How A Pet Rat Taught Me To Love
November 27, 2012 § 10 Comments
We buried Robert Rat in the backyard of my family’s house, right next to my much-loved strawberry garden. I’m glad the snow that’s coated the world outside now held off long enough for us to do that. Thinking about Bob lying there in the frozen cold ground makes me cry again. I know I’m being stupidly sentimental and foolish but I can’t stop myself. I’ve never had a pet of my own before. I’ve never had to deal with this. The lyrics from Coldplay’s The Scientist keep running through my mind: “Nobody said it was easy, nobody ever said it would be this hard.” Why didn’t someone warn me? Is it because we don’t like to speak of death? Or because we can’t describe the sword-sharp grief that pierces our heart, or the emptiness that we are utterly helpless to fill?
It might not have crushed me so hard if his death hadn’t been so visceral, so sudden and quick. He was at my house with the other rats for Thanksgiving, and Leo was playing with them and saying “ratties” in his little baby voice. And then Sunday came and Bob was gone before I could wrap my mind around the hastening shadow of death. He died in my hands, lying along my forearm. He had a stroke on Sunday morning that caused his back legs and tail to stop functioning correctly, and the only vet in our area who examines rats wasn’t open. I stayed home from church; I couldn’t leave him. Danny came over for a little while to see him. Bob wouldn’t eat or drink all day, instead he hid in corners of the room when me and Danny would try to hold him. I finally put him back in the cage and he lurched over to their cardboard box hideout, to lay down on his side with the other rats snuggled up against him.
At 7:30, I took him out of the cage to see if I could get him to drink from a little Dixie cup of water, but he wouldn’t. I carried him into the living room, and settled him in my arms to pet him as I watched TV. He just lay there with me, quiet and resting, for at least two hours. I rubbed his ears and his back and told him all my favorite things about him. At 9:30, I went into my room and that’s when he started dying in earnest. His heart was beating so strongly it was moving his head. I could feel it. His back legs started twitching. He didn’t yelp or squeal; I honestly don’t think he felt any pain. I think the stroke had paralyzed his nerves. I was frantic and sobbing because I couldn’t make it stop. When I realized I couldn’t even see my rat through my tears, I stopped crying and took a deep breath. I started praying Hail Mary’s as I sank onto my knees in my bedroom, cupping Bob in my hands, and rubbing his head. The prayer was so automatic, I was saying it in my mind even as I was saying out loud “Please Mary, please St. Francis, just take him, please just let this end. It’s okay, Bob, you can go, you can stop now, I love you.” Immediately, his legs stopped moving. His body started vibrating in my hands, like the way a computer feels when you put your hand against it and it’s whirring busily. His whole body vibrated for only a few seconds, and then everything inside him relaxed. He moved his head against my hands one last time and then he just let go. I felt his heart stop, I felt it against my fingers, I can still feel it right now. He died curled up in the palms of my hands. He never even made a sound.
It is my own helplessness that has shattered me.
The kindness of humanity has touched me in the two days since Bob died. I was a little worried that people would treat it lightly: a rat’s death. Sometimes people make fun of them or act like they don’t deserve the same love and attention as a dog or cat. But I find I have- to my detriment- underestimated the goodness of man. People have called me, texted me, written on Facebook and Twitter to let me know they understand what it’s like to lose a pet. They share their own stories of grief, or just give me a hug. Rats are gentle, sociable, incredibly intelligent, and most of all, loving. Bob loved me and Danny, and we gave him love back, the same kind of love you shower on a ‘normal’ pet. Bob liked to snuggle up in the hammock in the cage and only peek his head out when we entered the room. He had a way of sitting on the shelf and looking at us with his head cocked almost upside-down, and this endearing, quizzical expression on his face. He was the only rat brave (or greedy) enough to dive into a bowl of water to get the peas at the bottom. He was the original, the first rat. He hated baths and loved yogurt drops. Danny and I called him “Indignant Bob” because that was exactly how he looked whenever something happened that startled him. He grew cuddlier as he aged, slowing down, not jumping around as much. Instead, he’d crawl into my lap and let me rub behind his ears. Most people don’t know this, but rats make a noise called “bruxing.” It’s like a cat’s purr; they make it when they are very happy and relaxed. It comes from them grinding their teeth together, and Bob would brux all the time when I gave him an especially long ear rub.
John Donne said “every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.” But what about pets, and what about pet rats? I do not claim that my grief is as great as man’s death- a mother losing her child, or a husband losing his wife. But love exists in the shape of the cross, lines stretching into infinity, tying us to the things we cherish. Love is always a sacrifice, an offering up of yourself to someone or something. Danny and I knew that rats only live for about three years, and we could see the signs of age in our Bob. We loved him anyway, with all our hearts, and were rewarded with his innocent trust. And when a person, or a dog, or even a rat, offers to you the gift of their trust, you take it without hesitation because love is never far behind.
“Nobody said it was easy. Nobody ever said it would be this hard.”