Leapin' (Pet) Lizards!

A reptile makes a world of difference in a little boy's life.

Posted in , Oct 30, 2008

An iguana basking in the sun

Looking down at the size 2 sneakers sticking out from under the bed, I sighed. "Max, we just cleaned up this mess last week," I said, picking up an orphaned sock with one hand and a renegade action figure with the other. "How many times must I tell you that you have to take better care of your things?"

"I know, Mom!" Max growled.

The sneakers twisted and turned as my seven-year-old son scrambled to find an overdue library book before his bedtime. Lego blocks, toy soldiers, candy wrappers and rubber animal figures shot across the room. The only clean area was Max's "treasure shelf," which held his model ships, airplanes, and his favorites—the dinosaurs. No one was allowed near the shelf for fear they might disturb something. I sank wearily onto the rumpled bed. "Max, why can't the rest of this room look as neat as your treasure shelf?"

Max crawled out from under the bed and looked up at me with earnest green eyes. "I'm sorry, Mom. I promise I'll clean up everything. Honest." Sometimes Max seemed so fragile, so helpless. Though he tried so hard, nothing had come easy for him.

When Max was about six months old, he developed the first of many severe ear infections that kept him in constant pain. Later, migraines and vision problems made him struggle with school. His homework was often stained by eraser smudges and tears of frustration. He'd yell when he couldn't grasp an assignment and sometimes even gnaw off an eraser or snap a pencil in two during tests.

At parent-teacher conferences, Max was described as bright but disorganized and too easily frustrated. Every single night, I had to cajole Max into doing his homework. I couldn't figure out how he could painstakingly put together a model ship, yet so quickly lose patience with himself when I sat him down in front of an open schoolbook.

"Found it!" Max cried, snatching the library book from under a pile of clothes.

"Good, Max. Now put it in your backpack, and then try to pick up a few more things before bedtime." I walked out of his room and into my own. I sat on my bed, shutting my eyes. God, I thought, how is Max ever going to deal with life when he grows up? Please show me a way to help him. I lay down, rubbing my temples for a moment. The phone rang.

"Hello?" It was my mother-in-law, Rose. She and her husband, Jim, were going on vacation for a couple of weeks and I had volunteered to mind their canary.

"Jim's bringing the canary over tomorrow. Oh, and I'm sending Bill."


"Yes, I got her yesterday from a friend whose son doesn't want her anymore. She won't be any trouble—oh, there's someone at the door. Gotta run!"

"Bill's a she?" I asked the dial tone.

The next day my father-in-law arrived with the canary. He nodded toward the open truck door, and I saw an aquarium partly covered by a blanket. "Grab Bill, would you?"

"Sure," I said. I brought the tank into the house. "What is this thing, anyway?" I asked Jim.

"An iguana," Jim said.

I lifted one side of the blanket. Peering back at me was a sage-colored reptile, skinny and dirty and not at all like the majestic iguanas of the Galapagos Islands I'd seen in National Geographic.

"How do I take care of her?"

"Just plug in her heater and lamp," Jim said. "And feed her vegetables—anything green. See you in two weeks!"

Once Jim left, I took off the blanket—WHACK! I jumped back. Bill had slapped her tail against the glass, and the aquarium was now a blur of activity. I quickly threw the blanket back over the tank. I can't believe we have to live with this thing for two weeks, I thought. "Fine," I said. "Let's just stay out of each other's way."

When Max got home from school, he ran to the tank and tugged off the blanket. "Hey, it's an iguana."

"She's only visiting. Watch out—she's not very nice."

"Man, she doesn't look so good. I'll go refill her water dish."

"I'll help you," I said. I didn't want water all over the floor.

As Max slipped the water dish into her tank, Bill slammed her tail against the aquarium wall again. "She certainly has a temper, doesn't she," I said.

"Maybe she's just scared, Mom," Max replied. "That tank's so small. If it were me in there, I'd want to get out."

Bill did look unhappy in that confined space. "All right, let's get her out of there," I said. I held my breath and slowly lifted Bill. She began to thrash in my arms. Her tail hit my face. "Ouch!" I let go and Bill hit the floor with a thud. I rubbed my stinging cheek.

