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Amy’s water broke a couple of Saturdays ago. She thought she’d wet the bed. Ha ha ha, these pregnant ladies and their strange goings on!

I expressed my usual sensitivity: “Isn’t pregnancy beautiful? Now let’s go work in the yard.”

By Monday afternoon she was on a gurney with a pitocin drip dropping drips of baby-causing oxytocin into her. I stood by her side in the Adam position, my hands clasped together in front of my crotch, watching lamely while nurses came in and out to look at monitors and check on Amy’s ever-dilating parts.

“I love you,” I said, a hand resting gently on her forehead.

“Where’s my epidural?” she said, smiling I think.

The epidural came. A guy wheeled in a cart carrying various lancets and needles and prods and swabs, and he stabbed the heck out of her spine while I stood there holding Amy’s shoulder. “How y’ doin’?” I asked, like a moron.

“You’ll feel some pressure,” said the anesthesiologist. Amy breathed in and out stoically, her head down.

Then an hour later the doctor, his head flanked by my wife’s raised knees, said, “Just pretend like you’re going number two, Amy. That’s a girl!” The doctor who delivered Louisa, our third, had said the same thing: Do a Number Two, Amy.

No, this is Number Four. Tell Amy to go number four, guy.

And then at 11:44pm, April 26th, Charlotte sluiced out. And there she was, a tout le monde, 5 pounds and change, her head all purply from using it as a battering ram against Amy’s cervix these last few weeks. I clapped and kissed Amy on the forehead. (My job through all this was to attend to Amy’s forehead in all things.)

By 1am, baby Charlotte was in intensive care, intubated and IV’d with a cocktail of antibiotics, and I was at home asleep. The next day I collected the kids from some saintly neighbors and sent them to school. That afternoon we all went to see Mom, but no one could see Baby. Baby—that’s the name the nurses use—could not come home until she figured out those life skills we call breathing and eating. Until then, we’d have to visit her in NICU only at certain times and go through a cleansing process similar to what those top-secret government biohazard scientists had to go through in The Andromeda Strain. To newborns, we are filthy, filthy creatures.

A week after Charlotte’s birth, while we were in bed watching Sherlock Holmes, Amy started leaking again, but this time it wasn’t amniotic fluid. The next morning, after spending all night in the ER, Amy went in for a procedure whose active verb is scrape and I sat in my car at 6am in a McDonald’s parking lot, a dull vacant expression on my face, drinking a huge Coke and wondering whether my wife was bleeding to death.

In the afternoon, as Amy was climbing out of an anesthesia cloud, I asked a young heroic couple to watch the kids and I drove to the hospital to visit my daughter in ICU and then my wife in ICU. The nurse told me that during the procedure Amy had lost all but 500 milliliters of blood. She almost went the way of the pioneer woman. She was pale, and her lips were pink and gray, like a trout. She, too, was intubated and IV’d and drain- bagged, and she was parched and could have no water. When she talked she sounded like Grover, and I could tell she was glad to see me but wasn’t in the mood to talk about the Utah Jazz. I put my hand on her forehead and tried not to be a big fat sissy.

The kids and I spent the next few days eating noodle casseroles the neighbors brought by. I spent the week maintaining normalcy, which is exactly what Amy told me to do. I gave Lydia burritos for breakfast. I forgot to bathe the children. I swept the floor again.

With each hour, both my ICU girls got better and better. By Thursday they were both moved to less invasive care, which meant that I could bring the kids to see their mother. Louisa jumped on Amy’s lap the moment we got into the room. Ben and Lydia ate all the cookies and pulled out flowers from the vases and wheezed into the AirLife Incentive Spirometer and told every nurse who stopped by that they had a new sister named Charlotte. And they even got to peek through the nursery window at Charlotte, their noses and mouths smashed on the glass. The next day, Amy came home in the afternoon and Charlotte in the evening, and then all members of my family were out of the hospital.

After dropping a box of Krispie Kreme donuts on the front counter, I told the nurses, “No offense, but I hope I never see any of you again.”

“The feeling is mutual,” they said. “Do we have to share these with the nurses in NICU?”

