A couple of years ago my little daughter came home from school with a very sad look on her face. When I asked her what was wrong she said in a tiny and quivering voice, “We talked about pets in school today and when it was my turn I had to tell everyone I didn’t have one.”
Well dang, I thought to myself. What kind of crappy mother was I? My little sweethearts deserved a pet. I vowed that I would be crappy no longer! I got to thinking and decided that maybe our family could handle a hamster or something a long that line.
The very next Saturday I loaded the young’ns into the car and we headed down to the local Petco. After wandering around the rodent section for a few minutes I managed to snag a Petco lady and plead for her advice. Here’s the skinny on what she told me: 1. Mice stink, 2. Gerbils are fast and are hell bent on escaping, 3. Hamsters get mean, 4. Guinea Pigs are loud and stinky. If she were to pick a rodent for a pet it would be a rat. According to her rats are sociable, not stinky, and smart. Another positive, their life expectancy is only about 2 years.
Twenty minutes later I loaded my kids, a fancy new cage, and 3 baby rats into the car. When we got back home the kids ran to Geoff with shouts of glee and happiness. He put on a good show for them but gave me a look that said, “Are you mad, woman?”
Let me introduce you to the rat members of our family: First, there was Nutmeg (Meg for short) an auburn colored rat. She was a girl but she belonged to my little son and he thought she was a boy so that’s what she was at our house. She didn’t last very long there. After about 4 months of living with us she moved on to the next life. Maybe it was the enthusiastic hugs from my son, or maybe she couldn’t live this life as a male. Whatever it was she didn’t stay with us for long.
Second was Mirra, just your typical brown rat. She knew how to blend in and just do her own thing. She took being mauled by the children the best and she was the rat most often put on show for visiting friends and family. She lasted for a little over a year. I think she ate herself to death. She was always the first rat at the trough, immediately picking out all the good stuff. She was like that person who always goes through the trail mix and picks out all of the M&Ms. I also suspect this was the cause of her death because food consumption went way down after she died.
Third was Lucy, a blond rat. She was the most hyper and bossy of the rats. If the other two got on her nerves she was sure to let them know with a snip or a tackle. She also got the most exercise which might explain her longevity. Anytime the exercise wheel began squeaking in the night it was always Lucy running as if Satan himself were hot on her heels.
Towards the end of Lucy’s life I called her Methuselah because she was living well beyond the expected 2 years. Her death was an event I anticipated. You see, my kids lost interest in the rats about 2 months after their arrival at which point they became my rats. I fed them, cleaned their cage, held, and talked with them. I didn’t mind the rats, I just felt guilty that they were sitting in a cage in our playroom and not running in some field, garage, or subway living the high life.
Lucy died last night. I didn’t walk into the playroom to find her stiff body in the bottom of the cage. No, that wouldn’t be Lucy’s style. She chose to die in the middle of our monthly babysitting co-op, surrounded by a bunch of little kids.
Early in the middle of the babysitting evening a little girl came up to me , yanked on my shirt, and said, “Kristen I think your rat is dead.”
“What?” I asked.
“I think your rat is dead,” she replied.
I quickly walked to the playroom moving little ones out of the way as I approached the cage. Peering in I noticed that Lucy was unmoving, lying on her side, and her eyes were closed. I tapped on the cage to see if she would jump up and run around the cage like she usually did (she had gotten a little slower over the past few months). She didn’t move or crack an eyelid. It looked like she had indeed died.
I carried the cage out to the back patio where Geoff could take care of her since he is the undertaker in our family. As I set the cage down one of the little boys said, “I don’t think she’s dead. I saw her stomach moving.”
I patted him on the head, trying to comfort him. “No, I think she’s dead,” I told him.
He squatted next to the cage, pointed, and shouted, “No! Her stomach’s moving!” Sure enough, her little stomach was quickly moving in and out, in and out.
“Oh my gosh, you’re right!” We all huddled around the cage to watch. Was she dying, or sick? None of us knew but I think we all held a small hope that she would shake off her illness and jump on the exercise wheel once more.
“Come on you guys. Let’s let Lucy have some peace,” I commanded. No one moved, we all just watched in horrified fascination, including myself. We were all rooted to the spot as Lucy danced with death. The spell cast over us was only broken when Geoff grabbed the handle on the cage, lifted the cage over our heads and said, “Geez you guys. It’s time to let the rat die in peace.” He carried the cage to the back of the house where Lucy could do her last pirouette in darkness and silence.
As each parent came to pick up their children I explained our “little episode” to them knowing that if their families were anything like mine the death of the Lucy would be a hot topic for a few days to come. No one seemed too shocked or upset by my story. They seemed to take it all in stride.
I part of me kind of misses Lucy, but another, bigger, part of me is glad I don’t have to clean out the rat cage anymore.
Next time one of my kids needs to talk about a pet in a class I’m going to tell them to talk about their younger siblings.
[Associated radio.blog song: UB40 - Rat In The Kitchen]