by Karen Yates
Like every parent, I feel the weight of teaching my children good character traits and values.
They have baskets of toys, cute clothes, plenty of food, a safe home and two parents that love them. When they fall down, I’m there to pick them up. When they wake in the middle of the night, I snuggle them close. When there’s a bully at school, I meet with the teacher and sort things out.
Sometimes I wonder if they have too much. They aren’t coddled, by any means, but they haven’t felt the sting of true suffering, thank God.
How then, do I teach compassion when my children have never had to endure much of anything?
I remind them of hungry orphans in Africa. We pack shoe boxes at Christmas. We take them to nursery homes to visit with elderly. We talk about the importance of tithing our money at church and giving back.
Yet, there has been no better way to teach my children compassion than to nurse back to health their only pet, their dying gecko, Cynthia.
Let me repeat that, in case you didn’t hear me.
We (well, mostly me), coddled, cuddled and nursed our 1.3 ounce gecko from the very darkest pit of certain death.
She had a mouth infection that made it too painful to eat. Orange crust outlined her jaw. Her once plump tail hung skinny and limp, and she hardly moved. It had been nearly two months since she had eaten.
Truth be told, I was going to let her die. I was not going to spend one dime to save a lizard. But my children begged. And sobbed. Their hearts were broken for their pet. They loved her, every bit of her bumpy, speckled body.
I couldn’t turn away from their genuine, love-invested pleas to rescue her from suffering. After all, it reflected everything I was trying to cultivate in them.
We scooped Cynthia into a box, drove her to a veterinarian, paid $160 (gulp) for an injection, antibiotics and special food, and hoped for life. If I bathed her daily in saline, gave her antibiotics by mouth through a syringe once a day, and fed her a special food twice a day (also through a tiny syringe), she might make it, the lizard doctor said.
Twice a day for 21 days I held her little body, pinched open her jaw, and squeezed a brown, creamy substance into her mouth. The children would coax her with encouragement: “Come on, Cynthia. You need this food. It will help you get stronger,” my 6-year-old said. Each night at dinner, “Mom, did you give Cynthia her antibiotics?” my 8-year-old would ask. My 4-year-old watched, making not a sound, taking it all in.
We celebrated little milestones of licking lips and blinking eyes. We cheered when we discovered remnants of poop. We cried when 7 of her 10 fingers fell off (they had decayed and died), and we grieved she wouldn’t scale her tank again. The crust fell away from her “lips,” and we saw new pink normal “lips,” and one child complimented: “You look beautiful, Cynthia!”
It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve done as a mommy, and something I’ll never regret – nursing our leopard gecko back from the grave. We called her by name. We cheered her. We daily fixated on her recovery. And by it, we cultivated, side by side, the cost of compassion – what it means to genuinely fight to end the suffering of someone else. Albeit, a gecko.