The amphibian heart



The road was covered with toads. Crouched on the two-lane mountain blacktop, posed like speckled sphinxes on the yellow line. I saved as many as I could, leaping from my idling car to scoop up their warm dimpled bodies and deposit them in adjacent Sonoran Desert. But too many were already belly-up or smeared across the pavement.

Red-spotted toad, the book later said, Bufo punctatus: emerges from creeks and crags following rain to mate or seek heat. It's a glorious emergence, quick reproduction, then return to the dirt. When I described the rescue to my folks on Thanksgiving, my Dad said, "What's so great about toads? What'd they ever do for us?"

He and Mom and I sat in their Phoenix living room. "Joe," Mom said, "get real. They have their own right to live, regardless of what they do."

He shot me a wink. "Really?"

"And they do a lot," she said, "eat insects, fertilize soil. If enough keep getting squished, they could become an endangered species." Dad shook his head, no longer able to contain his laughter. "You bleeding hearts are so easy to rile."

I didn't mention it, but I'd done similar rescuing in Oregon, too. As I was walking home from work one rainy Portland night, a fleet of earthworms appeared at my feet. Worms. Mindless carbon-tubes motored not by nervous systems but reactionary impulses, bundles of near-amoebic urges so primitive as to be hardly distinguishable from microbes, at least by most people. But there they were, freed by moisture from their dark, muddy holes, inching across the bike lane onto the frontage road. And there I was, dumping my umbrella to peel them from the pavement, one by one.

Headlights stacked against headlights behind me on the off-ramp, death looming like a stalking tiger. Passing cars sprayed me where I crouched. Worms coiled in my cold hands as others wiggled past into the road. I set survivors on the grass, went back and forth until there were no more.

"They're these little tender bags of organs and bones," I told my folks. "You can't just drive away." So clearly I recalled the creamy tan of the toads' skin, puffed undersides bearing the purplish pantyhose tone of an exposed ventricle. "Know that gristly color when you cut your hand?" My parents nodded. We're all so fragile underneath - and inside.

That same Thanksgiving, my Grandma asked about the living room. "It looks different," she told Dad. "Is this couch new?" Later, cutting her turkey and yams, she motioned to some Navajo statues against the wall. "Did you always have those?" "Yes," my uncle Sheldon said.

"Sheldon remembers everything," Grandma said, smiling. "If I can't remember something, I say, ‘I'll ask Sheldon.' " "I don't remember everything," he barked.

"You do too."

Now that she has dementia, Grandma likes to test herself. My folks and I take her to a movie every Saturday, after which we'll sometimes stop at the mall pet store. There she reads the birth date listed on each dog's tag and tabulates: "That means he's … two months old." She enjoys identifying breeds without looking at the info cards, seeing if she can tell pugs from terriers from miniature schnauzers. The dementia has weakened her short-term recall, but as she likes to say, "At least I know I'm forgetting things. Shows I'm not all gone."

We seem to go in pieces, like a species declining, disappearing toad by toad.

My parents and I cleaned up dishes. Afterwards, I joined Sheldon and Grandma in the bedroom. They'd gathered around a black-and-white family photo from their years in New York. Arranged in a V according to height and age stood Howard, Grandma's oldest, beside Sheldon, the walking encyclopedia, beside my Mom and Grandma, then Grandpa, holding my grinning Aunt Debbie.

Grandma put her finger on Howard's gray-tone face, his straight frame posed stiffly in a suit, half-smiling. "Here's the one I miss," she said. "I'll never understand." How could she? He took his reasons with him. I put my hand on her back. She looked up, eyes clouded pink. "But that's life." Howard had been engaged, a chemistry Ph.D. student. Everyone insisted if I'd met him, I would've loved him. "Everyone loved him," Grandma said, which is why, 40 years later, she still wonders why he took his own life.

"He suffered from depression," Sheldon said, lowering himself onto Mom's bed. His lips tightened when our eyes met. "Manic depression." "I'll never understand it," she said.

A glorious emergence and a swift return to the dirt. Some of us bask longer on the pavement than others. Grandma and I left the room with our arms around each other's backs.

She said, "He would have been -"

"Sixty-five," said Sheldon.

Aaron Gilbreath has written for Backpacker, Texas Highways and High Desert Journal.

High Country News Classifieds