But there's an amount of stress that goes along with repeatedly rescuing someone, especially when that someone is the person you feel like you ought to be able to lean on for emotional support, and never have been able to, because all your life they've been too heavily leaning on you, the child/young adult/grown up daughter.
People deal with stress in different ways. My mother told me that her mother used to feed her whenever she was upset, resulting in her lifelong weight problem. So instead of feeding me, she taught me to shop when I was sad/sick/stressed. Toy shopping when I was a kid. Later, clothes. Mostly I've broken this habit, but occasionally it kicks back in. I head either to Michaels for art supplies, or to the pet shop. If I'm lucky, I leave Petsmart with a sparkly new dog collar, or a bigger fish tank. Four years ago yesterday, I left with a new cage, water bottle, litter pan, Oxbow food, sunflower seeds, yogies treats, and two young male dumbo rats.
On day one I named them: Sam and Dean W. Dean hid inside the empty tissue box I gave them. Sammy explored every inch of his cage and then started watching me instead, grasping the cage bars in his little pink hands and staring out at me with curious dark eyes.
On day two I opened the cage and offered both rats sunflower seeds. Dean hid inside his tissue box again. Sammy ate all the seeds and then climbed onto my arm in order to slurp coffee out of my mug. Later he did the same with my vodka tonic. I fell in love with him before I'd had him for 24 hours.
For two and a half years, through three job changes, two major moves, and many more motherly hospital dramas, Sam and Dean stayed with me. While Dean always remained standoffish, his brother was an outgoing bundle of enthusiasm and affection. He was intelligent, learning to spin on command in ten minutes, and he always came when called. He returned kisses with tiny rat licks. He rode on my shoulder while I cooked, and when I worked at my desk, he hunkered down in the corner of the cage closest to me and dozed there, waking whenever a chip bag crinkled or ice cubes clinked. He had to be chased away from alcoholic beverages, because god, he was a lush.
They never made it to their third birthday.
We had been traveling a lot. My mother, having had a leg amputation, was never going to be able to come back to her two-level farmhouse, so I was in the process of packing up her belongings. In between packing, the rats, the dogs, and I drove into the city to babysit my dementia-challenged grandmother,, who could never remember who I was, why I was in her house, or why I had my "hamsters" with me. For sanity we escaped for a few days at a time to a tiny cabin in the mountains.
The boys were handling the stress with their usual curiosity and hardiness, though Dean had begun to develop health issues, arthritis in his back legs, and cataracts. He longer enjoyed his cage-free time, preferred to remain curled up in a fleecie, but he still loved grooming his brother, and, well, eating. He didn't nip anymore, though of course he only ever had nipped at all, lightly and without breaking the skin, when he was frightened. Now he seemed to have accepted that I was trustworthy. Both rats had weekly baths, and while Sammy resisted his with a passion, Dean almost seemed to enjoy being cleaned and dried and cuddled afterward. Sammy, despite the occasional stiff feet in cold weather, was still energetic and healthy, and I worried how he might grieve if his brother passed on.
The morning of actual farmhouse moving day, I opened the cage for feeding time. I could see Sammy's head in the entrance to his plastic igloo, where he and his brother always cuddled up at night. He wasn't moving, though his eyes were open. After a few seconds of staring, hand full of food frozen over their bowl, it occurred to me that he looked very strange, very unnatural. Then it occurred to me that Sammy looked dead.
If you've lost a pet suddenly, you know that feeling. The shock, the denial. Picking up the body in your hands and feeling the stiffness, the cool of it, but still thinking: No, maybe he's just, maybe I can, maybe.
Sammy is buried in Pennsylvania, in a place I almost never go, his grave very far away from me now. It was mid-November, thirty-eight degrees and me wearing only a hoodie, but it didn't feel cold when I was digging his grave. All it felt like was pain, hollow, heart-and-lungs clenching pain. Private pain, the kind you allow no one else to witness, because it's too deep.
I don't know how or why Sammy died that way. Maybe a heart attack, and maybe that's my fault, for letting him get to be too much of a big squishy fat rat. I don't know. Dean followed him a month later, one week before his third birthday. Dean was not unexpected. His arthritis took a hard turn. He couldn't walk, but had to drag his back half. He developed an abscess on his jaw that grew with horrifying speed. I told myself I should take him to a vet and have him put down, but could not do it. So there's guilt for that, too, for letting his pain last days longer than it should have. The night he wouldn't even slurp up his pureed chicken baby food, I knew it was the end. He was gone by morning. And I thought, knowing it was coming, knowing we hadn't been close the way I had been with his brother, it would be easier. It wasn't. He wasn't Sammy, but he was lovely and unique in his own way. In the sly, skittish way he stole food, or cash from my purse, or pens with rubber grips. In the way he stood back and watched his brother learn to do tricks, and then copied them very carefully, hoping he too might get a carrot stick.
I still cry over the boys. Ugly, snotty crying, like I'm doing right now. They left an empty space that has not been filled. Six months, and sometimes I still look to the place where their cage used to be and expect to see tails hanging out through the bars.
What makes it worse is the fact they were rats. If I'd lost a beloved dog, other people might understand. But rats are undesirable creatures, spreaders of disease, nasty dirty rodents that should never be kept as pets, much less by a thirty year old woman. Sammy never bit anyone, not me or strangers or even overly curious dogs. When he was physically able, Dean spent more time grooming himself than a cat. Both rats were litter trained in a single day, without ever having seen a litter box in their life. But I cannot share these things with other people unless I want the looks--at best, carefully blank, at worst, disgusted. I cannot understand their narrow-mindedness, and every time someone says something ignorant or condescending, I hate them violently.
My dogs are alive, thank god, and getting extra hugs and cuddles and healthy treats. I am bonded with them. I was bonded with the rats. There is no difference. I've lost a friend. It hurts.
I thought, when I started typing, there would be a point to all this. But maybe I just needed to get it out. Maybe the only point is that I miss my little guys, that three years ago yesterday I looked into their expectant faces for the first time, and today I cannot stop crying. Maybe the point is that my life is such madness right now, crying for Sammy is the easiest thing to cry for. And maybe the point is that through all the sadness and pain in the world, you have to keep trying to push through and remember the good and the beautiful--about your rats, about your mother, about every single day of this life.