Dead cats and caterpillars

It is hard to feel like a “normal” kid when the trunk of your Mother’s car is filled with dead cats, stiff with rigor mortis, stinking of formaldehyde, and sealed in clear plastic bags – their silent howls visible.

My Mother was a biologist, and up until 4 years ago, she was a professor in the Biology Department of a small, liberal-arts university in Texas. She taught at the university until the month before she died of cancer, in the fall of 2012. Her Anatomy and Physiology classes and labs were the cause of the dead cats. At night, after my brother and I were supposed to be in bed, my Mother worked in our garage, labeling muscles and tendons on the stiff bodies of the dead cats for her labs.

Have you ever taken an Anatomy and Physiology class? In addition to cats, maybe some frogs, and perhaps a human cadaver, there are also rats – big, white rats with red eyes – and my Mother’s classes were no exception.

The rats that my Mother used in her classes were from a reptile farm up the road from the university, and they would sit, live, in a 2 x 3 ft. plastic cage on our kitchen counter for a day or so before being taken up to my Mother’s prep lab. As we sat eating our breakfast and dinner at our dining table in the kitchen, we could hear the rats shuffling around in their cage. On several evenings I went with my Mother and the rats to campus. These were the nights when we had to kill the rats in preparation for her lab the next day. We would put on thick gloves, take one rat out of the cage at a time, and stuff it into a one-gallon Folgers coffee tin. The tin held an ether-soaked rag, and once we got the rat inside the tin, we had to press on the plastic lid and wait. I cannot remember how long it would take for the rat to die.

I remember a night when one of the rats got loose from my hand and jumped out of the coffee tin. It ran behind one of the big autoclave machines in the prep room. We never saw it again.

I learned about the stuff of life from my Mother. She collected caterpillars from her flower garden, set them up in the middle of the kitchen table, and waited for them to emerge from their chrysalises as butterflies. We often had an injured animal living in the laundry room or kitchen. These animals were often found by my Mother’s students and brought to her because they were not allowed to be kept in the dorms.

The first funeral I planned was for a baby squirrel. I remember sitting up all night with my brother holding the squirrel in a red cloth napkin, wishing strength back into its small body. It felt warm. By morning the squirrel was dead, and we buried it in a Capezio ballet shoe box under the big hackberry tree in our front yard. I wept for that baby squirrel.

Not all of the animals died. I remember several times when birds flew free from my hands into our backyard after their stay in our home. These birds usually came to us featherless and unwell. My Mother would cut the toe off of a pair of her nylons and stuff it with cotton balls. In this way, each bird had a warm nest. My Mother hand-fed each bird using a straw or spoon, nurturing each away from the edge of death.

At the end of each school year, my Mother frantically finished grading her students work, submitted their grades to the university, and packed us up for our annual, 2,000-mile drive from our small town in Texas to another small town in Ontario, Canada. We rode those 2,000 miles first in my Grandfather’s station wagon, and then in his van, always pulling a trailer stuffed with canned food, and my Mother’s textbooks and bug collecting gear. During our summers we lived in a cottage my Grandfather built decades prior, without electricity, on a tiny island in Georgian Bay. When we were young, our time there was spent doing things like collecting wild blueberries from islands farther-out in the Bay, swimming for hours in the cold waters of our little island’s cove, and catching leeches. The leeches were sometimes 6-inches long, and we preserved them in a glass coffee jar filled with alcohol.

As we got older we spent time fishing off of the dock and out of our little boats. I had a fascination for cleaning the fish and examining their organs. I was especially keen on knowing what each fish had eaten, and often found crayfish inside the tube-sock-like stomachs.

Indeed, my life as a child was full of life and death in nature, and biology.

My Mother was a biologist, and who she was had an enormous impact on who I am and how I look at the world. I mimicked her curiosity from a very young age. She left no rocks unturned, and inspired in me a desire to always keep my eyes and ears open while moving through life. My Mother taught me to look at the natural world, appreciate all that I could sense with amazement and wonder, and then ask how it works while devising a plan to figure it out. It is with that awe and curiosity that I decided to become a biologist and ecologist. And it is with that same awe and curiosity that I now turn to writing about biology and ecology.

Anna Mom_Carohoma deck

My Mother was also a teacher, and she was damn good at her craft. Generations of students adored her, and came back year after year after year to be near her, to remain connected to her. They invited her to their weddings. They wept on her shoulder. They introduced her to their children. They said over and over that she was the reason they were able to successfully pursue the career of their dreams, often in medicine.

The week after my Mother died some of her students organized a candlelight vigil held in the lawn in front of the small chapel at her university. I stood off to the side that night, rocking my two-month-old baby to sleep as tears poured from my eyes and ran down my cheeks, landing on the soft spot of my infant son’s head. It was mid-October, but still warm in south Texas. The students sang, played guitar, and told stories about “Dr. H.” They wept too.

One month later I submitted my dissertation that would earn me a PhD in Ecology from the University of California Davis, the same university where my Mother earned her PhD in the year that I was born. I hold deeply onto the belief that she knows I finished too.

My Mother moved through her life with her senses on high-alert. She was a model of deep curiosity, and provided access to a world rich with the potential for discovery. I am thankful for the life she lived, normal or not, and draw much inspiration from her explorations in and reverence for the natural world.

Mom w parrot


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