I drove out of the Timpanogos Regional Hospital parking lot exultant. Everyone was fine. Everyone would be home. Life, now, could start anew.

At 3am, when Charlotte let out a piercing squawk I could feel in my solarplexus, I thought, Oh yeah, forgot about that part.

A quiet morning, all dark still, new snow. I’m hunched over a bowl of cereal, scripture laid open on the table. The house was quiet, writes Wallace Stevens, because it had to be. I don’t like how much I like being up so early, being the only one who knows what this day’s all about so far. It’s not about much so far. But at least it’s quiet. Still would be a better word. It’s a Christmas word, a word less about volume than salutary emptiness. I’ve read all this before; it’s not the content I’m after anymore but the access of perfection to the page. Stevens again. I don’t even know what he means, but the only way I know to keep from being a damnable rascal is to lean over the book—leaning early, if I can revise Stevens, and wanting “much most” to be the saint to whom the book is true.

Someone’s at the bottom of the stairs in the dark. I hear whispering. I lean over the rail and look down and there’s Lydia, or the head of Lydia, and her bare shoulders, peeping out from an upright mummybag, which she sleeps in for no reason other than it’s not the hum-drum sheets. When she sees me she stops her whispering, as I knew she would.

“Daaad,” she says. “I’m imagining!”

“About what?”

“About writing my name in cursive!”

I haven’t been writing, but not because there has been nothing to write about. I’ve been eyeball deep in other stuff. Two days ago Amy got a call from Lydia’s elementary school psychologist. She wants to meet Lydie and get up an IEP before the end of the school year. Lydia has been doing just fine in school. Her teacher’s been fantastic. Lydia tells us about friends and recess, though her teacher says she’s still a solitary player, like some other kids.

Today’s Day Two of their spring break. I asked Lydia what she did all day today and she said, “Stare out the window.” And she couldn’t have been more happy about that. She reads Amelia Bedelia to her younger sister, even when her younger sister refuses to wear clothes, and at times, beyond belief, she gets along just fine with her older brother. She skips around the house humming U2’s “Magnificent” or the theme music to Wii Super Mario Bros. She’ll turn 7 in May.

There has been recent debate about the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in May 2013. The American Psychological Association has made public an early draft and invited public comment, which seems weird to me. What are morons like me gonna add to the conversation? One of the more controversial proposed changes is to get rid of Aspergers Syndrome and merge it with autism on a single spectrum. More on that if I find out I should care.

It’s been a while, I know. I’m sorry. I had to cook dinner.

My daughter Lydia loves “Spirit of Radio” by Rush. Of course she does. And she loves Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk.” She loves Coldplay, and Coldplay loves her right back. She also loves the Strawberry Shortcake soundtrack, whose composers found a way to write songs that lay eggs in your brain and hatch worms that burrow into your prefrontal cortex all day long. (Don’t. Ever. Play the song, “Friendship Boogie.” It will rewire your neuronal pathways permanently. You will still be singing that song in your mind long after you’ve lost control of your bowels for good.)

Lydia likes this music mostly because we like it. There’s no way Lydia’s going to go off and discover the Arctic Monkeys all on her own. We spoon-feed her this stuff because it’s what we play when we’re driving around or doing the dishes or trying to get Lydia’s parakeets to stop pooping in their water. Our music becomes her music, but it’s still pretty fun to watch her experience the Beatles for the first time. You discover the extent to which good music is enjoyed innately.

When Lydia hears a song she likes—in the the car, for example—she begs us to play it over and over until she owns it. “Okay, last time!” we shout from up front. And then we say it again when we play it again. One time she borrowed my i-Pod and speakers and played “Limelight,” the Ayn Rand-inflected Rush anthem, at least a dozen times in a row. Interestingly, she does not sing the songs she listens to—she’s busy imagining. Sometimes we’ll see her turn off the radio and walk off, her back straight, mumbling stories to herself. Her imagination needs a soundtrack; she carries the music off with her after we get puking tired of it and shut it off.

Louisa sings and dances to her favorites. It’s a public performance, too—out on the hard wood floor, full body participation. She favors the hits of the RockBand 2 soundtrack, but she’s also been known to want Coldplay every hour. What is it about that band that children love? They’re schmaltzy, sure, but they’re no Strawberry Shortcake.

