Dark night of the iguana

How my son's pet reptile taught me to love all sentient beings -- and Republicans too.

By Anne Lamott

Published November 12, 1998 7:29PM (EST)

My son has had a freelance big brother named Brian for nine years now. Brian had a nearly perfect track record over the years. He always showed up on time, he took Sam places, swung him on swings, took him camping every summer, comforted him when there were losses. And then, last Christmas, Brian came by with Sam's Christmas surprise.

And what a surprise it was.

It was an iguana in a long glass cage, a young male of about 6 months. It was going to grow to be three or four feet long, so Sam named him Barry, after Barry Bonds, since it was going to be a Giant. Brian and Sam made a framed mesh top for the cage, with an opening lined in tin foil into which you could insert a heat lamp without having to worry about the wooden frame catching fire. And they got him a collar and leash with a tiny dog tag that had Barry's name and Sam's phone number. Iguanas like to go for walks on leashes. How fun!

I am afraid of most reptiles, and did not want this iguana. Iguanas can carry salmonella, and besides, I do not consider reptiles pets. You show me someone on the street with a boa coiled around his or her neck, and I'll show you a very angry person. I announced that as far as Barry went, I did not exist except that I would pay for food, and be extremely bitter about having to do so.

I heard moral, zoological righteousness in my voice, and it was disgusting to me. I sounded like Bay Buchanan. So I called a priest.

"Do you think God cares about iguanas? That they go to heaven?" "God cares about all creatures," he said. "I think almost everyone goes to heaven. This includes pets, and generous Republicans."

When I got off the phone, I went and sat next to Barry's cage. He was, as usual, motionless, but I wasn't thinking about iguanas. I found myself thinking about Republicans. God, I thought, even my priest friends dislike them. We vote for Democrats because we think the right wing would turn the USA into fascist Germany. And some of us voice these tiny opinions; spew them, my detractors might say. But I have just enough spiritual savvy to know that since I am sowing poison and judgment, I will reap more of the same; and that also, you can't help save the world if you're a bigot. Dr. King loved segregationists, even if he didn't love their actions. He loved them because Jesus said to, and he sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I want what Dr. King had, and what Jesus had -- a loving heart -- but I sing the national anthem from "The 2000 Year Old Man": "Let them all go to hell, except Cave 76."

So I decided, right then and there and almost as a joke, to practice love and tolerance on Barry. I was given ample opportunities. Half the time when Sam left for school, I noticed that he'd forgotten to turn Barry's heat light on. Also, that Barry, who may clinically be an idiot, had often dragged his bedding into the water dish, so the water ended up looking like pea soup with topsoil stirred in. I would do the kind thing -- turn on his heat lamp and give him fresh water -- but with enormous fear and annoyance.

People came to admire him. Oh, he's so beautiful, they would exclaim with delight, even though he mostly does not move or respond, except to have these terrible episodes from time to time where he tears around his cage like a balloon losing air. Everyone was always saying that he was like a little dragon, a little memento of prehistory, but to me, he was like an elegant and vaguely hostile scrap of leather. He was so alien. He didn't cuddle, he didn't schmooze, he didn't respond. Mostly he just stared. Whenever Sam would cry out, "Oh, Barry, you are such a good iguana," I'd warm up to him a little. I'd sit on a chair next to his cage and practice feeling like Jesus. Sometimes I would sing him songs from the Who's rock opera "Tommy": "Barry, can you hear me? Can you feel me near you?" There'd be no response, not even a blink, and then suddenly, he'd flip out and have an episode, tear around the cage scaring me half to death, bolting from one end of the cage to the other, crashing around for a minute spewing streamers of shit everywhere, until all the phantoms in his brain were exorcised. Then he'd stare some more. I tell you, a guy like that can give you the creeps.

One day after a terrible episode, Sam came in to burrow up against me. He had studied Barry for a long time afterwards. I sat with him in silence. "I'm very worried about Barry," he said after a while. "I think he may have done something to his mind."

