On Friends and Rodents

As an adult, I do grown-up things like go to work daily, keep up with current events, drink wine with friends, keep up with my family, worry about my credit rating and 401K. All sorts of normal, responsible, adult things.

I also have a gerbil. In fact, this is the sixth gerbil I’ve had in my adult life. I’ve also had four hamsters, three mice,  fostered a rat for about two weeks, and provided a place to sleep for a wild mouse one night (it was VERY cold outside).

In short, I like rodents. I care for them, give them a large home, toys, good food, and medicine when they need it. I have them long enough to get attached, and then they die.

Because I live in a city and don’t have a yard, I’ve had to get creative with where I bury these dead rodents. Fortunately, my city happens to be located very near to some mountains, and there’s plenty of space in the foothills for burying small rodents. I have one rodent buried above Red Rocks Amphitheater. Another is buried near some dinosaur fossils. Another is buried near a small stream outside a small mountain town. One hamster’s ashes are spread at the top of Vail pass (they cremated her for free by doing it “with another batch.” Yeesh.) I also have one buried in my ex-boyfriend’s parents’ yard, under the light-up deer they have out year-round. They don’t know my gerbil is buried under their deer.

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Clementine cuddled with cat.

I knew I was adopting Clementine from the moment I met her. I’d visited the local animal rescue looking for a companion for my other gerbil whose partner had recently died. Clementine was a sweet, calm little brown gerbil with a white belly. The first two days, she cuddled in my lap (even cuddled with the cat), while I watched cat videos on youtube. For a rodent, she was surprisingly laid back.

As it turns out, it probably wasn’t her personality, but an underlying illness.

Day three, I came home from work and Clementine was nearly dead. Cold to the touch, unresponsive, shallow breathing. I jumped into action, forced fluids into her, and rushed her to the emergency room.

I explained the situation to the vet: She was cold and unresponsive when I came home. Yes, she had access to food and water. Yes, it appears she’s still able to pass waste. Please give her fluids subcutaneously. Do not take her temperature. I’d previously lost a hamster when the vet tried to take her temperature; she went into cardiac arrest. I’ll let you guess where they put the thermometer in order to get a temperature.

The vet took Clementine into the back, gave her fluids, didn’t take her temperature, and put her in a warm, slightly pressurized incubator with higher oxygen levels. Over the course of an hour, she slowly improved until I could take her home.

A few days later, after consulting with my primary care veterinarian, I took her back to the rescue agency from which I had adopted her and they gave her a medical workup, including taking some very clear x-ray images.

The conclusion: her belly was bloated, but it wasn’t due to a tumor. Could be an infection, so the vet prescribed antibiotics and sent us home. I put a heating pad under her cage to keep her warm and gave her the antibiotics twice a day. She hated the taste. But Clementine didn’t improve and her belly continued to expand while the rest of her lost weight. We switched up the medication, and started giving her a diuretic instead to try and help draw out the fluid in her belly. That also didn’t work and I sat back helplessly watching this sweet animal slowly deteriorate. Her belly grew but she lost weight. I could tell because every time I picked her up, I could feel her spine poking out more and more.

Finally, one night, I knew it was the end. She was again cold and unresponsive, barely alive. The vet had told me this time would come, and advised against rushing her to the emergency room again. It would be stressful and likely wouldn’t change the outcome. Not to mention the expense.

I held her carefully, trying to keep her warm and comfortable, and said goodbye. She was dead the next morning. I cried, I went to work, and I texted my best friend that yet another of my rodents had died. I was going to bury her that evening in the foothills outside Golden. My best friend offered to leave her family for the night and join me. I asked if she could bring the shovel, and she said yes. She also brought me a bottle of wine.

Rodent Headstone

No actual headstone was provided for Clementine.

We drove up a small canyon looking for a good place to pull over. Somewhere that was pretty, but that was also not visible from the roadside. We thought it might raise some suspicion if a police officer saw two women with one shovel digging a hole off the side of the road in some canyon. We weren’t entirely sure what we were doing was even legal.

We struggled digging in the rocky ground, but eventually got a hole deep enough that I was comfortable burying Clementine. Even if she was dug up by another creature, I reasoned, she would help be food for something else, continuing the circle of life. I pulled her body out of my purse, removed her from the fabric I’d wrapped her in (I preferred to think of it as a shroud), and placed her in the ground. My best friend, who also happened to be a vet tech, agreed her belly was extremely swollen. It jiggled like a water balloon, so full of fluid. We said some words, said goodbye, had a moment of silence, then each threw a handful of dirt on her. We filled in dirt using the shovel, piled lots of rocks on top, then went to dinner. I had a gift card to a swanky restaurant nearby and wanted to use it since I was rarely in that area of town.

My best friend and I dined on good food, a three-tiered tray of desserts, had some expensive wine, and caught up. It also was prom night for the local high school, and the restaurant was filled with youthful and hopeful high schoolers looking their best. We admired the formal evening dresses of the teenagers, reminiscing on our own days as unruly teens. We agreed those are not days we’d like to repeat.

“I’m at a point in life where I love my body even though it’s bigger than it was in high school, I love my life, and while I like dating guys, it’s not as dramatic or emotionally consuming as it was back in my younger days. Plus, I’m not settling for shitty sex. If I have a vibrator that will do better, then ‘see ya!'” I told her. Age had given me confidence and a sense of self-assuredness that my youth lacked.

“I’ve reached an age when I fart when I pee and I don’t care. I’m a mother to a beautiful little girl and have a fantastic husband, so my life is pretty damn good,” my best friend said.

And it was true. We weren’t young teenagers anymore but we didn’t envy them. We had some age to us, some experience, some life lessons, and a fierce friendship that led us to this out-of-the-way fancy-pants restaurant after burying a gerbil in a small canyon outside Golden, Colorado.

Plus, I always knew my best friend would be the one who would show up with the shovel when I needed to bury a body.

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