Last weekend I posted Part I of an excerpt from my second book, due for publication next summer. The story was the account of the final days of our iguana, Rosemary, after a devastating diagnosis. In Part II, acceptance of her imminent loss comes with the realization that all is as it is meant to be.
"I am so sorry," said Dr. Roach as Vicky and I gathered our belongings to leave.
In the reception area I waited in emotional agony to pay the bill. Rosemary's appointment had consisted of an ultrasound and an x-ray to confirm the fatal prognosis; money well spent.
“I just need a minute,” I said to Vicky as we approached the parking lot. Once seated inside the car I allowed myself to release the pain that was welling up from my gut. Tears gushed out of me as a wave of intense sadness purged forth. In its wake was the sobering realization that Rosemary’s and my twenty years together were swiftly coming to an end. As the ardent feelings calmed, it occurred to me that my prayers had actually been answered. Six months prior to this terminal diagnosis, I feared that I had already lost her in a most dreadful way.
In April my lack of vigilance almost killed Rosemary. I pleaded and prayed for her life. She and I had come too far for the end of her story to include such a sad demise.
My friends Missy and Mary Anne were visiting me at the time during spring break. We had spent an eighty degree day in sunshine that tricked the Adirondacks into believing the coldest, most extreme winter of the century was behind us. Rosemary laid on the deck most of the day soaking up much needed unfiltered sunlight. That evening I presented a book talk with Rosemary at the Canastota Public Library. All was well.
The next morning it appeared that winter had returned to humble us once more. Brutal wind and drizzle turned into blowing snow by early afternoon. The last time I had taken notice of Rosemary she was strutting across the kitchen floor in the late morning. Distracted by my visiting company, I didn’t even think about her again until evening. Our dinner was warming in the oven and my guests and I were enjoying a glass of wine. I chopped zucchini and grapes into bite sized pieces, then went to locate the iguana on her heating pad in the living room to feed her. She wasn’t there. I searched several other locations around the house where she frequently napped. When my search came up empty again, a bolt of fear shot through my limbs. By now Missy, Mary Anne and Rod were also engaged in the search around the house.
My brain whipped lightning fast through the following scenario. Rosemary had just spent a summer day outdoors. She had convinced herself that good weather still existed on the other side of the dog door which she had learned to exit. I dashed out the door, leaped down the steps and sprinted around the deck preparing myself for what I knew I was going to see. Under three inches of snow I found her lying by the dormant remains of her favorite yarrow plant. I grabbed the lifeless body and scrambled back into the house. My shrieks brought Missy and Mary Anne running into the laundry room as I hastily filled the utility sink with warm water.
Only one word describes how Rosemary looked; dead. She was the color of gray storm clouds announcing pending doom. Her mouth slacked open while the rest of her body hung limp. In disbelief I stared at her lying motionless in the water. How had I let it happen?
“This is not the way it is supposed to end,” I sobbed.
Mary Anne, Missy and I began rubbing her extremities and her torso under the warm water. She did not appear to be breathing which raised the level of anguish even more. In my despair I became aware of Rod pacing back and forth behind us, craning his head every once in awhile to observe progress.
“She’s gone, Anne. She’s gone. There is no use,” he admonished quietly.
Those words twisted in me like a dagger resulting in uncontrollable sobs. Neither Mary Anne nor Missy turned to console me. Their hands were too busy massaging Rosemary’s limbs and keeping her head above water. For an agonizingly long time we focused on Rosemary. My sniffling sobs were the only sounds in the room. As time marched on I feared that Rod was right. The iguana’s body remained flaccid. Her eyes stared blankly from either side of her head through droopy lids. From time to time Missy stopped massaging to pinch Rosemary’s toes. When no response resulted she dutifully took to massaging again, never once indicating it was time to give up.
“It can’t end this way. Why didn’t I pay closer attention to her this morning when she was in the kitchen?”
My guests could only soothe me with words. Their hands refused to stop. For another twenty-five minutes we rubbed Rosemary’s body in the warm water. In the back of my mind I remembered watching a piece on the news years ago. Florida was experiencing severe cold that threatened citrus groves and other temperature sensitive crops in the southern part of the state. Feral iguanas, abandoned in the wilderness by pet owners, were falling out of trees. Although they appeared dead, they began to thaw once tossed into the warm interior of a municipal pickup truck sent out to collect them. Eventually, the truck swarmed with energetic iguanas who returned from the frozen brink none the worse for wear.
The image of the revived iguanas replaced doom, as I continued to will Rosie back to life in the sink. Iguanas can survive temperatures in the low forties and upper thirties, (Fahrenheit). When I found Rosemary the air temperature was twenty-six degrees. We estimated that she had been outside for over six hours. In the end it may have been the three inches of insulating snow that saved her life by keeping her tissues from dropping below freezing. At that point her organs would have been frozen, destroying the delicate cellular structures that composed them.
