As a child, I learned to cope with loneliness by seeking comfort from animals. Even now, in middle age, I still find solace in spending time with our family dog, taking care of backyard birds, bunnies, bees, and watching cute animal videos. I can't drink and don't want to smoke pot (which is legal in my state), so my passion for animals seems like a wholesome alternative.
Not so long ago, during my son's high school years, his emotional volatility overlapped with my menopausal irritability, and our house became ground zero for an adolescent versus menopausal Battle Royale. I was a sleep-deprived hot mess, incapable of sound decision-making. That was when the image of a soft, cuddly pet wallaby began to increasingly tempt me.
Our most frequent argument was over his bedtime. Having suffered from a vicious cycle of insomnia in high school myself, I couldn't help but try enforcing his bedtime. But his desire to keep up a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend made him resistant. Night after night, my "Stop Skyping and go to bed!" was met with his defiant "Leave me alone!"
One night, in the heat of the moment, I shouted, "If you keep this up, I'll take away your Skyping privilege!" He then got up from his desk, approached me with piercing eyes, gritting teeth and clenched fists. He then immediately turned his back and slammed his door.
My shoulders sagged in frustration and defeat. The sweet, adorable son had been replaced with a rebellious teenager I barely recognized. And soon I regretted having made the empty threat that was sure to backfire. To calm myself down, I went to snuggle on the couch with our fluffy goldendoodle, Biscuit, and binge-watched YouTube videos of baby wallabies.
Recently, while I was watching a local TV show with my husband, we'd learned that baby wallabies were available for adoption only an hour’s drive north of our home.
"I want one," I’d said to my husband.
My love affair with wallabies had begun thirty-five years earlier, when I was seventeen and met a pet wallaby that belonged to a host family in the outback town of Echuca, Australia. I still cherished a photo of the wallaby taking a slice of apple from my hand.
“That’s kinda cool,” he said.
I was heartened by his response. He is Mr. Sensible, and if he didn’t think owning an exotic pet like a wallaby was a far-fetched fantasy, well, maybe it wasn’t.
The next morning during breakfast, I got into another argument with my son, this time about isolating himself at school by ditching his friends to spend all his time with his girlfriend and her family.
"You guys are acting like a married couple. Your friends used to come to our house, but no one does anymore." I said, frowning.
His eyes slid to one side and he said, "I don't care. I get to do lots of cool things at her house. And, I HATE living in this house!" and left the kitchen.
That broke my heart. I felt like a total failure and powerless to change anything. In that moment of despair, I felt myself succumbing to that temptation.
As soon as my husband walked into the kitchen, I blurted out, "I want to get a wallaby from the kangaroo farm."
"Okay, let's go get one," he said.
I was surprised and delighted how game he was to go along with my spur-of-the-moment whim. Maybe he wanted me to be happy for a change. We immediately hopped in his car on a crisp autumn morning, and off we went to the kangaroo farm.
Within an hour I was cradling a joey in my arms. I was in heaven! At seven months old and weighing only four pounds, he looked like a cross between a giant mouse and a fawn. He had innocent dark brown doe eyes, long eyelashes, velvety ears, soft grayish brown fur and a long fleecy tail. And he smelled like hay–a comforting earthy smell that made me feel grounded in the present moment.
As I handed a check for $1,200 to the owner of the farm, I mentioned our dog. Would she and the wallaby be okay together?
“Keep an eye on your dog . . . but if things don’t work out, it’s okay to bring him back,” she said, somewhat reluctantly.
I was unsure of how Biscuit would react. Still, it was one of those moments when overpowering feelings clouded rational judgment, and I dismissed the potential challenges.
When we arrived home with Wally the Wallaby nestled in my arms, our son's jaw dropped and he was momentarily speechless. He was so excited he was hyperventilating.
"Thank you, Mom! Thank you! Wow, he’s so cute! I’ll be the coolest kid in the whole school!” he said. In his excitement he resembled the charming little boy I once knew. It made me happy to see him so animated and full of joy.
