One Year Ago

My brother died almost one year ago. I wrote this open letter a few months after his death because it helped me put words to the heartache.

An Open Letter to the Pet Store Guy:

On a cold, rainy evening in February I left the house needing to escape little voices and the four walls that I see all day.  My husband walked in from work with a content Friday evening smile.  He saw that I was itching to go. He dropped his lunch box on the counter and said, “It’s okay.” I slipped into running shoes and a hoodie, grabbed my purse and slammed the door to the garage before anyone could say goodbye. 

It wasn’t until after I backed out of the driveway and took a deep breath that I decided to go shopping. When I pulled up to my strip mall of choice, I spotted the pet store just between the craft store and Target. I was drawn in through the automatic doors to the smell of dog shampoo and grassy animal food products. 

My old Chihuahua needed a new bed and I could have just grabbed the fluffy red one with paw prints on it, but I didn’t. I wound my way around the other pets, hands trembling, mind racing. Birds?  Pretty, startling and noisy. Rodents? Not happening. Fish? Buried several of those already. Gecko?  Probably not. Tortoise…? 

I couldn’t leave without asking to pick him up. I realized how strange it must have sounded that I wanted to nuzzle the tortoise. They aren’t snuggly. This one was handsome, though. He caught my eye and I couldn’t tear myself away. I didn’t even have to break eye contact with him while I waved over the nearest pet store employee. 

“Hi, I’m Dylan!” you said.

“Hi, can you tell me more about this tortoise?”  I asked. 

You pretended not to notice that I was probably manic, distressed, and wild-eyed. You just lifted the tortoise out of his tank and introduced us. 

“He’s really social. I even like to let him walk around at night while I’m closing up the store. 
They’re pretty smart. You’ll be able to tell that he recognizes your face after a while.”

I gasped a little gasp, took him from you, and talked to him like a baby. You did not even make fun of me. That totally made my night.

 “I don’t think I can leave without him,” I decided.

“Okay, let’s get you set up!”

Not only did you kindly support me in my need to fill an empty place in my heart, you were genial and funny, too.

I know that your work in the pet store means you probably love animals. Your job description most likely doesn’t include providing sanctuary to someone who doesn’t know what life is supposed to be about sometimes.

You couldn’t have known that I had lost my little brother a few months before, and that it had been long enough after the funeral that people weren’t expecting me to be grieving anymore; or that I desperately wished I could go back to the time when Paul and I sat and played with our turtle feeding him strawberries and watching his tiny little beak open and chomp down on them.

You couldn’t have understood that after that time together our parents divorced, Paul was caught in the middle, and I wasn’t there to help him. Since I had left for college, I felt like I had abandoned him and my sister.

In truth, after Paul and I giggled over the turtle that afternoon, we only saw each other a few more times. He had a son. He joined the Marines, got married, and then moved to Texas. Something between us had been disconnected.

You certainly couldn’t have felt the acute pain I felt when I saw on Facebook one afternoon in October that Paul had been in an accident and that everyone should pray for him. I didn’t know how serious it was until my dad called to tell me that Paul was gone. He had been working on cable lines over a busy highway and called in an emergency. He and his co-worker had noticed one of the lines was dangerously frayed. They had done all the safety checks. Still, the wire that bundled all the other wires together snapped while he was holding it with both hands. The circuit was completed and his heart failed instantly.

Mr. Pet store guy, you guarded my heart. It was a chance to remember my brother as a happy, unburdened young man, before so many regrets, judgments and finalities. Don’t ever underestimate your kind smile and your acceptance of broken people who walk into your store with empty arms.

Not only were you my hero that night, I was the hero of the family when I brought home a cardboard box with air holes and the words “LIVE ANIMAL” written on the side.  For a moment my husband had fear in his eyes and the kids were all jumping up and down waiting to see what I had brought home in the pet store box. 

I never would have guessed that my sons and daughter would have sat right down and fed him some big crunchy romaine lettuce leaves together, giggling and unburdened.  That was the best kind of healing.

Rachel (the lady who was pretending not to cry in the reptile aisle a few weeks ago)

P.S.  We named the tortoise Digger.  He loves to walk around in the garden with me and eat the weeds while I pretend to be doing “gardening things.”  Really, I’m just watching him amble around rocks and plants, giggling and unburdened.


  1. I still love this one. I remember how powerful it was the first time I heard it. So glad to see you share it with an even bigger audience!

  2. I agree with Channing. I love this piece. It is absolutely beautiful and I'm so glad you are sharing it. It hits me to the core.

    1. Thank you! The first few things I wrote many months ago were all so angry. After I cleared all that away, this came out.

  3. I love this piece. So beautifully written. I'm enjoying your blog.

    1. Thanks, Nancy :) That means a lot to me!

  4. This brought me to tears, and I don't even ever want a tortoise, ever. I love that you are in this place.


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