Our son doesn’t dance much to the music he likes, but we hear him singing behind his closed door. He’s too young for a Megan Fox poster, but when I hear him in his room bellowing out “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, I start sniffing the air for pot. It’s all my fault, of course. Once I saw the way Ben responded to my kind of music, I started grooming his ear to take in my favorites, from Thelonius Monk to Nirvana. “In Bloom” is, of course, harmless. But really, Dad–“Welcome to the Jungle”? He’s in there on a Saturday morning with his friend Aisea, behind the closed door, singing, “You are a very sexy guuurl / You’re very haahd to pleeez . . . .” Pleeez is right. He’s too young for that crap.

Lydia, like most sensible women I know, doesn’t care much for the hard stuff. She likes “Spoonman,” maybe a little Led Zeppelin. But even with Led, her favorite song is the synth-friendly “All My Love.” (Not to be confused with “Whole Lotta Love,” a song you have to be over 21 to listen to. Walk through the beaded curtain at the video store sometime—they’ll play it for you.) She doesn’t remember the names of bands or songs; she has no truck with that kind of triviality. She knows what she likes, and she waits till we play it. And then she’ll want us to play it till the button breaks.

The plague

It struck Louisa first, last week. Caked on her peejays, her pillow case, her pink blanket, her bedspread, her fitted sheet. I didn’t even notice at first. She showed up at my bedside at 2am complaining about whatever, and I rolled out of bed and took her by the hand and hurried her down the stairs, and all the while she clucked, clucked, clucked about whatever had made her get out of bed this time, and I ignored her, as I usually do, knowing that if I could just get her tucked back into bed, sing her a few bars of “Blackbird,” and tuck a coupla stuffed kitties under her arm, she’d go back to sleep, and so could I.

The smell hit me the moment I stepped into the girls’ room. And there it was, on every available surface. And I looked down and there it was, all over Louisa’s chin and shirt in a technicolor bib.

And right then I knew. It starts now, I thought, and ends when the last of us gets it. Before us, the Thompsons and Bigelows and Penningtons and Baxters. The ultimate act of consecration: spreading disease to all members of the family, each according to his needs. Louisa gets first turn.

I could have handled it all myself, but I thought Amy would enjoy practicing our teamwork, so I hollered up at her. She set up the little mattress at the foot of our bed, with two big silver mixing bowls on either side of a fresh new pillow. I took Louisa into the bathroom and stripped her and dumped her clothes in the sink and turned on the faucet and toweled her down and got her some new clothes and sent her up to her mother.

Then I stripped the sheets, all the while indulging in hypochondria. I could feel the contaminants working their way through my fingers, up my arms, and down into my stomach. I felt my insides wobble like green jello.

I spent the night jumping out of bed every time Louisa made the slightest sound and grabbing one of the silver bowls. “Get it in the bowl, sweetheart!” Then I’d hold her hair out of her face while she dribbled the contents of her empty stomach into the bowls we use to mix our bread dough. Then she’d look up at me and give me what she calls the “good thumb’s up” and she’d roll over and go back to sleep.

Lydia was next. She, too, was struck while sleeping, only she was on the top bunk in a sleeping bag with two stuffed animals. I heard her cry out, and I knew. Lydie’s turn. I got to her bed in time to step on the lower bunk and catch the second volley in my hands. Lydia leaned forward and deposited her retch in my cupped hands, like she was bestowing a precious gift. I bellowed up to Amy again, who came down and told me to calm down for once and just deal.

I dumped the contents of my hands into a rubber toy box and grabbed Lydia by the armpits and carried her, my arms straight out, into the bathroom for the same routine we went through with Louisa the night before.

The sleeping bag and pillow case and bedspread all went into the tub to be rinsed. So did Dan, her penguin, and Scarlatti, her scarlet macaw, who both had been shampooed in Lydia’s sick.

Another nice touch: the remnants of a cascade, having run down the safety bar, down the side of Lydie’s bed, down the side of Louisa’s bed below, and puddled on the carpet.