In between bouts, Barry was as basic as it gets: stare stare, lie on hot rock, stare, sneak to other end of cage, stare. You'd rarely see him eat, or drink water, or move. It was like a constant game of Red Light, Green Light. I wondered if he might be a spy, be wearing a Linda Tripp rig, recording our every word. Comedian Michael Pritchard once said that he thought people with Down's syndrome were spies for God, and I wondered if Barry might be one, too. I could not see one redeeming quality. Maybe I just prefer pets who suck up to you -- our dog, for instance, who's like a concerned nurse in a black fur suit. But the best you could say for Barry was that he was wild to look at, all ridges, scales, bright eyes. Sometimes he was sort of funny, what with the episodes, and this odd Jurassic scream posture he adopted sometimes, when he threw back his head and roared, Edvard Munch-like, in silence. Of course I noticed that he elicited care and tenderness from my young boy, but by that token, so does Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a staunch you-know-what.

Finally, one morning when Sam had spent the night at my brother's, I went in to plug in Barry's heat lamp. But he looked even stiller than usual. He looked dead. But I wasn't positive, so I lifted the lid off his cage to nudge him, and then realized I was too afraid to do so.

- - - - - - - - - -

So I got some chopsticks. I nudged him an inch. He moved in one piece, like he was carved of wood, or in rigor mortis. I cried out. After a while I called my brother, told him what was happening, and asked if he could leave Sam with his girlfriend and come help me.

While waiting for Stevo, I paged our vet. It was 8 o'clock Sunday morning, and he sounded tired. "I think Sam's iguana has died, or is dying," I said, "and it will be easier for Sam if I've at least tried to get help. " He said to bring Barry to the office, and that he'd meet me there.

So I went and got the shoe box Brian brought Barry in, and then I remembered that I was too afraid to pick him up. A dead iguana is somehow scarier than a live one. All those bad reptilian issues, with death spritz over it all. I went to the kitchen and got the spaghetti tongs. But it turned out that I was too afraid to even lift him with tongs.

My brother showed up not long after and picked Barry up. "Boy, he's really dead," Stevo said. "Poor Sam. What should we do?"

"Let's take him in," I decided. "The vet's going to meet us there." But while we were driving along, we heard a faint scratching from inside the box, the creepiest sound ever, like someone had been buried alive -- but kind of good creepy, because it was someone you liked.

This was the very first angstrom unit of progress I noticed. When Stevo peered in, Barry blinked, and we cheered, entirely on Sam's behalf. We went to the vet's anyway, and I brought him up to date on Barry's symptoms. He gently lifted him out of the box and set him down on a clean towel on the examination table. Barry lay very still, looking small and pathetic and touching, like a guy with a sunken chest the other men would jeer at. The vet looked at him from all angles.

"You should take his temperature," my brother said rather meanly. The vet smiled. Then he turned Barry over. Barry lay on his back, very still. The vet put his stethoscope on Barry's puny chest. The steel circle was almost wider than Barry. The vet closed his eyes and concentrated studiously, like Christiaan Barnard. After a moment, he admitted, "I don't actually know what I'm listening for."

"Is this your first iguana?"

"Yes," he said. He set Barry back down. Barry looked around. Then he took a step, and then another.

"Oh god," I cried. "This is like being at Lourdes." We ended up taking him home, without ever knowing what had gone wrong, whether he'd been in some hibernation state or just playing possum. But I felt a little differently about him, and I was at least trying; and this can be all it takes. I remembered my favorite Ram Dass story, from the days when Caspar Weinberger was Reagan's hawkish secretary of defense. Ram Dass' guru had told him he had to love everyone, and that this was not negotiable, but whenever Ram Dass saw Weinberger in the news, he felt a stab of judgment and dislike. His guru said he had to learn to love Caspar, because everyone was God in drag. But Ram Dass just couldn't do it. So finally he put a photograph of Weinberger on his prayer table, along with everyone he revered, and when he sat down at his table to pray, he'd pick up each photo and say, with love and ecstasy, "Good morning, Christ, Hello, Maharaji, good morning, Mother Mary, good morning, Ananda Mai-ma, oh, it's wonderful to see you Buddha," then he'd pick up the photo of Weinberger, and say starchily:

"Hello, Caspar."

