Earlier this week I was spending some time with the rattie boys. They were gone for several weeks following my mom’s death, and I have a fair amount of parental guilt surrounding that. While I know this was best for them and for me, I still struggle with relinquishing them for a time. They are essentially my children, after all. Fenton has always been snugglier than his brother and he is hands-down a Mama’s boy. He is fairly skittish around new people and has not bonded with anyone else even close to the same way he has with me. Oliver is shameless and will glad-hand anyone without remorse in hopes that his brazenness will culminate in a treat or two. Even the way each of them interacts with me is distinct and unique. Oliver runs around me, stops to be scratched here and there, but is mostly interested in playing or harassing me for food or treats. He likes to be snuggled, though it is on his terms and he will very assertively let you know when snuggle time is over. It is usually at this point that he heads straight for the dog so that he can torment her for a while. If he has a thought process, it goes something like this: fuck shit up! Repeat! He is a simple boy, my Oliver.
Fenton, on the other hand? He is complex and unique and special and there is no question that ours is a much stronger bond than what I have with Oliver. This is not to say that I love them differently. I don’t. I love both of those little turds to the moon and back. Fenton is quieter, more reserved, almost snobbish. He keeps to himself and lives his life on his own. But when I come to him and want to hold him and pet him and snuggle him, he is more than willing to oblige. He curls up and goes totally limp when I pet the top of his head and the side of his face. This behavior is probably one of the cutest things I have ever experienced in real life, and one of the many reasons I love animals. The idea that this tiny creature would stop dead in his tracks just to unabashedly feel unfettered physical affection stops me dead in my tracks. It warms my heart that animals communicate so freely and honestly and openly.
Often when I need to feel grounded and to make sense of the world, I find Fenton wherever he is – usually off in a corner, working feverishly on his memoirs or reading the latest survivalist literature – and take a few minutes to hold him in my lap and cuddle with him. One night this week, I decided to do exactly that. I had played with Oliver to my own heart’s content, and after trying to bully me into giving him more Yogis, he finally decided to give up and see if he could wear down the dog. Fenton was laying just outside his cage in a spot that I thought was a little strange for him. When I touched him, he didn’t move or open his eyes. I poked at him with my hand and his body was warm, but he still did not move or open his eyes. As someone who has sustained great loss fairly recently and who has enough rational knowledge to know that these rats are almost two years old and the average life span of a pet rat is only one to three years, my immediate conclusion was that he was dead. So I did what any rational human being would do in that situation: I started hysterically crying and texting those closest to me, basically sobbing over a text message, FENTON IS DEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAD.
My sisters were caught off guard. One of them offered, “maybe he’s just really tired.” That could be. Maybe he was just really tired. After a few minutes of sitting in the living room texting and crying, I went back into the bedroom where the cage is. This time I was able to get him to at least open his eyes. We sat there for a while, me holding him and petting him while he drifted in and out of sleep. It was evident that he was clearly very tired, though I am not sure why. It is true that he is getting older and rats do not usually live more than a couple of years, even with great living conditions. I have never had pet rats, but I do believe that I will take them to the vet when a time comes that they are sick enough to warrant it. Just as with the dog, I tend to err on the side of wait-and-see because often my own fears eclipse what might actually be going on. Omigod, Josie just coughed. She definitely has black lung. If I have to have her put down I don’t think I’ll survive. Why is life the worst?!
After a while, Fenton went limp again. This time I had a better sense of what I should do, had an idea that maybe he wasn’t dead but was in fact just tired like my sister suggested. So I shook him and moved him around and did what I knew would wake him up. Except he didn’t wake up. Even when I set him down from my lap and onto the floor, his eyes didn’t even flit open for a second. He had very clearly breathed his last. His breathing had stopped and his body was limp and I thought for sure I would die too, all because this two pound pet rat had come to the end of his natural life.
The rat cage is in my bedroom closet, a closet that spans the entire length of one wall in the bedroom of my apartment. When I spend time with the boys near their cage, I sit on the floor of my bedroom and let them climb on me, give them treats, pet and love on them. On this night, I was sitting there in that spot on the floor near my bedroom closet wearing my bathrobe, snuggling my pet rattie boys. When I knew Fenton had breathed his last, I took to crying again. The inequity of this world rose up in my soul and got caught in my throat and I sobbed until I choked on my own tears. Less than two months ago I buried my own mother, and here I was in my bathrobe on a week night, cross legged on my bedroom floor, staring at one of my pets who had unexpectedly gone home to Jesus before I had anticipated. I petted his body and wailed and sobbed and cried out. The dog got nervous and sat right next to me and Oliver climbed on my legs and was all, sup, brah? why you cryin’ like a little bitch?
Even as I was certain I could no possibly cry more, I kept on bawling like a teenager with a broken heart. My tears poured out onto his tiny body, all over my own legs, stray tears landing on Joseph and Oliver. My whole body shook as I coughed and sputtered from the bitter wrongness of this life and of this world. A few days of bottling up the grief from my mom* paid me back with a deluge of emotion, compunction, despondency. I probably spoke in tongues at this point, and definitely called out loud things like, WHY? as I sniveled and blubbered over my little Baby Fenton. As I petted him while I was crying, I must have lost some awareness of my own actions. My hand moved down his little head and I squeezed his still-warm frame. And then, unexpectedly, he squeaked loudly and opened his eyes. What the eff is you doing, woman? Immediately I was jerked from my foggy and frenzied sorrow over his untimely death. He was alive. And annoyed that I squeezed him. With a tear stained robe and swollen eyes and tear stained pets, I sat cross legged on my bedroom floor and laughed out loud. I sat there surrounded by my little menagerie, a frustrated Fenton staring up at me like I was maybe the craziest person ever to breathe air. That might be true, that I am certifiable. But at least for now I am crazy with all of my pets in tact. There is something to be said for that I think.
*Guess what! My mom died! And I’m going to talk about it a ton! Because you know what sucks? Your mom dying! It sucks worse than anything you can possibly even begin to imagine unless your mom is also dead. Try to conjure the worst hell you can think of, a hell of shopping malls and screaming and entitled kids, a world where rape goes unpunished and children go without food and the rich keep getting richer and fatter and atrocity is everywhere and we can’t overcome it no matter how hard we try and the girl/boy you like thinks you’re a stupid idiot and your friends think you’re a douche and you can’t get a job and you will drown in debt your whole life and everything sucks. That shitty world is sustainable when your mom’s alive. Because your mom makes things better somehow, just by being your mom, just by thinking you’re the coolest kid on the block no matter what boneheaded move you make or idiotic thing you say, and by being your mom even when the whole world sucks a ton. No matter how selfish you are, how much of a nitwitted assbag you can sometimes be, no matter what, your mom is still your mom. And at least some sliver of her loves you with an intensity that cannot be matched by anything or anyone else on this earth. She knew you in her womb and she loved you there. She is your story, your foundation, a constant in a world filled with variables. And when she is gone, the world is quicksand, unpredictable and confusing and always threatening to choke you to death.