We led her up to the Bed of Sickness, flanked by the Big Blech Basins, where she spent the night in a 45-minute cycle. Lydia was stoic in her suffering. “That’s it,” she’d say when it was all over. “No more.” And she’d roll over and go back to sleep.

By 4am Amy had it. By 6, I had it.

Ben survived. We sent him to ski day with a gallon Ziploc bag, just in case. That night, after he came home in good health, we put a bucket on his dresser by his bed and laid a plastic tablecloth on the carpet, expecting Ben to run anchor for us, but so far he’s decided not to participate.

As far as plagues go, it wasn’t all that bad. I can think of worse things happening. By this morning we had all pulled out of it. We made scrambled eggs and hot cocoa and exulted in health, though with a renewed sense of its fragility. We’re more than happy to pass the plague on to the next family. We wouldn’t want to keep it to ourselves.

Four Bamboo Sticks

I was telling Lydia about Polar Bear swimming. It was mid-morning, and we were walking on the levee along the delta in Stockton, California, where Amy’s parents live. I saw a seal pop its head out of the water; she and Louisa didn’t, or couldn’t, see it. She had a dirty bamboo stick in her hand and a lemon Starburst in her mouth. (She actually likes lemon.) In the other hand, a dried reed bent at the middle, her fishing pole. While I told her about Polar Bear swimming, she walked over the rocks to the water’s edge and dipped the reed in the water and yanked a huge salmon out of the delta and told me to put it on the chain with the other invisible fish she’d caught—mostly trout.

I tucked my freezing hands in my pockets and asked her if she wanted to go swimming.

She looked at me with narrow eyes and said, “Are you serious.” It wasn’t a question.

I had Polar Bear swimming on my mind because we were planning to sit in my brother-in-law’s hot tub on New Year’s Eve, and undoubtedly we would dare each other to jump into the cold pool next to the hot tub and tread water until our blood was about the consistency of wild cherry Slurpee and then get back in the hot tub. It is exceedingly macho to do this, even if (A) the word “macho,” when you use it in English, sounds cretinous, and (B) swimming in cold water surely can’t be good for your reproductive organs. (Seeing as how we’re not interested in having any more kids after Child Four, that may be a cheap way to end my breeding power.)

Hot, then cold, then hot. Quite a sensational experience of opposites.

Like Lydia herself.

A few days ago we went to Six Flags in Vallejo, and I was asked to accompany my delightful ten year-old niece, Morgan, on all the rides, like the Medusa, calculated to mangle thoracic vertebrae. After throwing up in the bushes, we limped over to the dolphin show where the rest of the family had taken seats, way outside the splash zone. Right on schedule, the tall guy with the stupid hat who always sits in front of Lydia at every engagement—anytime, anywhere—shuffled over and took his place in front of Lydia, so she came over and sat on my lap. The dolphins leapt, the dolphins splashed, the dolphins waved their tails and and held their heads high and smiled their smug smiles and looked exceedingly cute and un-shark-ish, and Lydia, Nature’s Child, loved every minute, as we knew she would.

At the end of the show, when we told her we were going home, she exploded.

“O! now what!” Her new favorite expression–also a grammatical question that isn’t a question. “This is the worst day of my life!” She threw her hands in the air and looked into the cloudy heavens for divine intervention. “Every day is the worst day! I’m never ever coming back to Six Flags again!”

The next day her affective gyroscope spun the other way and the sun came out over Star Land. After we walked along the delta, she wrote this story, titled “The 4 Bamboo Sticks”:

On my walk I saw 4 bamboo sticks and we all got our own bamboo sticks. And we walked all the way home. And we had so much fun we forgot all about Six Flags. The End.

We were sitting at grandma Crum’s table in the afternoon, a cheerful sun streaming through the open blinds, a plastic bucket full of markers in the center of the table, the two girls marking up every page of every coloring book grandma owned. Lydia was on a roll. After spinning out The 4 Bamboo Sticks, she wrote me about a hundred love letters. “To Dad,” she wrote at the top of them. Smiling girls with a dozen fingers on each round hand, floating in constellations of hearts and stars, a galaxy of love. She drew a girl that had a great big heart for a body—a great big green heart bulging with love for me, the father of the luckiest girl in Christendom.