After forty-five minutes, Missy received minimal reaction from pinching a toe. Rosemary contracted her leg ever so slightly in response. Slowly but surely, she started to revive. Eventually, her eyes focused and the eyelids widened into full consciousness. We continued our vigil at the sink, for the core of Rosemary’s torso was slower to warm-up. Finally, when the lizard was able to swim in the water on her own, we deemed it safe to remove her from the sink. I stuffed her under my shirt, securing her between my wool sweater and warm skin while I assembled dinner plates with overcooked leftovers.
At the table we clinked our glasses in a toast to Rosemary’s immortality and to happy endings. With the crisis behind us we nicknamed her Frozemary. I kept kissing the nose protruding above my turtleneck and affirmed appreciation over and over for the chance to write a different ending to the iguana’s story.
Rosemary’s final diagnosis, the one that would ultimately claim her life was out of my control. The quiet moments after my emotional release in the car, allowed me to accept just that. Death on the night of the deep freeze, would not have given me a chance to spend quality time with her before saying goodbye.
At home I soaked her in the same life-saving sink everyday so that she could relieve herself comfortably. I fed her kale, snap peas, peppers, grapes and scrambled eggs by hand. She spent much of her time on her heating pad by the living room window. When it got too warm there she was free to move away onto a dog bed or underneath the cabinet that supported our TV. On sunny days we laid her out on the deck. As if a plan greater than we can know was in place, our petunia plants, for the first time ever, survived for several more months once they were moved indoors. Mood-lifting pink and purple flowers continued to blossom through late fall, much to Rosemary’s gastric delight.
The week before Christmas it became evident that Rosemary was ready to die. She refused to eat; spitting out any food that I forced into her mouth. Her wonderful disposition never changed which made the decision difficult. I always look for some profound change in behavior or temperament. With Rosemary it never appeared. The appointment was made and two days before Christmas on an unseasonably warm reptile-loving day, Vicky agreed to accompany me, yet again, to Canastota for Rosemary’s final visit.
In the morning of the last day, I was scheduled for a therapeutic massage. After years of middle-age physical discomfort and only temporary relief from prescription medication, I decided to try a holistic approach to self-maintenance. Rod had given me two sessions for Christmas the year before and after finally redeeming them eight months later with favorable results, I was hooked.
I climbed between the pre-warmed flannel sheets on the massage table and lay on my stomach, face down against the headrest. Air forced out of my lungs encouraged my body to relax in the bed. At low volume, Enya performed in that mesmerizing pitch that defines new age music. Suzy Stripp entered the room and pulled the sheets up to my neck. She laid her hands on the right side of my spine and began to push gently into my back. Her deliberate heavy breaths in and out were a signal for me to do the same. I complied in deep inhalations and then we parted company. On this particular morning my head was full. It took some time to chase away the chatter that had accumulated. Eventually, Suzy’s hands created a flow of energy that cleansed the debris from my mind. I allowed thoughts to meander in a linear formation. Anything was possible. Into Rosemary’s body I crawled. It was she who was lying on the table under Suzy’s hands. I could imagine Suzy carefully massaging the protruding ribs and hip bones. It forced me to see my lizard’s deteriorating condition. I crawled in deeper and tried to scrape the killing mass out of her belly.
There was only one heartbreaking truth of my day. In just a few hours, Rosemary would be gone. The loss was going to cut deep and take time to heal. Tears dripped off of my nose and splashed onto my hands. Although I knew Suzy would understand, I didn’t want her to know. I needed her to continue manipulating my shell; opening spaces for the sadness to drain. When Suzy expertly located a sensitive pressure point, the searing pain aligned with my loss and jolted my thoughts. I exited the lizard. Next, I was sitting with Rosemary on my lap. Several children were reaching out to touch her. They bombarded me with questions.
“What does she eat?” “How old is she?” “Where does she sleep?” “How long have you had her?”
The answers poured out like a recording. I had answered them hundreds of times over the last twenty years. I was Rosie’s interpreter. All she had to do was sit in my lap and just be.
Switching thoughts again, I was reminded that the next day life at Moose River Farm would go on as usual. Rosemary would be gone but horses, dogs, donkeys and everybody else who resided there would still require my attention, my care and my affection. I would know when Rod was preparing the burial site. I would know when Rod had removed the body from my car. And I would know when he had placed her into the hole that had been dug in her honor.
Later that day Dr. Roach handled us with the utmost compassion. I held Rosemary. This time my hands would not revive her after she inhaled the anesthetic gas. My eyes stared up at the ceiling for I could not bear to watch the needle puncture her heart. I am forever grateful to Dr. Roach for providing the end of this beautiful creature’s life.
The next day Rod buried Rosemary’s body in the corner of our backyard where she had spent many a summer day basking in the sunshine. It's comforting to know she is tucked below the earth in eternal slumber while we continue with the process of living above ground.
In the days that followed, Rod searched the internet for an appropriate memorial to immortalize twenty-one years of a special reptilian life. Now, this concrete iguana with the familiar Mona Lisa smile watches over Rosemary as she rests in glorious peace.
RIP Rosemary, 1993-2014