Dead or Alive?
The first time Kevin died, we all sat around the kitchen table crying. Too new in this world to be accustomed to the unfairness and finality of death, my children had no idea how to cope with the loss. My husband suggested that each of us take turns saying what we were going to miss most about Kevin. My youngest son, aged five, went first.
“I will miss playing with him when I come home from school,” said Charlie.
My middle son, aged nine and ever the contrarian, went next.
“I am really not going to miss him,” Oliver said. “He was boring and he smelled.”
My oldest son, aged eleven, cleared his throat as if to speak. He breathed in deeply, his eyes welled up, and his upper lip wobbled. Exploding with emotion, he dashed from the table.
“I am too sad to talk,” Wilson wailed as he streaked down the hallway to take refuge in the laundry room, where a dead Kevin lay in his aquarium.
My husband and I remained at the table staring at each other, neither knowing quite what to do to console poor Wilson. Kevin was our hermit crab. He lived in a shell formerly owned by a sea snail, and carried it around on his back all day. The shell had been painted black and had a tiny white snake etched along the top, making him a bit of a designer crab. He spent the day snoozing or wandering around his little aquarium filled with coconut shavings. Kevin was our first real pet, and our first pet death. We had only owned him for two months. It had always been my position (having had at least ten pets of different species when I was a child) that watching pets die provides children with dress rehearsals for human death. It gets them used to the idea of it, without providing the earth-shattering trauma that the death of a close relative inflicts. As the children got older, part of me worried that their lack of exposure to death gave them some sort of artificial expectation that death was a rare occurrence instead of being the one absolute certainty in life. I had struggled to convince Oliver, my adrenaline junky skier, that he could actually kill himself if he came straight down an expert slope without making a turn to slow himself. I suspected that he viewed his own natural life the way he experienced his favorite video games: if he got killed, then a second or third life would automatically regenerate him so he could continue to play.
As I was secretly congratulating myself that my plan to expose my children to a benign death had worked, that they would emerge from Kevin’s demise feeling a stronger, deeper appreciation for being in this world every day, I heard Wilson shriek from the laundry room.
“He’s alive!” he yelled. “Kevin! He’s alive!”
Wilson grabbed him from his aquarium on the laundry room counter and brought Kevin lovingly to the kitchen table, where he crawled across for all to witness the miracle of his resurrection. I didn’t know whether to feel elated that Kevin had beaten the grim reaper, or upset that this experience would only fortify my children’s video game view of death.
There would be more feigned deaths to come—they started happening on what seemed like a monthly basis. After his repeated antics, I pegged Kevin as a drama queen. He liked to trick his human captors into thinking he was dead. From time to time, perhaps simply for his own amusement, he stopped all of his usual daily activities: foraging for food, climbing his little wall made of coconut fiber, and digging holes in the sand. It stood to reason that a busy household filled with the constant activity of three young boys would equate inactivity with death. Being a drama queen myself, I have always nursed a fear of death. When my boys were newborns, I used to run to their cribs if they napped longer than expected, just to make sure their rib cages were moving up and down. I would hold my hand under their nostrils to see if I could feel them exhale. But with Kevin, I had no outlet for my neuroses. I couldn’t see him breathe. I couldn’t see him at all. I didn’t like to touch him, so I would try to surprise him by turning on the lights or dropping water on his shell. Sometimes he humored me by coming out, but other times he ignored me for days on end. When he wouldn’t respond, I thought, “He’s really dead this time.” But somehow the reports of his death were often greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Perhaps, like my children, when Kevin felt ignored, he wanted attention—any attention. It didn’t matter to him whether it was positive or negative, he just created a scene to remind himself that people loved him, like a child packing her suitcase and threatening to run away.
How does one end up with a thankless pet like a hermit crab in the first place? Maternal guilt, of course. I felt terrible that my children had never had a pet. I felt guilty that they were missing out on one of childhood’s quintessential experiences. And one way or another, they had to learn how serious death actually was. They needed a little pet to love and, ultimately, to lose.
My youngest son, Charlie, loves animals. His older brothers have never shown any interest in owning a pet, but from the age of two, Charlie asked for one. So one day I took him to Petco. And while I realized the dangers inherent in taking a petless, animal loving child to the pet store, I did it nonetheless. After his first trip, he was hooked. He asked to go every week. As kids do, my older sons started to complain that they were being left out of the Petco expeditions, because they were happening while they were at school and Charlie was at home with me. So one Saturday, we loaded up all of the boys and went to the pet store. Just to look.
