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Surreal mothering moments: For the love of a hairless rat

September 10, 2008

On a blustery afternoon a year ago, Soren called me at work with an urgent message.
“Mom, there’s something wrong with Daisy.”
This actually wasn’t news to me …. I had noticed that Daisy was appearing puffy and lethargic.
“What happened?” I asked Soren.
“She’s all swollen and then she fell off my hand when I was trying to put her back,” he said.
All around me, kids swirled in their loud circles of talk and horseplay. Classes had only just started in the small private school where I worked, and I was still getting used to the chaos of sitting at a desk in the front office. I plugged my ear to hear Soren better amidst the cacophony.
“What’s she doing now?” I asked him, hoping somehow to delay the inevitable. For really, what exactly does one do with a sick hairless rat?
I hadn’t been keen on the idea of having rats in the first place. Though I am not a squeamish person by nature, the ick factor of rats was rather elevated in my mind. Something, perhaps, to do with their tails. Anyway, they always struck me as snake food before anything else.
But the girls wanted rats —they’d had one at their dad’s house and were determined to have one (or two) again. Please? Before I finally caved to this idea, Mira bought a rat-care book with her own money. She read it cover to cover and talked about it at length. Then she wrote her own little book called something like “Rats make great pets!” and left it lying around in hopes that I would take note.
I finally did.
After Christmas I took the girls to the pet store where Mira chose a white “Dumbo” rat (a type of “fancy” rat with large ears) she named Lucy. Chiara, on the other hand, gravitated toward the hairless variety. She gushed over the tiny creature she selected, proclaiming that she was the “cutest thing ever.”
I looked at the wrinkly hairless skin from which random tufts of black hair sprouted and found that the word “cute” was far from my own vocabulary.
But Chiara was in love, and Daisy joined the family.
By the time Soren called with the bad news, Daisy was about 8 months old.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said to Soren.
“Yeah,” he replied.
After we hung up I sat there a moment. Looking at my desk I thought about all the work I had to do … then thought about Daisy. She was a very sweet rat. It hadn’t taken me long to realize that rats really are great pets. They’re even-tempered, smart and don’t bite … at least, Lucy and Daisy don’t. The girls adored them.
And now, Daisy was suffering. At a loss about what to do, I took out the phone book and began looking randomly for a vet.
Shortly thereafter I called Chris and asked him to bring Daisy to me in Chiara’s little plastic stuffed animal carrier.
He thought I was nuts.
“You’re taking a rat to the vet?” he asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” I said, still barely believing it myself.
I told my boss … and mused about the fact that this was probably one of the most unusual reasons he’d heard for leaving work early. Then, when Chris showed up I took the plastic carrier and swollen rat and headed to the vet where … I didn’t know what would happen.
“Is this Daisy?” the receptionist asked when I placed the carrier on the counter. Though the Yellow Pages clearly stated that this vet treated rodents, I was dubious. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were all secretly questioning my sanity for toting such an animal in for medical attention.
This all changed when the vet examined Daisy, and shook her head.
“Well,” she said very seriously, “I’m not sure what’s wrong — it could be cancer, hard to tell … I could try an X-ray and we could do fluids but she’s really suffering so I wouldn’t recommend it.”
The tech leaned over the table cradling Daisy as the vet talked to me. Both of them treated her like the pet she was, rather than the snake food I once imagined her to be. I suddenly felt absolutely awful. I was facing the decision to euthanize Chiara’s beloved pet and not only was she not there to say goodbye but she didn’t even know that Daisy was on death’s door.
I asked the vet to wait and called home.
Chiara’s voice was happy and brought tears to my eyes. What I had to say unraveled her and her sister. Even the vet could hear the girls crying through my cell phone. And standing next to little Daisy — a suddenly vulnerable being still struggling for breath, still clinging to life in the tech’s hands … I cried too.
After I hung up the phone I watched the vet give Daisy a shot in the leg. I wiped away tears as her breathing slowed … and finally stopped. Her skin was already cold.
Then, I wrote the vet a check for $56, took poor expired Daisy and went home.
We buried her under a sky roiling with monsoon clouds. The girls cried … and so did I. I was still reeling from the surreal experience of having to euthanize a rodent … of choosing to euthanize a rodent, rather than just watching and waiting until the little hairless body became a lifeless lump in the cage.
But I was also overwhelmed by the fact that in those last few moments of Daisy’s short life I saw as through the eyes of my daughter. As crazy-looking as that little creature was, she was also, in a strange way, the “cutest thing ever.”

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