The Giant Iguana of Patrick Kervran

IgweenaPat Kervran had a secret life that manifested itself at an inconvenient time in the shape of an infant iguana. I had never before met an iguana. I knew nothing about iguanas other than that they were lizards and they were green.

Pat‚Äôs iguana was a remarkably bright green color and quite small, maybe 10 inches long from tip to tail, and the long, slim tail was most of it. The iguana hid itself effectively in a pile of wood shavings in the corner of a 10-gallon aquarium tank, and thus appeared to possess the qualities of an inconsiderable and virtually invisible being.  Would I mind adopting this small iguana after the death of its owner? Why, of course. How much of a burden could it be?

Pat Kervran’s wife, Joannie, called me on the morning of Monday, December 20th, 1993, just before I left for work. Pat and I worked at Microsoft. Pat was thirty-two years old, and he and Joannie had a four-year-old son, Daniel, and a nine-month-old daughter, Claire. We were close enough friends that every month or so we got together for lunch to share the news and stay in touch.

The previous Friday, Pat and I had planned a lunch date at the cafeteria in the building where he worked. Pat had sent an email Friday morning to say that he was feeling a little under the weather and asking for a rain check. Joannie was crying as she talked on the phone.

“Pat died yesterday,” she said. “He started getting sick on Friday and came home early from work. He felt worse on Saturday, but he wouldn’t go to the hospital. Late Sunday morning, he took a nap, and when I brought the clean laundry in, I realized he was dead.”

She stopped talking and I could hear her crying quietly with the children making noise in the background. I made some kind of sound, words I don’t even remember, of consolation or sorrow. I wasn’t sure there was anything I could say that wouldn’t be dumb or insensitive. All I could think of was that Pat was in his early thirties, and his kids were so tiny, and Joannie was all by herself now.

“So I’m calling to ask you a favor,” said Joannie. “I know this is a real imposition, but I want to ask you to conduct Pat’s funeral. Pat didn’t go to church, and I don’t know anyone else I would want to ask.”

This was a hard question, because I had never conducted a funeral before or even dealt with a similar situation. But I grew up in a Baptist preacher’s family and I have a lot of ministers as relatives, so I more or less knew the outlines of what to do. I wasn’t worried about the mechanics of a funeral. But I was worried about myself. I was worried that I’d not know what to say, or that I might say something false or hypocritical, or that I would think about my own sensitivities and my own ego rather than how to be helpful to Joannie and her family.

The problem was that Joannie was asking me to do something I had been raised to do and expected to do by my family, but had then spent 25 years objecting to. Not so deep inside, I was terrified at the idea of doing something even remotely close to being a ‚Äúminister.‚Äù I was pretty sure I didn‚Äôt believe in any God in the guise of an old white man with a beard who sat up on a golden throne in the sky passing judgment and ordering the affairs of humans, for example, though I was thoroughly unsure how I felt about divinity itself, and I‚Äôd spent no time at all exploring the life of the spirit.  But I was also oddly grateful that she had asked me and I was curious to see how I would respond.

That evening I went over to Pat and Joannie’s house and spent some time talking about what had happened. At one point in the conversation, Pat’s brother looked at me and said, “What about the iguana?”

“Which iguana is that?” Joannie asked.

So Pat’s brother explained that Pat had a pet iguana in his office at work.

“Damn!” said Joannie. “That makes me so mad, because Pat asked me if he could have a pet lizard and I said no, not until we decided the kids could have a puppy first, and then he could get a lizard. Damn him, that man went ahead and got an iguana without even telling me and then hid it at work in his office!

“Well, I can’t deal with an iguana.” She turned to me. “I know I’m asking a lot, but would you please take Pat’s iguana?”

What would you do if the widow of a newly dead friend asked you to inherit his iguana? I hestitated a moment and then said yes. My first stop the next morning was to go by Pat‚Äôs office and pick up his iguana from an office mate who was looking after it. I carried it back to my office, and there it sat on my desk in its small glass tank. With a little research at a nearby pet shop, I discovered that baby iguanas like to eat little crickets, being especially attracted by things that jump around and have some protein in them. 

The funeral was to be three days later. On Wednesday night, I went over to meet with the families to talk about what we should do at the funeral. Everybody was upset and sad, and nobody felt they would be able to make any speeches at the funeral. So I asked people to tell me about Pat and his life, stories that revealed who he was and his relationships with friends and family, while I took notes.

The funeral the next day was at a chapel on the grounds of a cemetery. The day was cold and bleak with a chill wind blowing across the top of Queen Anne Hill. The church was full of people, and I only knew a few of them. Joannie and the family, of course, and a few people I knew from the publishing company where Pat had once worked. It was a solemn and terribly sad occasion, and I felt intimidated by the moment, and unworthy of its requirements and expectations. I was out of my element.

