I started having what I call responsibility dreams in my early twenties. I remember one vivid dream that really bothered me. I had left for college, and when I came back, my old bedroom was shuttered up, the door closed. No one ever went in there. When I opened the door, I realized that my parakeet, who I thought had died, actually hadn’t. He’d been alone in this room, starving, the whole time I was gone.
Since then, I’ve had versions of that dream about almost everyone or everything I love. My husband died because I didn’t get him help quick enough. My brother was hurt because I couldn’t save him from kidnappers. My daughter was maimed because I didn’t watch her close enough and she got hit by a car. My other daughter was lost because I didn’t keep her with me in a store. My son was carjacked because I forgot to get him out of his car seat when I went into work. I always awoke from those dreams shaky and sweating.
As horrible as the responsibility dreams are, real life is even worse, because you don’t wake up. When your dog has cancer and you think, “How did I not notice how sick he was?” When your hamster dies and you don’t realize for a day. The parent guilt is the worst. How can you not blame yourself when your kids get into trouble? How did we miss this? Why didn’t we see that a particular friend was trouble? Or the outside forces, pedophiles who target kids alone at bus stops, drug dealers who prey on the weak, boyfriends who turn abusive. You feel like you’re walking a tightrope every day, trying to keep your kids safe, both from the world and from themselves.
The pet thing is awful too. We’ve had so many pets — frogs, hermit crabs, sea monkeys, snakes, hamsters, mice, rats, birds, cats, dogs. And it’s always hard to lose them, especially because you wonder if you could have done something to save them. If only I had fed them right. If only I had taken them to the vet sooner. If only …
This week we lost my daughter’s snake, Na’ava, a beautiful candy-cane corn snake. She was so sweet, which might make some of you cringe, but she loved to be held and sweet-talked. She was a classroom pet for a few years at a Christian pre-school, and I swear, all that talk of God rubbed off on her. She never bit anyone, she gave you snaky kisses, she twined around your wrist or neck, she was polite when waiting for her dead baby-mouse dinners, she was just awesome. Even Grandma loved her.
Somehow she got snake mites. I noticed this brand-new baby snake we had bought spending a lot of time soaking in his water dish and thought nothing of it — some snakes love water. Then he died. It was a mystery. Then Na’ava started soaking in her water dish, and she doesn’t love water. I looked it up on the internet and saw that snakes often do that when they have snake mites. But by the time we realized what was going on, Na’ava was so weak, she died at the vet’s office, where they were trying to keep her warm and were tube feeding her to build up her strength and rehydrate her. From things I had read on the internet, I thought snake mites were like fleas on dogs — easy to treat, no big deal. So if you have a snake, be careful of the mites. I had no idea they could kill a snake.
And I blame myself. I didn’t notice the mites until they were huge, big enough to see. And when I did notice them, instead of racing to the vet, I tried to treat at home with pet-store remedies that didn’t do anything.
It makes you want to never buy another pet again. But what’s the alternative? Don’t enjoy the cuteness of a dog that gives you the “I love you; can I have a dog treat” eyes? Never have a cat curl up in your lap on a cold day?
And what’s more terrifying than trying to keep a child safe? Do you just not have kids because it’s such a dangerous world? (I have friends who feel that way.)
I hate responsibility. But even more, I hate being alone, caring for no one. My mom always paraphrased the saddest line she’d ever read: “Even sadder than to have loved and lost is to never have loved at all.” With love comes responsibility, and fear, but usually it’s well worth it. Until I dream.