She gave me this picture and said, “Daddy,” also not a question, and then she went back to coloring.

An hour later she was sprinkling the bedspread with tears.

“Why are you scaring my head off?” she screamed at me.

“I’m not trying to scare you,” I said. “I just don’t want you to throw things at your sister.” She’d just thrown a Fisher Price lantern at Louisa and slammed the door closed.

“Fine! I’ll stay here and never ever go on a walk ever again!”

“That’s not necessary, Lydia.”

“I know I’m in big trouble!” And then the real zinger: “I know you’re going to kill me!

What happened to that girl with the great big heart, the green one shaped more like an arrowhead than a heart? Maybe she’d meant it to be one of those optical illusions that look like one thing at one point and another at another. Look now, and it’s a heart. Look again, it’s a weapon.

Why fret? Life’s most acute learning moments come from dramatic contrast. A cold pool, then a hot tub.

My wife Amy got a hot/cold blast just yesterday. She got a note from Lydia, who for the past six months has been quite a prolific author of interpersonal notes of all kinds.  The first note she gave Amy was gushing with good stuff:

I love my mother so. And I like to be with her. And here is something I want to tell you. I love you.

In the left margin was a drawing of an oval womb inside which a floating a stick baby said, “hi.”

Later Amy got a note on yellow paper. Lydia uses a little yellow notepad to send us sweet letters with nothing but stamps on them. The stamps, I’m guessing, act as staccato endearments: the more stamps, the more love. Sometimes she sneaks up behind us and crams a folded note into our pants, a note covered in dog stamps and candle stamps and smiley stamps and owl stamps. Amy got one with cupcakes and coffee mugs all over it.

And then later, after Amy asked Lydia to do something she didn’t want to do, Lydia asked for the cupcake note back. She took out a pencil and drew a big fat ex over the whole thing. Then she wrote one word right in the middle: canceled.

[The following is a ditty I submitted to the Deseret News. They didn’t want it.]

In December 1991 my younger brother Kevin started dropping weight. Mom thought it was the paper route—all that pedaling through the slush, up the steep hills, with awkward sacks slung over the handlebars, his snowcap all sweaty. But when he started blacking out at school and pitching, face-first, into the Jefferson Junior High cafeteria lasagna, my parents had him checked out.

I was there when they came home from the doctor’s. Kevin’s cheeks were wet with tears. My parents led me and my two sisters to the family room for what was obviously going to be a solemn family council. Since nothing ever happened to us, and because the drama didn’t involve me, I was pretty excited.

“Your brother has diabetes,” said dad. Since the rest of us knew zilch about diabetes, he might as well have said, “Your brother has triskaidekaphobia.” They explained that Kevin’s pancreas was not producing insulin as it should, and it was making him sick. He would need to spend some time in the hospital over Christmas, which meant that the rest of us, too, would celebrate Christmas in a hospital.

I’m sure someone more pliant would have thought it novel to spend Christmas in a hospital, but I was annoyed. I was even more annoyed when I found out who would be the unlucky kid covering Kevin’s paper route while he was in the hospital. As a teenager, I kept annoyance as my default emotion.

So two days before Christmas Kevin checked into Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. On Christmas Eve Grandpa Smith graciously volunteered to spend the night on the fuchsia fold-out next to Kevin, who was now all tubed up with insulin drip.

On Christmas Day my father woke me at 5am and we folded and bagged copies of the Salt Lake Tribune and threw them in the back of the Voyager. Then we drove into six inches of pristine powder in the dark suburbs of Kearns, into the most profound stillness I had ever experienced. At one point after tossing an orange missile into a snow-covered juniper bush, I stood on the sidewalk in all that stillness and watched the street light on 5400 South turn from green to yellow to red, without a car anywhere on the road, without a noise but the muted fullness of a world covered in snow. I was as moved as a self-absorbed teenager can be.

