Bad Dad: Mourning the loss of a lizard (and $100)

I received a call from my wife's phone 15 minutes after I got to work Wednesday. I cheerfully answered, only to be greeted by a meek voice.

"Daddy?" my daughter asked hushed tones. It sounded like she had been crying.

"What are you doing on Mommy's phone, Phoebe?" I asked sharply. "Is everything OK?"

"Daddy, something bad happened," she said, holding back a slight sniffle.

Obviously, my wife was in some kind of danger and was incapacitated because she wasn't calling me herself. And my daughter, being the smart one of our two kids, snatched her iPhone and dialed me quickly — just as we taught her to.

My mind started to race. They had been in a nasty car accident, and Phoebe had been thrown clear of the wreckage, along with the phone.

Or they were at the bank, and had been taken hostage by bank robbers. Phoebe was calling me as she hid in one of the cubicles.

Or my greatest fear: The zombie apocalypse is at hand, and legions of the undead are clamoring at our front gate.

"What happened, Pheebs?" I pressed. "Why are you crying?"

There was a pause. The longer it went, the worse the event had to be.

"Daddy," she finally said. "I was doing my homework and I looked over ... Daddy, Raptor died."

To recap, Raptor was the alligator lizard who I wrote about in my last column whom I had "rescued" from the patio while looking for crickets. For a brief moment, I was elevated to king of the world by my kids for saving the lizard I inadvertently trapped. In my excitement, I went out and spent $100 on a reptile terrarium, complete with heat lamps and a hygroscope, although I still don't know what it does.

But it's a moot point now.

At this point, I'm standing in an empty conference room, having walked away from my co-workers, listening to my daughter choke back tears. And while I can sympathize with her loss, I was equal parts of relief and shock. I was still reeling from the gamut of emotions when I was snapped back to reality by my daughter's quiet voice.

"I want to bury him in the yard, Daddy," she said.

That's the same yard he would probably still be scampering around had I not captured and kept him in a plastic prison cell, I thought to myself. The feeling of relief was replaced by a pang of guilt.

"I think that would be for the best," I agreed.

I remembered the last pet we had a burial ceremony for: our pet grasshopper, Hedda. My kid wanted to bury the 5-legged insect in the backyard. Exhausted after mowing the back yard, I convinced her to place the bug in the fresh grass clippings in the trash can instead.

"It's a grasshopper, Pheebs," I said convincingly at the time. "It makes sense."

In actuality, I didn't want to walk to the garage to get the shovel.

Fast forward to Thursday morning, and my daughter is handing me a green and white bandage box. Not entirely awake, I shook it as I opened it, only to find the lifeless body of the 6-inch lizard. I immediately snapped to, stunned and a little grossed out by this discovery.

"I know just the place where we should bury Raptor, Dad," she started quickly. "I'm gonna go get some flowers down the street, and use one of the rocks from his tank for his headstone and sing him a song ... "

I stopped her short, rubbed my eyes and said I was going to need some coffee first. After all, one cannot grasp the finality of death without some caffeine in the system. I grabbed my keys and wallet from the table, which was also next to the now-empty acrylic enclosure. I started to reminisce as we drove to the coffee shop.

When I first put Raptor in his new digs three weeks ago, he hid under the bark for the first days. After a while, he came out and cautiously started to look around. He basked under the heat lamp on the rock I selected from our yard. He checked out every inch of his new home. I caught him lounging on the vines and licking moisture off the glass.

Just as the booklet that came with the kit instructed, I made sure he was well-hydrated and was constantly spraying his habitat with distilled water, much to my wife's dismay. He had two temperate zones in his environment, so he could regulate his body temperature.

He was eating healthy, voraciously snapping up the crickets I dropped in for him.

But something still wasn't right. I constantly caught him staring at me as I sat on the couch, which I attributed to him just being curious about his new surroundings. Now I think he was wishing the small, awkward claws on his feet were actually wicked raptor claws, so he could bust out and viciously disembowel me for capturing him and holding him in this plastic prison.

As I dug a small hole in the front yard planter, my kids scurried off to collect flowers. I jumped ahead five years in my mind, imagining my son digging up the now-decomposed carcass and keeping the skeleton under his bed as a souvenir. A shudder ran up my spine as I quickly quashed that vision from my mind.

With the hole dug, my kids returned with the flowers and the box/coffin. My daughter mournfully tried to place the square box into my small hole. When I pointed out the box was way too big and that she would have to put him in without it, she shot me a look. She opened up the box, looked in and made a disgusted face.

"Eww! His eyes are gone!" she exclaimed, as my son clamored for a look. She squatted down and slid the cold reptilian corpse into the hole.

Anticipating a long, drawn-out song and dance, exulting the life of this beloved pet, I was surprised when she just grabbed the shovel and pushed the dirt pile into the hole. She placed three pink flowers on the fresh grave, paused for a moment, then started to skip away.

Feeling a little weird, I decided to say a few words.

"Here lies Raptor, a lizard who lived a long, prosperous life," I started, trying to push away the guilt I felt earlier of snatching him from his real home in the patio. Many of my friends on Facebook scolded me for capturing him in the first place.

"Let he who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast," I continued, reciting lyrics from an Iron Maiden song that seemed appropriate at the time. "His number was 21. He blessed us with his presence for 21 glorious days. Godspeed, Raptor the lizard. May you suffer no more."

Both my kids cocked their heads at me, unsure of what I just said. Then they ran around the corner and into the house to play. I just stood there in the front yard alone, feeling remorseful.

"Man, I just wasted $100."

MATT MURRAY is a designer-copy editor at the Daily Pilot, as well as an established blogger-videographer-podcaster. Pile on him at matthew.murray@latimes.com.

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