don’t meet our initial expectations. When we create art we are attempting to give real world presence to the things that live inside of us. When at first they don’t succeed, we grieve. And that is fine. But the ghosts of our deceased endeavors still linger, and when we later catch sight of them they usually make us laugh. We laugh because we have changed. This is the purpose of the creative life – change and growth, and once in a while great hilarity.

My book failed because it is not right yet. One day I plan to try that story again. I may never get to it. It will toss around in the yard meanwhile and I will laugh when I see it. And if somehow I never see that book again then, well, it will have gone to the place it was meant to go.

I never owned another rodent. I continue to own a lot of stories, and I expect to have a new book coming out soon. These things, these new pets, are perpetual in the creative life. We can expect some of them to die. With proper attention to what we are supposed to learn about the process, however, I think it’s possible to finally meet some of our expectations.

Maybe you already have.


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9 comments on “Proper Perspective When Your Pet (Project) Dies

  1. Gede Prama says:

    amazing and well presented, greetings peace be with you 🙂

  2. Marcella says:

    I just loved this piece. I have my own Fritz and my own pet projects that today bring a smile. They land squarely in the category of funny now-not then.

  3. I can certainly relate to your reflections on your would-be masterpiece. I wrote a fantasy trilogy (what else?) in college in the years thereafter, and I thought it was going to be snatched up in a heartbeat by some publisher with deep pockets.

    In hindsight, they aren’t horrible or even necessarily bad. But they definitely aren’t my best work. I took a stab at rewriting the first book but had to quit because every attempt to improve the writing (cutting cliches, improving sensory details, slashing words to improve pace, etc.) felt like I was exorcizing the very soul of the story. Someday, I might go back and see if they are salvageable (or, heck, self-publish them just for fun), but at this point, they are stuck in limbo.

    And yet, if I hadn’t written them (and another that came after), I wouldn’t have learned what I needed to know for my fifth book and stories that came later.

    Some stories MUST be told…but I suppose that doesn’t mean they must be heard by the masses.

  4. What a great article! You should try to have it published in a writer’s magazine. Writers of all kinds will definitely identify with the sentiments in it.

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