"Cool! She defends herself like a dinosaur," Max said. "Mom, you probably look like a big predator to her. Maybe I'm not so scary."

In fact, Bill allowed Max to rub her head before she sidled off to investigate our den, dragging her right foreleg as she walked. "I think she hurt her leg with all that thrashing," I told Max.

"Let's take her to see Aunt Marta." Max said. My sister-in-law, Marta, was a veterinarian who ran the LaPorte Animal Clinic 10 minutes away.

The next day, we brought Bill to Marta's clinic and learned that Bill's leg was broken. Marta said Bill had metabolic bone disease. She gave us a long list of care instructions, a bag filled with medicine and a list of high-calcium foods Bill would need. Then she put a splint on Bill's leg and handed her to Max. I cringed at the thought of Max dropping her, but he cradled her securely.

Once home, Max carried Bill inside. "Let's keep her tank in my room," Max said. "It's warmer there."

"Okay," I said, though I feared that I'd soon be looking at Max's feet sticking out from under his bed, while he searched frantically for Bill. He isn't responsible enough to take care of his library books, I thought, let alone a sick iguana.

Later, when I went to his room to tell Max dinner was ready, I nearly fainted. Bill's aquarium was on top of Max's spotless dresser. There were no heaps of clothes or piles of paper cluttering the floor. Max looked up at me. "Mom, would you bring in Bill's medicine, please? It's time for her to have her calcium drops."

"Right away, Dr. Max."

We soon found Bill a secondhand aquarium that was much roomier, and she started eating more. Max fed Bill patiently and talked to her. I started to fret that Bill would become the only thing Max cared about. I didn't want anything to further confuse his priorities. But Max was doing such a good job of taking care of Bill, and had gone so long without a temper tantrum, I felt he deserved to keep Bill in his room.

One afternoon a few days later, I walked into Max's room to find him sitting at his desk working on his math assignment. I hadn't even had to remind him to do it. Bill rested squarely on Max's lap.

Day by day, Max's room got cleaner than mine. Finally I had to ask what had happened.

"I read that iguanas are like toddlers," he said. "I can't just leave a lot of stuff lying around. If Bill swallowed something, she might choke."

When Rose and Jim returned from vacation, they agreed we should keep Bill until she got completely well. I couldn't believe I actually want her to stay longer. A month later, I called my mother-in-law to tell her that Bill was finally healthy.

"Rose, Bill's doing so well now, and Max really likes her. I was wondering—could we keep her?"

"Sure, as long as Max wants to," Rose replied. With those words Bill officially became part of the family.

One day I was washing dishes when I heard a loud bang. Then Max howled, "No!" I rushed to my son's room. Max stood by his bookcase, fuming. At his feet were the remains of his treasures. His precious models lay in pieces. I looked up at the shelf. There was Bill, basking in a pool of sunshine, a rubber dinosaur beneath her foot.

"She knocked over my treasures," Max said, incredulous.

Oh, no, I thought. Here it comes. Max was on the verge of losing his temper for the first time in months. "She broke my triplane! That took me forever to build!"

"Max, sometimes accidents happen," I said.

"Stupid, ugly lizard!"

God, I thought, he's come so far. Is it all for nothing? I knelt and started picking up pieces of the triplane. I quietly asked, "Max, do you think Bill did it to be mean?"

Max was silent for a while, watching Bill take in the sunlight. Suddenly Max let out a long sigh. "Bill, you don't even know you did anything wrong, do ya?" Bill flicked her tongue and puffed out her sides. Max couldn't help but laugh. "Sorry I called you ugly, Bill." He turned to me. "Hey, Mom, look at all those colors on her." In the sunlight, her skin glowed in shades of olive, sea-green, pink, black, gray. "She's beautiful," Max concluded.

I hugged Max, then reached out to rub Bill's head. "She sure is," I said. I had felt helpless and alone with my worries about my son. Little did I suspect that the answer to my prayer would come with four legs and a spiny tail.

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