I had a plan. We would peruse all the pets and I would figure out which was the shortest-lived, lowest maintenance, and least likely to involve me in any way; I would then trick my children into believing that that pet was what they wanted more than anything in the world. My plan went immediately awry. They ran into the pet store and headed straight for the snakes.
“Mommy, can we have a snake?” all three whined. “They’re so cool. We can keep dead mice in the freezer and feed them to the snake every day.”
For a half-second, I actually considered their request. Then, I pictured the snake slithering out of the aquarium and wrapping itself around my neck in my sleep. And I imagined myself sleepily opening the freezer for the Eggo waffles in the morning only to grab a cold, dead mouse. We would not be getting a snake. Indeed, as long as I left the pet store without a snake, I would consider myself victorious.
“No snakes,” I said. “Not happening.”
Charlie began to weep, Wilson began to console Charlie, and Oliver tried to take the snake out of the aquarium and run to the checkout counter.
Just a short stroll down the reptile aisle from the snakes lived a couple of slow, relatively harmless-looking tortoises.
“These guys look nice!” I said to the boys, trying to assuage my own guilt. The next thing I knew, I was exiting the pet store with three placated kids, two smelly tortoises and one gigantic aquarium that when placed on our laundry-room counter, left absolutely no room for laundry.
Despite my previous hesitations, it’s fair to say we were all excited. The boys named the turtles “Silver” and “Fluffy.” Two decidedly un-tortoise-like names, that made me suspect that what my sons actually wanted was not a snake or a tortoise after all, but a dog or a cat. These were pets we would not be buying. Too much poop. Too much fur. We watched the tortoises toddle around the counter and let them amble over the floor. The laundry room became a thrilling place. Charlie positioned himself on a small stepping stool in front of the aquarium, and only moved to go to the bathroom. I even had to feed him his dinner in front of the aquarium. But the more we watched them, the more I became disturbed. Each tortoise picked a corner of the aquarium and started to dig. And dig and dig. They kept hitting the glass at the bottom but that didn’t deter them. They were trying to tunnel out of their own private Alcatraz, and were desperate to find a way.
After my husband, Lance, and I put the kids to bed, we did some research online. While the tortoises dug in the aquarium, we realized that we had also dug our own graves by buying these pets. For starters, they would probably outlive us. I thought we’d have them in the house for a year or two, hold a solemn pet funeral at the end of their lives and be done with it. But we found that their average life span is fifty years, and that we’d be caring for these reptiles in our old age, and most likely bequeathing them back to our sons, who had made us buy them in the first place. How was I supposed to teach my children about death with a pet that was going to outlive me?
“That’s it,” said Lance. “They are going back to Petco in the morning.”
“But the kids!” I said. “They’ll be scarred for life.”
“They’ll get over it,” Lance said, with the calm that only fathers can muster when breaking the hearts of their children.
The next morning, we sat the boys down to break the news.
“Boys, Silver and Fluffy are not happy in their aquarium,” I said.
“Yes they are!” chirped Charlie. “They love it in there. And they love me and I love them.”
“No, sweetie, they are trying to dig their way back to the desert, where they live in the wild.”
“They are boring anyway,” said Oliver. “The only cool thing they did was have a massive poop attack.”
“Do we get something else in exchange?” said Wilson, ever the negotiator.
I spoke quickly, before Lance could cut me off. “Sure, honey, Daddy will take the tortoises back to Petco and pick out another pet that is happy in an aquarium.”
So we loaded up Silver and Fluffy, said our good-byes, and waited for Dad to come home with the new family pet.
I waited anxiously by the door. What if Petco would not take the tortoises back (despite the 72-hour, no-questions-asked return policy that Lance, being a former lawyer, had interrogated our salesperson about)? Maybe the return was Lance’s master plan all along. The minutes ticked by like molasses.
Finally, I heard the sound of wheels on the driveway, and Lance strolled through the door with a small bag in his hand.
“What took you so long?” I demanded.
“It was Sunday morning at the pet store,” Lance said. “I was in the customer-service line behind everyone else who was returning the pets they bought yesterday. But check this little guy out.”