Back at home, while I was in a hot shower, my parents stuffed Christmas in black garbage bags and loaded the van. Then they woke my two sisters and we piled into the van and drove up to Primary Children’s Hospital where I discovered, to my surprise, that Kevin was not the only child spending Christmas morning in the hospital. As I looked in each room, checking out the inmates, I recall seeing a bald boy with a bandana on his head sitting up in his bed watching TV. I let myself indulge in the noble sentiments of Christmas among the suffering.

Kevin beamed when we walked into his room, black garbage bags over our shoulders like hapless Christmas Elves. He had his hospital pajamas on, and he yanked up his shirt to the chin and showed us how he had learned, after practicing on an orange, how to pump a squirt of insulin into his own guts. With the earned boldness of a hospitalized child, he also told us that from now on he would have to lance his finger and squeeze out his blood onto a strip to test his sugar levels. Since neither I nor my sisters had any idea what our sugar levels were, we envied his bionic coolness, though we had some vague and (it turned out) inaccurate understanding that Kevin would never touch a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup again in mortality.

We opened presents. Santa brought me an Erasure CD, which means I must have been a pretty bad boy that year. Conveniently Kevin got a CD player, so we danced around the hospital bed to British synth pop with butterscotch Life Savers in our mouths. It was not an unpleasant Christmas, not by a long shot.

Sometime during the morning a middle-aged married couple knocked on the door. They gave us a large netted Christmas stocking stuffed with fruit and candy.

“We were here at Christmas with our son a few years ago,” they said. “We know what it’s like.”

Dad was inspired by this family’s charity and decided to inflict his inspiration on the rest of us. The next year on Christmas Eve he made us go caroling to the unfortunate patients at Holy Cross Hospital, where he worked as a health care consultant. Most patients waved us into their rooms with joy, a few waved us off with a Scrooge-like grunt. A few patients greeted us with such elation that we might has well been the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” rather than a sextet from the west side singing Alfred Burt, a shave off-key. It felt good to pass along the holiday bedside manner, even if we were targeting people who, in their weak condition, couldn’t flee or fend us off.

When the family gets together for the holidays and someone starts a great big cheeseball of nostalgia rolling, Kevin’s Diabetic Christmas is the one we all remember most vividly. Positive psychologists—the guys who study happiness, of all things—talk about how the “unquantifiables” tend to trump the material stuff when it comes to joy. Open the i-pod Nano on Christmas morning and the happiness peaks practically before you get it out of the box. Spend time with your family in the hospital listening to Erasure and eating oranges and watching your brother jab himself in the belly with a needle, and you might end up living happily ever after.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Lydia is an absent-minded little girl. A while back I compared her to Tom Bombadil, the only creature in all Middle Earth who is not tempted by the Ring of Power, and the only one, according to Tolkien, absent-minded enough to lose it if entrusted with it. When Lydia puts something down, it’s as good as gone. In the summer she loses a pair of shoes a day. She’s been known to step over her shoes with her bare feet on the way out a neighbor’s door. We would have to spend half my salary on Lydie’s shoes if we didn’t have kind neighbors knocking on our door, a dirty pair of purple Crocs dangling from their fingers.

Every night when we tuck her into her sleeping bag—yes, she insists on sleeping in a sleeping bag above her bed covers—she asks, “Where’s Penguin?” And we answer, “How should I know where Penguin is?” She doesn’t understand the logic of this question, so we end up turning the house upside down every night, looking for Dan, the stuffed penguin, Lydia’s bedfellow. We find Dan on the toilet, outside at the bottom of a plastic slide, stuffed in a suitcase.

Her grandmother once sent her a little plastic prism. Lydia took it up with joy and held it up to the sunlight coming down from the skylight and split the sun into a thousand colorful sparkles. Then, twenty seconds later, she put it down somewhere. Gone.

Apparently she has other things on her mind.

You may reasonably ask why, considering her absent-mindedness, we thought it would be a good idea to give her a guinea pig—a sentient being that requires, at the very least, regularly-dispensed food and water. And you may reasonably and more productively ask this question of Lydia’s mother Amy and not me—it was all her idea. Perhaps she was inspired by the tale of Horse Boy, the three year-old autistic whose language skills improved once he started riding Mongolian horses. Autism specialists call this approach hippotherapy, which goes to show you that even people with advanced degrees can get their animals all mixed up.

