Bye, Frog

Nancy Gibbs on how, during one frog’s lifetime, she has awakened just a little.

Nancy Gibbs
12 March 2009
Photo by Cristiane Teston

Becky and I buried you in the front yard.  Your aquarium rocks mark your grave.  I poured your water over you, complete with waterlogged bloodworms that had been accumulating since you quit eating days ago.  After wrapping you in a paper towel and placing you in the hole we had dug, Becky asked if I wanted to say anything.  All I could manage was “Bye, Frog.”  Only that, after twenty-two years.

We will miss you, each in our own way.  Becky had been your caretaker for the past few years, never forgetting to offer you your cube of frozen blood worms before bed.  She was the best one yet, don’t you think?  And we both know how many caretakers you and I have had!

The evening after we buried you, I sent an e-mail to those in our past who have cared for you, either as live-ins or as babysitters.  You know, I couldn’t take you to the kennel with the dogs and some folks have a real aversion to hand feeding an African water frog.  So for all those years, you presented me with a true challenge.  It took a particular personality to enjoy the job.  For instance, you remember Kathy?  She found you fascinating and enjoyed rubbing your back when she came over to feed you.  She stroked your webbed feet and hands and noticed how sharp your little claws were.  Never, I mean, never, in twenty-two years did I do that for you.  Someone once told me that African water frogs don’t have teeth, so I shouldn’t worry about you biting me.  I never checked that out either.  Really, I just admired you from afar and marveled at what you possibly could have done to deserve this life.

I want you to know that I used discretion in choosing to whom I would send that e-mail announcing your passing.  There were a few bad apples in those years that I wouldn’t care to have any contact with, ever again.  Like that one guy we did a ten-month stint with, thinking he was the answer to our prayers.  He was only the answer to “How to Go Bankrupt in Less Than One Year.”  And there was that woman who aptly lived on Witches Hollow Lane who we lived with for a little over a year.  She begrudgingly fed you, but really detested the pond water smell in her kitchen. Her number one kitchen rule was never wrinkle the dish towel spread nicely beside the sink.   She didn’t understand that you always live in the kitchen because that is really where the action is and where your people normally gather.

But there were some good apples in those years as well.  There were the two ex-husbands and one ex-partner who I knew would want to hear you were no longer with us.  The second ex-husband responded promptly with “WOW!!  Long life… he certainly was one lucky frog.”  I so appreciated his response.

I heard from the friend who took us in when the environment with that pond water witch became inhospitable for both two-legged and web-footed critters.  This friend, Stephanie, loved you at first glance.  She didn’t mind one bit that you lived in the kitchen, but preferred you be in the living room with everyone else.  As a matter of fact, meeting her probably prolonged your life at least by half.  She didn’t like the scum-coated fish bowl that you had lived in since you were a wee tadpole and improved your digs considerably.  She bought you a true aquarium and a filter system.  The beautiful blue rocks and marbles she placed in your new home ten years ago are the ones I spread on your grave last Sunday.  Stephanie even supplied you with company: a snail that suctioned itself to the aquarium walls to ingest all the stuff that clung to them.  She is credited with introducing frozen bloodworms into your diet.  Since your metamorphosis from tadpole to frog, you had subsisted on dried planks of fish food that must have tasted like our version of fiber laxative wafers.

Since our stay with Stephanie was during those infamous vagabond days of mine, we didn’t stay rooted there long.  Within six months I was on the move again, but the miracle was that Stephanie wanted to keep you.  She wanted to keep you!  With less than one moment’s hesitation, I agreed.  I was going to miss you a little, but my freedom was of much higher value.  Bye, Frog.

As everyone who just read the beginning of the story can tell, you and I were destined to reunite. In actually less than a year and due to circumstances in her own life, Stephanie could no longer keep you. But, she had renamed you Buddha.  Oh, please!  You were a frog, not an enlightened being, someone who has awakened to the truth.  Please!   And isn’t a Buddha supposed to then decide to teach others the truth that has been discovered?  What a ridiculous name for a frog!

So, it was back to my kitchen counter and back to the name Frog. And back to our vagabond ways for a few more years.   It has only been in the last half a decade of your life that I have imagined a different possibility for myself, one with roots deeper and stronger. During your life, Frog, I have awakened a bit.

I have a staying power that I did not know when you were a tadpole, when you arrived in the mail one very hot August day courtesy of the US Postal Service.   You had been ordered by certificate as a birthday gift for my oldest son.  You were all the rage in the toy stores, known by the name “Grow a Frog.”  I remember so well opening the package that day, thinking nothing could have survived that heat.  And there you were, basically two eyes and a tail, happily swimming in your traveling zip lock bag.  I expected you to live a few days, maybe even a few months.  Certainly not twenty-two years!

My son enjoyed you for a while.  You arrived with a magnifying glass and transparent skin so we could see your organs and watch you grow.  Truly, it was about as exciting as watching rock candy form on a string in a jar on the windowsill.  We all lost interest in you as you simply continued to grow in strength and form.   Your legs and arms sprouted and your transparent skin became a smooth, freckled grayish color.  You plumped up.

You became my charge, Frog, as the child for whom you were a gift began to side-step and back-step out of my care, out of my home. It was much more likely that I would feed you in the evening than my son. I really resented you for that, Frog.  You were here and he was not.   As you just kept swimming around in your scum-coated fish bowl with that one-pointedness of concentration, so Buddha-like without any apparent distraction, my son was ricocheting off every experience that could give him a high and a distance from his pain.  There was divorce, the move and so much anger and hurt in a young boy who didn’t know what to call it or how to express it.  Drugs and alcohol became his buffer.

This son bounced back and forth several times between his mother and father, a vagabond of his own sort.  During these times, he attended public school, a private school, a correctional school, and a thirty day alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, all culminating in his dropping out of high school as a seventeen year-old junior.  I was left with his aging frog, his empty bedroom, all the what-ifs, parental guilt, remorse, and a hole in my gut so big that the wine and rum I consumed hardly softened the edges of it.

Time has the capacity to heal, though, and as you know, Frog, there’s been a lot of water through the filter since those early years.  Now thirty years old, this grown child of mine returned to school, married, and daily provides for the five children he is raising.  I could say that he’s really too busy to spend any time with his mother and that would be true enough.   But the real truth is I have missed his presence in my life these last fifteen or so years and wish it could have been different for us, then and now.  As you have taught me staying power and patience, Frog, this child has taught me how to love and how to forgive, myself and others.  No matter what his choices or his chosen path in life, I, his mother, get to each day with one-pointedness and dedication, send my love and very best wishes for his happy, peaceful and successful endeavors.  And sometimes, I even stop long enough in my own travels around the tank, to thank him for the hard lessons he presented to me that fostered my growth as a human being.

So here’s to the three of us, Frog.  May our journeys be short and our homecomings welcomed.  I know today you are swimming in bigger waters.  Possibly, you are enjoying the pleasure of a companion, something you did not get to experience on this plane.  I know you have forgiven me that, as well.  Bye, Frog.

Nancy Gibbs

A finalist at the 2008 San Francisco Writers Conference in Nonfiction and Memoir, Nancy Gibbs is currently writing a collection of stories which features “Bye, Frog” about one of her more unusual teachers.  She spent a couple of decades teaching secondary English and supervising student publications in Colorado.  Aside from writing, she hikes the Colorado back country and creates mosaics.