So I did this too. Every morning when I got up, I'd say hello to Jesus and to Sam, and to our dog and cat; then I'd go in to turn on Barry's heat lamp, and I'd say crisply, "Hello, Barry."

Things got better. And then as is the case so often when God has to go and add his or her two cents, things got worse.

One day Sam disappeared into the wreckage of his room and after a moment cried out in pain. It turned out that Barry was gone. He'd made a break for freedom. "Papillon," for the limbic set.

We did what they do in the movies: secured the area, called in a search party (Stevo), combed the house on our hands and feet. Sam proposed holding an article of Barry's clothes to Sadie's nose, as Sadie is part retriever.

Unfortunately, I pointed out, Barry had no clothes.

"Barry has no clothes?" Sam asked sarcastically, and I could tell that we were trapped in an old episode of "Perry Mason," Raymond Burr about to produce one of Barry's bathrobes or brassieres. But then Sam whipped out Barry's leash, with the tiny name tag. So Sadie dutifully sniffed it, and with Sam exhorting her, raced around for a moment, and then she ended up accidentally eating the kitty's food.

When the excitement of the search ended, the sorrow began. Part of me was exasperated -- this was an iguana. But loss is loss, and it hurts like shit, it hurts like the end of the world because it temporarily is; and Sam was inconsolable. He cried, he cried for Barry and all the sad things in his world, and then he said, "God has stopped loving this family."

I told him not to give up, that there was still hope, but that if Barry didn't return, maybe it was God wanting to give Barry his freedom.

"Barry will die outside," Sam said. "He's cold-blooded." I sighed. My heart may have been cold toward Barry, but it's so warm toward Sam that I promised if I found him while Sam was in school, I would get out the spaghetti tongs and try to put him back in the cage.

Barry was still missing in the morning when Sam left for school. "He's just a big heart-breaker," Sam cried. Oh, Sam, I thought, and remembered Joanna Macy saying the heart that breaks open can contain the whole world. But I really did not want Barry to come back, and fantasized about how much bigger Sam's small room would seem cleared of Barry's big cage. I thought with a kind of moral righteousness about mothers in other countries who do not have the luxury of worrying about how their kids' pets are doing, and how Barry, with his dried hot rock and his lettuce leaves, was living so much more luxuriously than many of the world's children. And then I thought, this is such bullshit! We are dealing with one boy's broken heart, and if you can't even acknowledge that and try to help in some way, then you are going to get such a crappy chair in heaven that you'll wish you'd never died. You're going to be in the room with the litterers!

When I was hungry, you did not feed me, Jesus told his disciples. When I was naked, you did not clothe me. And when I was Barry, you didn't even go looking for me.

It's awful to imagine any creature freezing or starving to death. I saw Barry outside, hugging his shoulders to his little chest, shivering.

So I got down on my hands and knees in Sam's room, and slowly began to search. I went through the Beanie Baby collection, as if maybe Barry was pulling a Hannibal Lecter, had hollowed out the fox cub and was hiding inside. I looked in the closet, and then almost as an afterthought, I went through the GI Joe trash can: Barry was there.

He'd fallen in somehow. I stared down at his scaly body, wishing I had the tongs, but instead I reached in and picked him up. I was scared, sure he was going to have an episode and scratch me and give me salmonella, but nothing bad happened. I slowly put him down in his cage, and then stood looking at him. He didn't move, didn't even blink, just stared unblinking. I went and got us both some lettuce. He didn't move toward his, or move, period. But there was movement in me, a movement toward care. Look: I'm not sure that I'm making any real progress, or that I am going to stop having mean thoughts about Republicans any time soon; the night of the most recent election, I kept thinking, Hah hah hah. So maybe it's hopeless. And then again, maybe it's not. I know that as I sat there with Barry, holding my lettuce leaf, him staring off in the same direction as me, woman and iguana facing southeast, I felt truly relieved, and not just for Sam. I felt glad, for Barry and me, that Barry was home.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

MORE FROM Anne Lamott

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Republican Party