I’m grumpy too. My brother is dead and I am in charge of his menagerie. He left so much life—three leopard geckos, seven desert tortoises, and a fussy cat. I’m lucky he didn’t get the Mastiff he really wanted. Also, there’s his bonsai garden and the two Yoshino cherry trees that are still in containers. Charges too, but less demanding.
Our easiest times together were always around his animals. I remember when he introduced me to Fat Head, his leopard gecko. Tim had long, shapely fingers and the palms of a calligrapher. I watched his hands wrap under the gecko’s head, entranced by how his fingers cradled the long torso. “Fat Head’s grumpy today,” he said.
I asked why.
My brother shrugged. “He gets that way. So I rub his chin; he likes that.”
“He has a chin?” I asked.
Fat Head relaxed as Tim stroked his translucent belly. The liquid eyes with their bright yellow lids blink and Fat Head settles into Tim’s palm. The other two geckos have sleek phosphorous bodies, their dark leopard spots bred out of them; they glow pinkish-yellow with girly gracefulness. When Tim fed them, one cricket landed and stayed perched on top of Fat Head’s snake-like head.
Late spring in the Outer Richmond of San Francisco is cold and foggy. Early morning and evening, I give the geckos a sauna treatment. I microwave towels that I’ve dampened with structured water (no chlorine, Tim said). I lay steaming towels over the top of the tank and the geckos lick the moisture droplets that form along the sides. The humidity keeps their baby-like skin supple.
Leopard Geckos are originally from the deserts of Pakistan, so I have to keep them in radiant heat to stimulate appetite and digestion. To prep their crickets, I dust them with a calcium powder. Once I drop them into the tank, I watch and count, to make sure the three stooges share. It’s like a Chinese banquet; the fastest fattens up first.
If Fat Head, Stubby, and Patricia eat enough, they’ll wake up with a lacey layer of new skin. Then it’s an aerobic day of rubbing along the edges of the driftwood to exfoliate. Without humidity, the new skin dries around their toes, constricting blood flow. Then I have to give them a pedicure with a heat moistened Q-tip. If I’m lucky, the skin slips off like a loose sock, but sometimes the skin calcifies and they lose a nail. Stubby’s lost three.
Fully nourished, their bodies glistening, they will want to have sex. Last week, I found two oblong eggs and had to stop grading finals. I held my breath as I lifted the membrane-thin eggs out of the cage. I put them into an ice cream tub cushioned with cotton balls. If they roll around, the embryos will detach. If my brother’s car had sirens, I would have used them as I raced over to the East Bay Vivarium, where they are now incubating.
For over a decade, my brother had been very ill, first with Graves’ disease, then achalasia, an illness of mystery.
I chose our father who was bedridden. My sister chose our brother.
“Dad’s already so old,” Wen said. “But Tim might still have a chance.”
Wen and I shared our family duties, but it may not have been the way our brother wanted. Now, Tim’s getting what he’s always wanted, his elder sister’s attention, another continuation of love.
Everyone gets grumpy. I remember how Tim comforted Fat Head with a few gentle strokes. Our last year was our roughest. The more I took care of our father, the more Tim felt he wasn’t cared for. His illness made him difficult and I was brutal too. Illness gave me a different brother and him a cold sister.
When the medical examiner called with the toxicology report, her choice of words stunned me. “Your brother had a very, very big heart. Over big.” If she’d said, enlarged heart, cardiomyopathy, or diseased heart, would the medical impossibility have given me relief?
Dr. Moffat’s tone was gently unhurried. Her information was clear and her crisp delivery told me what was known and what was unknown. Her patience was not learned, but as the Chinese term calls talent, heaven birthed. She let me ask and ask, her answer always the same, but each time spoken with a longer breath: “Your brother had a very big heart.” I asked to hear it again and again even if it made me sadder than I could bear.
Cruelly, I’d called my brother an addict, a shortcut to alleviate my anger. Truthfully, I was short on love. Severe pain and the opiates made him angry and aggressive. Fear made me impatient. Our family does not respect pain. Our family culture took bad moods to heart, which turned to rage. Our way was to hurt in isolation.
Now I feel for my brother and feel my own flawed patience. My brother is gone and all I can do now is trust that he hasn’t taken his pain, or mine, with him.
Crickets also have a short life. Here’s how not to get eaten by a gecko. Stand on the gecko’s head. I’ve learned that this applies to many situations. When a mean boss blames you, a creepy friend betrays you, or raging pain obliterates kindness, the question is not why. Why is never a road to the heart. The way is to step away, to not feed fear.
The crickets teach me: Never run. Stand on the gecko’s head; step close to what pains you. Perch above fear. Proximity offers intimacy and destroys rage.
And my brother teaches me: Be kind to the grumpy.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.