PAYING THE PRICE

PAYING THE PRICE

From Chicken Soup for the Mother of Preschooler's Soul

Paying the Price

There I was, standing in the rain and mud under the tall evergreen behind our house, holding Cissy’s hand and hoping we didn’t catch cold. I thought about our trip to the pet store.

I had narrowed down her options: She couldn’t have a dog because the landlord wouldn’t allow it. She couldn’t have a cat because I was allergic. She couldn’t have a hamster-mouse-gerbil because I couldn’t stand the smell of cages or the thought of one of them getting out. She couldn’t have fish because I didn’t want to clean an aquarium.

Still, she found herself a little critter to love. And really, I kind of loved it, too.

It was exotic, a beautiful specimen: a Chinese Firebelly Toad. Loving it already, Cissy named it Lucy and dug all of her change out of her jacket pocket to pay for it. Exactly $1.46 short, she looked at me pleadingly, and I forked over the extra money.

Lucy was dark green with bright orange spots, and she didn’t croak or bite or smell funny or anything obnoxious. She just hopped around her little habitat cage and ate flies. She wasn’t bumpy or warty or ugly or suffering from an overactive bladder like the toads we used to find in my grandma’s garden when we were kids. She looked more like a frog than a toad, and most importantly, my daughter loved her.

Every day, Cissy scampered to the windowsills to search for flies. She fed the toad and talked to it, and most strangely, gave it an occasional ride in her Barbie Corvette. No toad ever had it so good.

But one morning a few months later, I discovered something terrible. Lucy was very still and very quiet.

The mother in me wanted to protect my little girl from the shock of losing her dear little amphibious friend. I wanted to run to the pet store, buy another Lucy and replace the creature before my daughter noticed. But it was too late.

Cissy woke and ran to feed Lucy. But Lucy wouldn’t move. “Is Lucy sleeping, Mommy?” she asked.

“No,” I said, patting Cissy’s head and hugging her. “I’m afraid Lucy died.”

She stared at the toad as if she could somehow will it awake. Her bottom lip jutted out and trembled as she whimpered, “W-w-will Lucy go to heaven?”

I felt heartsick as I tried to reassure her.

And so, there we stood later that dreary afternoon, out in the rain . . . at a Chinese Firebelly Toad’s funeral. We’d placed Lucy in an old ring box, tied it closed with a ribbon and dug a small hole back under the evergreen tree where we knew no one would mow over her grave.

Sobbing, Cissy tenderly put the small box in the ground, and together we patted muddy dirt over the top.

Out of her pocket, she pulled a smooth oval stone and set it gently on the mound.

In orange-marker scribble, it simply said, “I Love Lucy.”

And I shed a few tears of my own as I witnessed my four-year-old’s first painful lesson about life and love and loss.

Autumn Conley

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