Actually, it may not be a bad idea to have Lydia sit on Sammy, her guinea pig, because it would be an inexpensive, though likely traumatic, way to get rid of him. Amy thought getting Lydie a guinea pig would teach her some responsibility, and, to our astonishment, it has. When the water gets low, she’ll fill it. When the food runs out and Sammy makes that violin-from-a-horror-movie noise, she’ll get him a leaf of romaine lettuce. From time to time she’ll go to Sammy’s cage on the floor of the pantry and squeak to him and stick a naked toe through the bars and offer Sammy a taste of her toenail. She’s been pretty good to Sammy, and Sammy’s been pretty good at squealing as loud as bus brakes and pooping all over his cage.

But alas, Sammy’s got to go. Apparently pregnant women shouldn’t be around cats and other furry animals because their feces could be contaminated with toxoplasma. Nobody cares if the rest of us breathe microscopic fecal matter contaminated with potentially lethal oocysts, but when pregnant women are involved, let’s all hyperventilate—but not around a full litter box. Anyway, I’m pretty sure you get toxoplasmosis from cats rather than guinea pigs, so I suspect Amy’s using her fetus as an excuse, which she does on occasion when taking seconds of dessert or when asked to participate in the Act of Marriage.

We’ve asked around the neighborhood, and nobody wants him. My neighbor down the street said he wasn’t interested but asked if we wanted a rabbit that their daughter had lost interest in caring for. We know we can take him to the animal shelter to have him “put down,” a practice far more sinister than merely assaulting his dignity. (Hey, I was put down every day in 7th grade.) The shelter, however, would charge us fifty bucks for “handling” (translation: injecting with lethal poison) and “disposal” (translation: burning the limp furry body in an incinerator).

But paying someone to kill our pet sounds to me like passing the buck. Shouldn’t I be man enough to take the poor, unwanted rodent out back and do him in myself, like my ancestors did with their horses and old dogs? Or has modern suburban life, scrubbed of any sign of nature’s red tooth and claw, made us into a squeamish lot, too delicate to deal death ourselves, except when participating in recreational activities like elk hunting and drive-bys? We’ll eat the corn-fed protein of the food industry’s mass slaughter–never mind the debeaking, the crowded pens, the cattle prods, the throat-slitting—but we wince at the thought of doing it ourselves.

When I began contemplating my life as a guinea pig slaughterer, I called my dad, who one afternoon had taken one of my sister’s hamsters “back to the pet store.” How did he do it, I asked? He said he gripped ol’ Felix, the hapless hamster with only three feet, and took him out to the back yard and zipped him up in a freezer bag and set him on the ground and brought a carpenter’s hammer down on his head. Dad said one of his neighbors devised a less bloody method for putting a pet to death. He put the family’s long-in-the-tooth, cancer-stricken toy poodle in a box, cut a hole in the box, ran a hose from the exhaust pipe of his truck to the hole in the box, and gassed the little guy.

Ew.

Amy has forbidden me to talk about this with anyone. The first few times I floated the idea in public garnered twisted looks of  horror, and dry heaving. People are odd that way: have a pet “put down” and people awwww sympathetically; say you’re going to put your pet in a Ziploc bag and crush his skull with an Ames True Temper sledge hammer, and suddenly you’re the bad guy. We have a bizarre collective moral compass.

Seriously, I’m just talking tough. I could never bring myself to do it. Those deep brown trembling eyes would look at me through the plastic of the freezer bag as I raised the hammer. I can step on an earwig without losing sleep, but really, a guinea pig is too much bone and blood and viscera. And he has a name. Can you brain an animal you’ve named?

It looks like Sammy and I are both safe. Last night we put a picture of him on an online classifieds site with the word “FREE” in all-caps, and the phone has been ringing off the hook. We haven’t asked these people what they want him for; perhaps someone’s pet python is hungry. At any rate, Lydia has made her peace with losing Sammy. A couple of nights ago she brought him his last piece of romaine lettuce and said her goodbyes. He’s going away, but he’s not going back to the pet store.