Just three years ago, I was living in Halifax with my long-term girlfriend, taking my undergraduate, and working a co-op term at the Department of National Defence. Lisa loved animals and though she was allergic to nearly every species under the sun, she desperately needed a creature to love. While her primary goal was to get a hypoallergenic dog (she has one now), we were moving every year and it seemed irrational to limit ourselves to the very few dog-friendly apartments in Halifax. Cats caused her the sniffles, fish were hard to cuddle, and hamsters were fragile and boring.
So to appease her, I did some research and discovered the perfect pet: rats. They were furry enough to cuddle, intelligent enough to train, and small enough that they wouldn’t infringe on our living arrangements. I barely uttered the idea and she was on Kijiji, found free pet rats, and got on a bus heading outside of the city to pick up a grey hooded rat I named Adelaide “Ada” Rat-sputin and an albino rat she named Sophie Flawless. A few months later, Daisy “Dukes” O’Dare, a tan baby rat destined to be snake food, was added to the family.
I am not a pet person. When I was young I loved animals, but in adulthood they’re just one more chore. So I was hesitant to get a pet from the beginning. Then when I too often was left to clean their cage and fill their food bowl, the idea that they would be a chore became a reality. But they became something more than that and their intelligence and cuteness melted my heart. Before too long, I was calling them my rat babies and had pictures on my cell phone, which I showed off like a proud parent.
Like any new pet owners, we had our hands full. We fed them, cleaned their cage, trained them to do a handful of tricks, and tried to spend as much time with them as possible. In return, they were great pets. When you’d enter a room they’d jump to the side of their cage and stare out at you as if they were happy that you were there. They learned their names and would come when they were called. And like all good pets, they were incredibly cute, despite their long tails that turn so many people off.
Time went by and, as it so often does, life changed. Lisa and I broke up. I moved to Ontario to do my Masters and had to leave my babies behind. Then when Lisa started having allergic reactions to the now adult rats, they got forced onto my younger sister who had moved to the city a year before. Jessica raised them like they were her own.
Two months after Jessica inherited this responsibility, I got a phone call. Sophie, our albino rat, had died. Since I was waiting for the bus with a group of school friends heading to a restaurant for dinner, I kept my composure and after the meal I got a second call. Lisa and Jessica were burying Sophie at the school. Upset, I excused myself to the bathroom and listened as they tried their best to make me a part of the funeral.
Ada and Daisy kept each other company for nearly a year after Sophie passed, but by the time I returned from Ontario and Europe it was clear that Ada wasn’t doing okay. On numerous occasions, her breathing got shallow, she would lie on her side, and we would think she was done for, but three times she bounced back. It was on October 26th that she once again lied down and began to breathe harshly.
It had been a hard month with unemployment and a break-up chipping away at my typically positive attitude. As she lay gasping, I held her and prayed that God would take her away. I cursed myself for not being stronger and not being able to put her out of her misery. And in the end, I laid her on her blanket and walked away. Having experienced so much loss, I couldn’t watch her pass. Less than an hour later, I checked on her again and she was stiff and cold.
Adelaide was gone.
Sarah, a friend I made during my undergraduate, is renting a house with a big back yard. So that evening my sister and I got a ride to her home and we dug a hole deep into her rock garden with a spade. After a few words, we placed Ada into the shallow grave and buried her.
This week’s “Act Your Age” has been a bit different from past ones, since I’ve told you a story of something that happened to me as opposed to something I set out to experience. I tell this story because our lives are defined not only by the decisions and paths we choose, but by how we react when life happens to us.
You’re forced to retire. You become dependent on medicine or a walker or an institution. A pet or a loved one passes and you can’t imagine a life without them. I make no claims to know what anyone has gone through, but these are all similar stories. They are stories of loss, but also stories about trying to put a new life together and accepting the changes for good or bad.
The death of a pet is an interesting allegory for all of the shit that can go wrong and all the things a person has no control over in life. I don’t have any answers or pearls of wisdom to make the feelings of powerlessness and loss go away; other than to say this, as clichéd as it may be. You’re not alone. Your story is timeless and its universal and we all go through it. Even though in this instance you can do nothing but accept the things you cannot change, there are things that you can control. And it’s okay to grieve and it’s okay to hold onto your memories and cherish them. It’s even okay to fall apart for a while and lose yourself… to not be okay… to mourn and shatter. Just, when you’re ready, come back to us.