by Jim Bates
It hadn’t been the best year, that was for sure. First there was the Covid-19 pandemic followed by a nation-wide lockdown.
Then my wife Amy got tired of being cooped up in the apartment with me, saying, “God, Jack, I can’t tell you how sick I am of seeing your ugly face. I’m going to go insane if I have to spend another minute with you.”
No beating around the bush with her. Okay, message received. We’d been into lockdown for about three days when she left. At least she lowered the boom when both the kids were asleep. No sense hurting their feelings along with mine.
My boss had furloughed me along with the rest of the sales staff at the car dealership so I was enjoying hanging out with Willie and April, having the freedom to be with them more than I’d ever had in the past. Being with Amy more? For sure I’d have enjoyed that but obviously the feeling hadn’t been mutual.
Anyway, a week went by which turned into a month until I finally came to the realization that my wife of fifteen years was gone for good. I got a few texts from her indicating she was living in a different state and, as she put it, “Enjoying my freedom,” so what could you do? I decided to move on and focus on the kids.
Twelve-year-old Willie occupied his free-time playing video games. He was a bright kid and would finish up his distance learning assignments quickly. Then he’d curl up on his bed, fire up Fortnite with his buddies online and happily game to his heart’s content.
But my ten-year-old daughter, April, was a different story. “When’s Mom coming back?” she asked at least ten times a day that first month.
“I don’t know, honey. I really don’t.” It broke my heart to see her so sad.
“Dad, was it your fault, do you think?” she asked, once, looking so forlorn I had to fight back my own tears. I mean, geez, she was ten. “Your fault that Mom’s gone,” she added, as if I needed it put any more clearly.
“I don’t know, sweetheart. We probably both had something to do with it.”
She gave me a look only a ten-year-old girl could give her father and said, “Yeah, right, Dad.”
So, things weren’t the best between us, but they weren’t the worst either. We did her distance learning together sitting side by side at the kitchen table and started preparing meals together and after that first month we started to get a little closer, especially as the pain of Amy’s leaving receded somewhat into the background.
After school let out, we had more time on our hands so we started going outside for walks. The weather in Minneapolis in June could be nice and this year was no exception. Which was good. Our neighborhood was near a large park that featured a good-sized pond rimmed with cattails and just about every day we’d leave Willie with his video games and April and I would mask up and walk a couple of blocks to it.
One day we were sitting on a bench overlooking the pond watching some ducks swimming around, dipping and diving for food. A walking path was nearby and most everyone was being pretty good about social distancing and wearing face masks. For us, it was nice to get out of the apartment and get some fresh air.
After a while, April got up and walked down to the shore, idly poking around in the weeds.
Suddenly she turned to me and pointed, “Dad, look, a toad.”
I hurried to join her. Sure enough, it was a toad. A nice big one with bumpy, olive green skin and liquid, languid eyes. April studied it and ask, “Do you think we could take it home?”
Ordinarily I’d have said, ‘No, Sweetheart, we should leave the toad in its own environment, in its own home, and let it live like it’s supposed to live.’ Or something like that. But these were extraordinary times what with April’s mother having left and all. Not to mention the pandemic. I gave in.
“Sure,” I said. And just like that, the toad joined our little family.
Willie didn’t care one way or the other. “Do I have to do anything with it?” he asked that first day, poking at it with his finger.
April pushed him away. “No! And quit bothering her,” she stated emphatically. “She’s all mine.”
“Fine with me.” He shrugged his shoulders and went back to Fortnite.
“She?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. She’s a she, Dad. Duh. Anyone knows that.”
Well, alright then.
April took to calling the toad Terri right from get go, and I honestly thought she’d tire of it after a day or two but she didn’t. At first, we kept her in an old shoe box I scrounged up from my nearly empty closet. (Amy had taken all of her clothes.)
“She doesn’t seem happy, Dad,” April said after a couple of days of close observation. “I’m going to see if I can find out why.” After sending most of the day on the internet April came to me and said, “She need more space, Dad. And she likes to be able to look around.” She did some more research and then told me as we were preparing dinner, “I think we should buy her an aquarium.”
Thanks to online shopping it wasn’t long before Terri had a nice new glass home set up on a table by the front window so, as April put it, “Terri can look outside if she wants to.”
It wasn’t long before Willie started getting into the act by helping to collect food like bugs and flies. Of course, he had to go outside to do his gathering, which he started to enjoy, and I was happy to see him start to play his video games less.
In fact, in a day and age of video games and other electronic distractions, it was nice seeing the kids occupied with something natural. The toad, sorry, Terri, took their minds off the pandemic as well as Amy being gone, and they were happier for it. April used my phone to take photos of Terri and kept a journal about what she did during the day, which to my way of thinking wasn’t much, but April seemed to find a lot to write about, even the kind of food Terri preferred; dead flies were her favorite.
Then she started making up stories and writing them down in which she and Terri were the main characters. She’d read me one most nights before going to sleep. My favorite was when the two of them went exploring in the African jungle. Terry rode in a little fanny pack kind of thing that April made for her and they fought off pythons and wild boars and other creatures, eventually finding a magical waterfall made of lemonade they were looking for. Where she came up with that stuff, I have no idea but it was fun to see her use her imagination and be so happily occupied.
Toward the end of the summer, April asked, “Dad, do you miss Mom?”
“I do,” I told her. “But I’m adjusting.” I hugged her. “Having you and Willie around really helps.”
“What about Terri?”
I smiled. “Yeah, Terri, too.”
April grinned and went back to watching her in the aquarium and writing in her journal.
Since she had brought it up, I ventured, “How about you? Do you miss your mom?”
She was silent for a few moments, and then said, “Yeah. Yeah, I do, but having you around is good.” Then she smiled, “And having Terri with me helps a lot.”
I gave her another hug. “You want to help with me with dinner?”
“Sure. What are you planning?”
With fall on the way, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do about Terri, but April came up with a solution. She learned that toads needed to hibernate or else they would die.
“I think we should take her back to the pond and let her go.”
“That’s a really good idea,” I said, “but won’t you miss her?”
She got a faraway look in her eye before saying, “Yeah, but no. It’s okay, Dad.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ll let her go and she can go to sleep for the winter and then next spring we’ll come back and find her again and bring her home.”
I smiled and said, “And save her a big bug to eat to celebrate her homecoming. How about that?”
She smiled, “Yeah, a big old fly!”
As soon as the weather gets colder, we’ll take a walk down to the pond, me and April and Willie, and we’ll set Terri free. We’ll say our goodbyes and I, for one, will give her a silent salute and thank her for how she helped April and Willie get through those first hard months after Amy left. She was a good toad, and she was good for my family, and you know what? There’s no doubt in my mind that next year we’ll go down to the pond and find Terri and bring her home. She’ll be there for sure. She’s become a part of our family. Some things are just meant to be.
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