Living with Wally was like having a newborn again. I kept him inside the playpen much of the time, except when I bottle-fed him four times a day or when I carried him in a baby sling. He wasn't all that interested in eating kangaroo pellets, but seemed to really enjoy eating almonds and pecans, as well as dried apricots, pumpkin dog biscuits, and Honeycrisp apples. My heart melted each time he licked my hands with his itty-bitty tongue, as if to say, “I love you to death!” Holding him, or just watching him sleep peacefully in my arms, helped me forget the family strife and feel more at ease and comforted than I'd felt in years. I reminisced a lot about the days when my son was also sweet and innocent, like Wally.
In the evenings, we all spent time together playing with Wally. We let him hop around in our downstairs family room, and shouted, “Go, Wally, Go!” as he darted in and out of furniture as if through an obstacle course. One of us had to calm Biscuit, who reacted to Wally’s swift, nimble movements by barking and trying to push through the makeshift barricade. Together we laughed at Wally’s humorous antics and were a happy family again.
Once Wally tasted freedom, though, he refused to go back into the playpen, even past midnight. It took him a good forty-five minutes to calm down and settle back inside the pouch.
As the days passed, I felt increasingly tired and restless from sleep deprivation and being cooped up inside the house all day trying to keep Wally safe. On day five, I began to feel buyer’s remorse, wondering what the future might hold for us as I followed Wally around in a daze, having been up much of the night trying to calm him down. I spent time online trying to find a wallaby support group but to no avail. Instead, I came across an article about a family who'd adopted a wallaby and, after some detective work, tracked them down.
The mother said on the phone they’d adopted their wallaby as a baby, but after living in the house for two years, it was killed by the family dog. I now became increasingly worried about Wally’s safety, since Biscuit still hadn't warmed up to him and was ready to pounce at any moment.
The mother also told me the wallaby had jumped up everywhere, and one night, got up on the kitchen counter and gobbled down an entire plate of cookies, while knocking off everything else with its huge tail. She went on to tell me it had been cute and sweet as a baby and had bonded with her son, but once it grew to be about fifty pounds, everything became a tremendous amount of work. She sighed, paused for a moment, and said, “I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”
Her cautionary tale was the final blow. I was now convinced that Wally must be returned to the farm, realizing the pint-size kangaroo hopping around the house would make my life a whole lot more complicated than it had been already. Both my son and husband were disappointed at first, but agreed it was the right decision. That evening, several of my son's friends came over to meet and say goodbye to Wally. They laughed a lot and had fun taking turns to carry him around in the pouch. I was delighted to see my son reconnect with his friends.
While my son drove us to the kangaroo farm the next morning, I cradled Wally on my lap. When my son reached over to stroke Wally’s head, Wally responded with affectionate licks.
“Mom, do we really have to return him?”
“Yes, I'm sure of it. He may not be safe around Biscuit. And besides, he would be much happier with other wallabies roaming free in large spaces.” As I said it, I felt a strange sense of relief at having caught my misjudgment in the nick of time. Also, recognizing my mistake and taking immediate action to remedy it seemed to have boosted my confidence in resolving family conflicts.
Once we arrived at the farm, the owner greeted us in a less joyous manner as she handed back my check. I thanked her profusely for letting us try Wally for a week. I gave her $120 in cash, joking that it was a "ten percent restocking fee," and a donation to her farm.
The drive home presented a rare opportunity to calmly discuss things with my son. I was grateful that the weeklong love affair with Wally seemed to have brought us closer together. My heart softened to see flickering moments of hope for our relationship.
“Thanks for doing all the driving today. Are you sad about Wally?”
“Yes,” he said.
Me too. But I’m actually also feeling quite relieved to have returned him, or we might have been in a pickle.”
He nodded as if to second. I smiled and squeezed his hand.
Shigeko Ito immigrated to US in her early twenties and holds a Ph.D. in education from Stanford University. She is currently seeking representation for her first memoir, Out of the Mud. Find her online at https://shigekoito.com.