And out of the bag he pulled our tiny, beautifully low-maintenance, invisible-poop-creating hermit crab. Wilson begged to name him, and that is how our crab became “Kevin.” Named after Kevin Durant, the 6-foot-9-inch NBA star of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Wilson’s idol, Kevin the crab was destined to be extraordinary. While at first we all snickered at the name Wilson chose for him, as time passed, I could actually see that Kevin the crab and Kevin the basketball star had a lot in common. For starters, they both appeared to be made of nothing but limbs. And, like an NBA star, it was obvious that Kevin was exceptionally tough. I had seen the hermit crab aquarium at Petco and it was full of tough, brawny, crabs almost twice his size. For marketing purposes, the pet store made the aquarium look pleasant enough. The crabs hung out under plastic palm trees all day, basking in the glow of their heat lamp. But bigger crabs often cannibalize smaller ones, and Kevin had already beaten the odds by surviving his stint there.
Was it my imagination or did I feel a little sigh of relief as I gently dropped Kevin into his aquarium. Little did he know that though he had survived the crab-eat-crab dominion of Petco, he was now being cared for by a mommy who secretly hoped for his speedy demise. Still, I wanted him to be comfortable since his days were (hopefully) numbered. I liked to think that the washer and dryer provided Kevin with the humidity, warmth, and rhythmic sounds of the ocean that made him feel at home. In crab terms, it was la dolce vita.
Kevin became our much adored but often ignored family pet. We didn’t think he minded the lack of attention because he was, after all, a hermit. We almost always remembered to feed him his disgustingly smelly hermit crab food, give him water in his tiny shell water dish, and change the coconut shavings and sand that lined the bottom of his aquarium.
Though it seems like having one hermit crab as a pet might actually be a boring affair, it did offer its own quiet excitement. In Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” she writes that nature is a “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair.” You can stumble upon a fish jumping out of the water or a deer sprinting into the brush and feel lucky to see it, for it happens in a flash. Dillard writes that “nature…conceals with a grand nonchalance” and that “vision…is a deliberate gift.” So it was with Kevin. To watch him roll out of his shell was to catch a secret unfolding. First a hair-thin antenna appeared to make sure the coast was clear. Then one claw reached out, followed quickly by the others, like a hand playing the scales on a piano. I once walked into the laundry room late at night and flipped on the light. I gasped. Kevin, whom I almost never saw, had scaled his little climbing wall like a rock climber hanging from a granite cliff. Seeing him thus—indeed, seeing him at all—felt like witnessing a miracle.
The wonder of glimpsing Kevin in his secret world actually made me feel conflicted, even a little dirty, for continuing to wish for his death. On the one-year anniversary of our trip to Petco, I began to worry that we had an amazingly long-lived crab. What was he hanging on for? To climb the rock wall one more time? To visit his water dish again? It wasn’t like he lived an exciting or opulent life. He even had his fair share of hardship. Once, when I found Kevin curled up in the middle of his empty water dish, I told Wilson to fill it up immediately. Wilson was not famous for his excellent upkeep of Kevin. When he refilled Kevin’s water dish, he overcompensated for his lapse in attention by filling up the whole aquarium until it was under an inch of water. Kevin quickly scrambled to the top of his coconut house, like people who clamber to their roofs during floods. As a result, his little coconut-shell house sprouted mold. But Kevin was not one to complain. After he survived this incident, I realized Kevin was exceptionally resilient. I looked online to see how long hermit crabs typically live. The answer? Fifteen years (if cared for properly). I was not going to encourage future lapses in care, but with less nagging, Wilson just might shorten that lifespan considerably.
About a year after Kevin’s first near death experience, I came home one day and our sweet babysitter, Silvia, was waiting for me at the door.
“The crab,” she said. “He is dead!”
Silvia looked crushed but I confess to feeling yet another shameful wave of relief. I walked over to his cage, expecting him to come back to life. But sure enough, when I looked in on him, his legs were hanging out of his shell, limp and lifeless. I had never seen him exposed and unmoving like that before. I even touched his shell in a rare moment of bravery and he did not respond. This time he was obviously a goner.
I broke the news gently to the children, and, as families do, we planned a funeral. It was to be a lavish affair, held in the backyard at a gravesite carefully chosen by Wilson.
