It was a sad day this last Friday. Our first pet died.
It was not the first loss of a pet. We had a cat who ran away. But there is a big difference between a pet running away, with its uncertainty and lack of closure, and a pet dying.
Our pet rat, Summer, officially belonged to my middle son, but all the boys enjoyed playing with her and taking care of her. Last week she swelled up, stopped eating or pooping, and couldn't move very well. On Thursday night she was listless and my middle son became alarmed. So did I. I was alarmed because I thought she was going to die. My boys were alarmed because they thought she was pregnant. I told them she couldn't be, there was no boy rat around. They had some crazy immaculate conception theory starting which I had to flat out reject without much explanation. The topic here was death and I couldn't get distracted.
Friday morning I called a few different vets in my town, only to be told they don't see rodents. Rodent? She's not a common rodent! Oh I guess she is.
I didn't know what to do. Taking a rat to the vet might seem absurd to some, maybe even to me, but the poor thing was clearly suffering. So I called my mom. I had pet rats when I was young, and I asked her if we had ever brought any of them to the vet. She said, "Well, maybe once, I'm not sure. Your rats didn't get sick, they just died." She offered to call her vet, in a more rural town about an hour away. Sure enough, they see all types of animals there and she got me an appointment. And then, because she is my mom, she went with me to the appointment.
We stood outside the building looking at the two front doors, one labeled "Cats" and one labeled "Dogs." Hmmmmm. We had a little debate as I carried Summer in her cage across the parking lot. Which door? Cats because they are closer in size to a rat? Dogs because cats eat rats? We went in the Dog side and much to my relief saw that there was a room between the two which was either a quarantine area or neutral territory. It probably should have been labeled "Not Cat or Dog." We sat and waited for Summer's name to be called. Although everyone in the office was friendly, I felt there might have been a few smirks behind their backs at this city woman bringing her rat to the country vet. I don't know, maybe it was me.
Once Summer was gently examined by the very kind vet, I was asked if there were any boy rats around. Jeesh, do I have to defend her virginity again?? Then we discussed the three options. Exploratory surgery (no). Aspirating the fluid in her abdomen and seeing if it comes back which the vet told me it would (no). Or end her suffering and euthanize her. I decided the most humane thing to do would be to end her suffering.
As I said goodbye to Summer, I got choked up and started crying. It was much harder than I thought. The vet asked if she should leave and give me a few minutes. No, I said, it's okay. Tears streaming down my face, I held Summer, stroked her, and said goodbye. The vet said, "She's been a good rat." My mom whipped her camera out of her purse and took a few photos.
I asked to have Summer's body so I could bring it home and the boys could say goodbye to her. An important part of having a pet is learning about death, so I brought Summer home in a little cardboard box. The boys knew there was a possibility that Summer would have to be put to sleep, but they were sad when I told them that evening. My oldest, to cover up his sadness, smirked uncomfortably, and pragmatically informed us that rats don't live very long. My middle son wanted to know what was wrong with her, why she got sick, and how the vet put her to sleep. As I told them the story and the three options the vet gave me, my youngest said, "So the three choices were death, death or death?"
The funeral was held on Saturday after baseball practice. I prepared them, letting them know exactly what was going to happen and how it was fine to feel sad and cry if they wanted to, but also fine if they didn't feel like crying. All five of us proceeded to a spot my husband decided would be a good place, under a huge old oak tree, for the burial and funeral. My middle son and my husband dug the hole. We opened the box and looked at Summer, lying peacefully on her side, and the boys said goodbye. Tears welled. We got out the list the boys had made about Summer and my middle son started to read it. His voice cracked, he choked up, and had to pass it to his little brother to continue reading. Struggling through part of the list, he then handed it to my oldest, who by now had huge tears rolling down his face. My husband and I added a few kind words, and then they filled in the hole with dirt, and made a marker with sticks and a few flowers. Walking back to the house, my youngest was very sad, and we cried together while I reassured him that it was normal and okay to feel sad. What, he asked, are we going to do with her cage? A little later the boys were curious to know exactly what would happen to Summer's body in the ground, and it was my cue to remind them of the cycle of life, and how her body would turn back into dirt eventually.
Death is such a difficult concept to discuss, especially with children who have different levels of understanding about it. But we had some good practice this weekend, thanks to Summer, who was a good rat.
Summer the Rat
Willing to move her cage
She had fun anywhere
When I was sad she helped me feel better
She would like to come out of her cage when we opened it
She was very snuggly like going in the hood of our sweatshirt.
Eulogy written by the three boys
And immediately starts the discussion about who would like what pet next. I had to tell them I did not want to discuss that for a few days. I need some time. I think this was harder for me than it was for them.
Thanks mom for being there with me.