Loyalty after Death

Loyalty After Death

by Gratia Serpento

Growing up, I’d been fascinated by turtles. They’d been my greatest love and my favorite animal. I’d often daydream about putting a giant rubber turtle in my local pool and swimming with it like they do in Disney movies— because, to a child, that made perfect sense. My love of the shelled creatures then moved on to the land variety: tortoises. I dreamt of riding on top of their massive shells, braving the heat. 

I was ten and a half years old when I got my first pet, a sulcata tortoise. It was a bit different than an average first pet, but I grew up on a ranch, so I was used to a variety of animals. I named her Gladice Miracle Peterson, and I loved her every day that I had her. 

She had the personality of an old lady, and she was ten pounds, round, and large. The Galactic Gladiator, as I often called her, made snorting sounds and chased after anything orange. I’d shred carrots for her every day and try to cuddle with her bumpy and rough exterior. She didn’t seem to enjoy it much, but she’d sit there and let me do my thing. I’d dress her in crocheted accessories. I took her with me when we evacuated during the 2020 Oregon wildfires, and I spent every day rubbing the bumps in her shell. I even earned the nickname The Tortoise Girl at school.

I loved Gladice, even after I lost her. She passed unexpectedly, just three days before my fifteenth birthday. I wish there were a word to describe my grief— when I picked her up and realized she wouldn’t wake up ever again. When I froze and carried her body out to the living room where my family sat around, laughing, preparing for the birthday shenanigans that were soon to take place— when they saw my shocked face and saw Gladice. When I said, “She’s dead,” and fell to the floor, and my heart jerked as I cried harder than I ever had before. 

Having Gladice was such an integral part of my life. It was a piece in my puzzle, right at the center— a piece taken so harshly. She was supposed to outlive me, yet I outlived her. 

At the time, I wasn’t in the best state to ask where my family buried her. Part of me wants to know so that I can close the chapter. But the other part doesn’t, afraid to reopen the wound— a double-edged sword of grief. 

The day after I lost her, I didn’t talk much. I couldn’t open my mouth, couldn’t look at anything of Gladice’s, without crying. One thing to know about my parents is that they’re solution finders. If there’s a problem, they want to fix it. My grief was a problem. My inability to want to wake up was a problem. So they looked for ways to fix it. 

When my dad saw an ad for an adorable Maltese-Pomeranian puppy, he showed it to me, and my heart melted. It had the puffiest black hair, a white spot on his chest and chin, and big brown eyes that looked right at the camera with a hint of a judging but loving gaze. But I didn’t want the dog. 

“I just want Gladice back— I don’t want another pet. She was everything I needed and wanted,” I had told him. Well, more or less. I kind of blubbered it into his chest, and I’m not sure if he completely understood. 

“Gladice would want you to move on,” he told me. But I couldn’t believe that. My dad held me and said something more, but I can’t remember. The days after her death were a haze, a lucid dream— a nightmare. Whatever it was, though, he somehow convinced me to get that dog. We set the date to pick him up for Saturday, only five days after Gladice’s death. 

“I feel like I’m replacing her,” I whispered to my sister as we went to bed that Friday night. She hugged me and said something that made me cry— which wasn’t hard; I was constantly crying. But what she said temporarily eased the ache in my heart.

The next day, we arrived to find that the people who posted the ad were a married couple between their seventies and eighties. The wife had to finish giving the dog his bath first. We talked with the husband about his life and our lives until she returned and presented the little dog from the ad to us.

I hated the idea of Insta-love in books and TV shows, but the moment I saw him, I knew I’d love that dog for the rest of my life. He jumped into my arms, gave me the biggest licks— much bigger than you’d expect from a little four-pounder— and let me cuddle him. He smelled like an old person’s house and was the softest thing I’d ever felt. 

By the time we got home, I’d given him a name. I was always quick to give names to things. I gave the little pup a full, pretentious, proper name, as all good dogs should have.

Bernard Ernest Peterson, the first. 

Or, rather, Bernie Ernie for short. Often referred to as Bern, Bernie-baby, black hole, demon, or Stop-it-Bernie-no! 

The next week of my life was so hectic that I didn’t feel any grief. As many should know, a puppy is a full-time job. With potty training, sleeping, feeding, napping, and playing, Bernie kept my mind off everything. He was a chewer, too, so I constantly had to tell him no, stop, and please-have-mercy-it’s-six-a.m.-on-summer-break-go-back-to-sleep

It was about two weeks later when I thought about Gladice again. Not a passing thought— I had plenty of those, she never quite left my mind— but a real thought. A long thought. 

I did replace Gladice. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to, because I couldn’t live without her. She was a central part of me. Her purpose was to love me and help me love others. To be someone I could fall back on. Without her, I had a void, a darkness, a black hole that sucked all my joy into it. 

Bernie took her place, her purpose. He brought me joy and love and gave me something to hold when my tears became too much. He replaced her job. But he never replaced her

I love him. I love him so much. And my love for him helps me love Gladice. Bernie’s a living memory. He helps me remember the good parts of Gladice. Her beginnings. Of the trials and tribulations I went through when I first got her. Of the first baths and first accessories. I think, by some force of the universe, someone knew I needed him.

Loyalty in life is about sticking by someone. But what about loyalty after death? When their life has stopped, but you have to keep moving? 

You move on, but you never cut the cord that bound you. Instead, you add to it, like how you visit a grave and dress it with flowers and kiss it with memories. And you bring a friend—to share the love of life with. You spread the love of the first with the love of the next. 

I think that’s the best way to find loyalty after death.

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Featured in our September 2022 issue, "Loyalty"