We are not “pet people.” We are “kid people.” And, whenever our kids ask us “can we get a dog?” I like to say, “as soon as you come up with the $15,000 to fence our property, yes, we can get a dog.” But, I don’t really mean it. Pets, as a general rule, just aren’t our thing.
As you may know, however, children are persistent. And, in the face of this persistence from our now 10-year-old son, we decided a couple of years ago to become pet people, at least in a very small way. We bought a rat, and our son named her Ginger. As in the Gingerbread Man from Shrek. We soon learned (or were ruthlessly sucked in by the “Fancy Rat” branch of PETA) that rats are social animals and unless you’re going to be playing with your right all the time it’s important for rats to have a companion. And this is where we meet Bubblegum.
Bubblegum joined our clan about 6 months after Ginger. She soon proved herself an annoying cage-mate for her “older sister” but settled in and then just proved herself slower, fatter and more susceptible to biting off the end of your finger. That said, we had her and she had us and we were pet people times two.
About a week before Christmas Bubblegum fell. She landed hard on the concrete as our son was tending to the chore of weekly cage cleaning. To say he was sick about it is an understatement. To say she was OK would be a massive understatement. She most definitely was not OK. We took her to the vet (words I can’t believe I’m writing because we aren’t “pet people” so certainly we must not be “Vet people.” Alas.) and learned that while nothing was broken, per se, she clearly had suffered some head trauma and we needed to give her a week or two of serious R&R. I don’t exactly know what that means for a “fancy rat” but for us that meant separate her from Ginger, put her in a smaller, simpler cage (we have a five-story Waldorf-Astoria rat tower) so she wouldn’t climb and just watch her and hope she improves.
She did and then she didn’t. Immediately after the fall as we were assessing Bubblegum’s condition, I gently but firmly attempted to prepare him for the worst. I explained that we would not be taking extraordinary measures to help Bubblegum but that we would do what we could and involve the experts at least a little bit, but certainly not too much. He understood or at least he lied to me very convincingly. That first night we even talked briefly about the possibility of her death, as the natural result of her fall or perhaps through “putting her to sleep” to end any suffering. We had that discussion through tears. Me, my son, in our kitchen, crying about the possible death of our pet rat, Bubblegum. Oh boy.
Two weeks came and went and she was getting worse. She couldn’t do normal “rat stuff” like climb or balance and she definitely wasn’t eating or drinking enough. Back to the vet we went. And, of course, I was thinking that three of us were going there but only two of us would return home. I was right about that.
The doctor was wonderful. She asked us how Bubblegum was doing. We explained through our tears. She explained her theory about what was wrong. We cried. She explained options -steroids, more watching/waiting and finally…euthanasia. We cried some more. Obviously her quality of life was gone. Obviously she didn’t deserve to live like this. Obviously I wasn’t going to spend a bunch of money on a fantasy. That may sound harsh. Maybe if it was a dog. I don’t know.
We made our decision. We left her in the doctor’s care. We cried some more.
When we got home, I told my son that I would clean out her cage. I figured that the least I could do for him was to honor both him and her by putting things right again, such as I could. He stayed in the car. In the process of my cleaning-up I retrieved the trashcans from the curb and as I was pulling them back to the side of the house, he hopped out of the car and said, “I’ll get those, Dad.” I don’t know what it was about those words or about how he said it but we connected deeply in that very brief moment. He told me with that comment that he appreciated my being there for him, for loving him through a tough ordeal and for helping us to move on.
In her death, Bubblegum brought us together. She allowed a father and son to have their first shared experience of loss. An opportunity that is sure to live inside both of us through the years, providing a foundation for the difficult and painful transitions that await us in the years ahead.