I looked out over the people in their pews and did not expect that I had anything profound to say that could match the expectations people had related to the comfort a minister might offer. So I did not say anything profound. Instead, I simply told stories of Pat and his life that I had heard from his friends and family. Then I invited people from the assembly to tell stories of their own and several did so.

When the stories had run their course, the chapel fell silent, and I thought I felt Pat’s spirit there in the building, in the silence, in the stories that hung amid the dust motes in the chill air. So without planning or thinking about it, I began to sing an old song that I remembered from church in my childhood. The words out came from me and echoed against the walls and up into the ceiling of the chapel: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a soul like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

A few people sang or hummed along with me, and the rest sat silently with their head heads bowed or looked all through the windows across the cemetery. When I finished the song, I looked up into the choir-loft behind the assembled people, and from the choir-loft a neighbor of Pat’s lifted his trumpet and began to play a song to honor Pat’s memory.

After the service, they put Pat’s casket in a hearse and transported it to the gravesite a few hundred yards away while the rest of us walked that distance. Some men lowered the casket into the grave and then we all gathered around. I opened my grandfather’s Bible and read a passage from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; … a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”

This, I said, was a time to a time to weep and to laugh, a time to mourn and to embrace. And on this day, under the gray skies of Seattle two days before Christmas, we all sang together the words of the only song I could imagine singing at such a moment: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” At the last words of the song, we all stood there looking at the grave. Then each person took a handful of flower petals and let them float down onto the casket.

As we turned away from the grave, Pat’s dad, a big guy from New Jersey whom I had just met, grabbed me in a close embrace and held me to his chest as he cried. And then he thanked me and we all walked back to the chapel.

The next week, back at work, I began to settle into a long-term relationship with Pat Kervran‚Äôs iguana. Several times a day, I found myself looking at the lizard or reaching into its aquarium container to stroke the top of its scaly little head. I went to the pet store and bought a book about iguanas that answered questions about their preferred food, about lizard hygiene, the need for an artificial source of heat, procreation scenarios, and their expected life span. I was a bit startled to learn that iguanas can live twenty years or more.  With the help of photographs, I was also able to make a vague guess that this might be a female lizard.

There was no question in my mind that I would keep the iguana in my office at work rather than at home. For one thing, at my house we had a big dog named Habib who might think of the lizard as a lively and interesting snack. And the arrival of an iguana on my desk created a great deal of happy excitement in my hallway among my co-workers. Several people crowded into my office to have a meeting about what we should name the lizard and how to share responsibility for feeding it, cleaning out its cage, and providing it with a social life. Now that we knew or assumed that the iguana was a girl, it seemed perfectly obvious that her name should be Igweena Athena Iguana.

And so we settled into our new life together, Igweena and me. My job was to make sure she had plenty of little crickets to hunt down in the confines of her ten gallon tank and to clean out her cage every week. Her job was to bask under the sun lamp, and to glare unblinking at me from time to time.  Very simple, and she did her job well.

Iggy had no lack for friends from nearby offices who stopped by on a regular basis to share the latest gossip or discuss the weather with her. I often had to throw people out of my office when the party got too loud and I simply could not concentrate on my work. Iggy developed friends all over the corporate campus, including many people whom I did not know. Perfect strangers often stopped by on their way to a meeting or on their way back from lunch to feed Iggy a special treat they had collected, and many people brought their children to visit my private zoo.

Within a short time, as she grew, it became apparent that Igweena’s ten gallon tank was nowhere near big enough, so I got her a twenty gallon tank and a bigger log to sit on and a larger sunlamp to warm her scaly emerald skin. She quickly graduated from her diet of crickets because as iguanas get older they don’t need their food to move so much to attract their attention, and they eat all kinds of vegetables. So I went to the supermarket and found the perfect food for iguanas in the frozen food section, a plastic bag full of mixed vegetables chopped into pieces.

Several months later, Igweena had grown so much that a forty gallon tank became a requirement, and such a large lizard domicile thoroughly dominated my small office. Within two years, I had a five foot long iguana on my hands, and Igweena needed a house that was much larger than anything that could fit inside my office.  So I was forced to take Igweena home and install her in the spare room at the back of our house.  There she had a wire mesh cage six feet tall and four feet wide, with half of a small tree trunk inside that she could climb around on.

Joannie, Pat’s widow, brought their two children, Daniel and Claire, by our house to visit Igweena. Daniel looked at the big green lizard in its tall cage.

‚ÄúHi, Dad,‚Äù he said.