My older sister, Theresa--Terri, as we call her--was a tough act to follow. Only fifteen months older than me, she nonetheless had every advantage except one. From the time I could toddle around, I followed her with a strict devotion and an almost overwhelming love and admiration.
However, the stories that flood my memory when I recall my childhood center around her teasing me. There is more than that, but I think now that some of her advantage was won because I was an easy target for jokes. Being sensitive put me at a disadvantage in my family, especially when it came to animals. We all loved our dogs, naturally: Patches, Sammy, Bowser and Shep, my grandma's farm dogs. But we had a series of family pets die--as they all do--and to this day my family laughs at my sadness in spite of themselves.
Perhaps laughing at death seems demented. It wasn't at the death of anything that seemed important to them, though. We had a series of tame hamsters that would run around on the living room floor inside the shape I made by placing my feet up against my sister's feet, our legs straightened into two Vs, attached at their open ends. Sometimes one of them--Tiny, Bubbles, Cookie--ran up the leg of my pajama bottoms, and I held still until it ran out again. As all these creatures do, they died in a matter of a year, sometimes months. It always made me cry, beg to take the barely breathing animal to the vet's. I wanted proper funerals, and no one would participate with me. Once, in a scene I will never forget, one of the hamsters was very sick--I think the one that had broken its leg when the cage door closed on it--and rather than wait for it to die, my father dug a hole in the backyard and killed it with a shovel before filling in the hole with dirt. I watched, horrified, its eyes closing and its tiny feet retracting with every downward thrust. My family didn't laugh at me outright for my sensitivity, but they teased me about caring so much about a HAMSTER. They were all indifferent; these pets were really mine.
Later, we had a fishtank--to me, the most boring of things--and inevitably some of the fish got sick. Maybe we didn't clean it enough, or change the filter. I'm not sure, as I recall it now, how we knew they were sick. But one night after dinner, my mother scooped the infected animals (they had tail rot and something called ick) out of the tank. Naive, curious, I followed her to the bathroom as she mumbled something about "taking care of this." Even though I watched her dump the Cool Whip container of fish into the toilet, I still didn't understand. Until she flushed and I watched them swirl away, their fins whipping in the current. When I cried that time, they all teased me mercilessly. For months, they made flushing gestures to torment me, or brought it up in larger family gatherings so that I would cry in front of our relatives.
That was all 40 years ago. It may sound ridiculous, but I still cringe when I think of it. I realize I was a middle child, often claiming to be left out, claiming that life was unfair. I made more of my position than I need to have made. But the sensitivity was not made up, and I carried it into adulthood, passed some of it onto my children. When the boys and I got our first hamster, Ed, we played with him, as I had played with our pets as a child, and when he died we all mourned. We even saved his body in the freezer for several months so that we could bury him properly in spring, when the ground thawed. Two of my sons had their own hamsters later, Tark and Rocky; when Tark died, my son Nate stumbled outside at ten at night, shoulders shaking from his weeping, and insisted on burying Tark himself, on a slight rise next to the irises. He was thirteen years old. I still think of Tark and Nate every time I mow over that spot. When Rocky died, Elias was so sad that he wouldn't allow me to remove the cage from his bedroom. For months afterwards, I would find him crying quietly in his bed. Neither boy could bear trying again with another one--the grief when their favorites died was too much.
About six years ago, my niece gave me a hamster, hearty and healthy, because she was tired of cleaning its cage. We kept it happily for about a month, then one morning I found Tickles' twisted body under her exercise wheel, one foot trapped between the wires. I didn't want to call my sister; when I did, she laughed, as I knew she would, and predictably it came up at family gatherings: Tickles the Hamster and her "unfortunate death." Snickers. A few guffaws. My exit to the back yard or bathroom to regain my composure.
I have to remind myself that when they laugh at me, they are not laughing at death per se, only at my reaction; they don't think it appropriate to shed tears for insignificant events. Given our history of deaths among relatives, it makes a certain sense to distinguish between a pet and a brother, for instance. I suppose one could reason that if one cried every time a living creature died, one would be a full-time mourner. There is that old idea that life is so sad that if we once start crying, we will never stop.
And yet. I mourned pets to whom I'd become attached. After Ed died, we immediately got another hamster that lived a matter of days. Since we had had no time to get to know him, to see his personality in his habits (Ed used to climb up the side of the cage and make his way across the top, upside down, an acrobat, a performer), we were not really sad, only concerned that he had been sick, invisibly suffering.
I like to think they were not laughing directly at me, only at something they did not understand. Isn't it a human trait, to make fun of that which is strange, different from us?
In sixth grade, I read every book I could find about Helen Keller, then with my friends wrote a play about her life. We each took roles, rehearsed, then performed the play at school, presenting it in different classrooms. Most of the time I played the role of Helen, but as we got comfortable with the script and with each other, we changed roles. Sometimes I was Annie, sometimes Helen's father, the Captain. We were proud of our work, teachers praised us, students enjoyed our performances: me, Nan, Anne, Kim.
Around that time, a series of Helen Keller jokes made the rounds. It was not a new idea; just a variation of blonde jokes or Iowa jokes or any ethnic jokes. Such humor seems base to me, repetitive, not very inventive, aimed at the lowest common denominator. And cruel. How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? She tried to read the waffle iron.
My sisters tormented me--there is no other word for it--by telling these jokes until I cried. I begged them to stop, tried to explain why Helen was admirable, reminded them how much work I had put into the play. My protests fueled their efforts. I wonder now why my mother didn't put a stop to it.
Perhaps it seemed that I was always crying, reminding them that there was a lot of loss in life, something they should have known, but wished they didn't. Perhaps I was strange to them. Perhaps I broke some code that maintained animals were not "family," that only human death was to be grieved. Perhaps they hated the way tears reminded us of the funerals we had attended. Perhaps they hated me. Perhaps they were just having fun.
Even now, no explanation seems sufficient. I was not as tough as them, so they broke me to prove it.