“Why did you choose this spot, honey?” I asked.
“It’s under my bedroom window, so I can say good-night to him every night,” Wilson said.
Sometimes kids are so sweet it actually hurts your heart. His eyes welled up and I felt a little pang of regret for imposing this pet death on my child. Often, one of the most difficult things about a funeral is seeing the suffering of the people who loved the departed most. I now felt this way when I looked at Wilson’s tears. Astonishingly, I felt sad, too. Had I actually begun to love the little crustacean? Despite the fact that my intention all along was for him to die, I realized I would miss Kevin’s quiet presence on the laundry room counter, peeking out from under his shell at me while I folded the clothes.
I dug a tiny crab-sized grave. It was somewhat slow going because I used a small red plastic shovel I grabbed from Charlie’s sandbox.
“How deep do I need to make this?” I wondered, hoping that the human-being six feet under rule did not apply. I dug down through the hard dirt six inches and gingerly reached into Kevin’s aquarium, which we had brought graveside, for effect. Suddenly, his entire carcass slid out of his shell and into the grave. I screamed in horror. Wilson screamed in horror. Charlie screamed in horror. Oliver yelled, “Cool!”
I looked inside Kevin’s shell, and I screamed even louder. Two beady eyes stared straight at me. Unless another crab had quickly moved into his dead friend’s apartment (the way some New Yorkers have been known to do) Kevin was still with us!
“He’s alive!” I yelled, inexplicably joyful. How many funerals do you get to attend where the person or pet you are grieving actually makes a comeback? Kevin had accomplished the impossible—he had cheated death and won. It was hard not to be on his side.
“Wha—wha-at?” Wilson’s voice wobbled, his grief too thick to actually believe it again.
“I think maybe he just molted,” I said. “There’s a new little crab in there looking back at me.”
We all erupted in cheers and spent the rest of the afternoon trailing him while he crawled around the yard.
After he molted and we restored Kevin’s aquarium to the laundry room, I occasionally shone the flashlight into his little coconut house to make sure he wasn’t dead again. Each time, two black eyes the size of pinpricks stared back at me and his little antennae wiggled. Inside his black snail shell, I could see the newborn membrane covering his legs. It shone the viscous blue color of a slick baby before it takes its first breath.
I made peace with the idea that Kevin would not, as Dylan Thomas said, be going “gentle into that good night.” I stopped wishing for his death. We started to plan for his future, beginning with an aquarium upgrade worthy of HGTV. We added a swimming pool with a diving board, a plastic palm tree to remind him of home, and a climbing toy in the shape of a miniature coral reef.
The other day I walked by the laundry room and caught Oliver, of all people, parked in front of Kevin’s aquarium, staring fixedly through the glass.
“Whatcha doing, buddy?” I asked.
“Watching Kevin,” he said. “I think he might be pretty cool, after all.”
“Oh?” I asked, a little surprised.
“Yeah. Ever since he molded, I’ve been more interested in him.” (I loved that Oliver thought that Kevin had molded instead of molted. I could understand why. He must have thought the mold from Kevin’s coconut shell had changed him.)
“What is interesting about him now?” I asked.
“Well, he seems like he never gives up. We keep thinking he is dead, and he keeps coming back from the dead. It’s like a scary movie, only he’s not scary.”
As Oliver and I watched Kevin that day, it registered that perhaps grief wasn’t the lesson Kevin would be teaching my family after all. Maybe the tenacity of this little crab would remind us all to hang onto life as hard if we were dangling from high up on a coconut wall. Because no matter how small and insignificant one might seem to the rest of the world, each life has moments of quiet beauty that make it worth living: a family eating dinner together; a father bringing home a tiny hermit crab for his sons; a heartfelt pet funeral in the backyard. I hope the lesson that Kevin helps me teach my children is that at some point in all of our lives, each one of us must have the strength to metaphorically climb out of our graves, climb on top of our little houses, and hold on.
Emily Eddins has been a professional writer for twenty years. Her career includes time spent as a speechwriter, a journalist and an editor. The author holds a BA from Vanderbilt University, an MA from Georgetown University and she has studied creative writing at both Georgetown University and Stanford University. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in publications such as The Willow Review, The Louisville Review, The Toad Suck Review, Forge, Riversedge, and others. Fun fact: she is named after Emily Dickinson.