On most days- when just simply dealing with my humanness- I feel lost in the woods. It was fitting that on the day that I struggled with the complicated emotion of losing a pet rat and trying to not make it matter- I actually found myself in the woods.
I awoke knowing my day would begin with death. Our sweet, grey, Dumbo-eared rat, Gwennie, was dying. A pituitary tumor rendered her unable to eat or walk. It came on suddenly- as illness often does in the world of Rodentia. It was only a matter of time. Princess Commando kept vigil for three nights with a ten year old’s faith in miracles. She was so weary when The Mr. drove her to school loaded up with end-of- the- school- year presents for teachers. But, she needed to be there. I did not want her to watch as Gwennie finally surrendered. I, also, selfishly wanted a chance to mourn before I had to catch my daughter’s tears.
I balanced life and death at my desk. With my right hand, I finished a drawing for a client. With my left hand, I traced gentle circles on the rat swaddled in a blanket on my lap. Her sides inflated and deflated with numbered breaths. In the background, Violet bounced on the couch in front of the TV licking the marshmallow dust from a nearly empty bag of Lucky Charms she raided from the cupboard.
“Gwennie’s dying,” Violet somberly said, coming to lean her sympathetic head on my drawing arm. At three years old, Violet has grown accustomed to the ‘symptoms’ of death. She, also, acquaints death with our garden- where all of our small animals have been laid to rest. Here the Cosmos and green beans grow. And here lies Geronimo, Pluto, Poco, Chowder.
I finished my drawing and nestled Gwennie’s body in the crook of my arm- stroking her velvet ears, her dainty feet. Please don’t let it hurt. Her heart rate, a normal 300 bpm, became slow and staggered under my hands until I wasn’t sure if I was feeling my own pulse or hers. A final insufflation. And then an electric shift that tingled through my fingertips.
Death seeped like vapors into all the rooms of the house. The animals sensed it. The dogs came to lie by my feet. The cat meowed from the basement. Henry’s parakeet on the third floor frantically chirped. Faye, Gwen’s sister, perched in anxious anticipation on the second level of their cage in the adjacent room. I placed Gwen in the cage. If Faye didn’t see for herself- it would seem like Gwen had just disappeared. She nudged her sister’s body with her nose and pried open her jaws with her own tiny paws, breathing into Gwen’s mouth. She groomed her sister and then tentatively darted out of the cage to curl on my lap. I cried until my eyes were dry and achy. It stinks that this is the inevitable conclusion to life.
Here grow the gladiolas. Here lies Gwen.
The death of a pet rat does not easily illicit sympathy from extended family or acquaintances. A three- legged, one -eyed, cat-killing rabid dog is apt to garner more compassion. Rats are creatures to be poisoned and banned from homes. So we kept the pinching and twisting behind our ribs to ourselves. We tried our best to subscribe to ‘life goes on.’ Ironically life went on through Henry and Princess Commando’s weekly archery lesson- where the ultimate expectation, if you are a good student, is that you will eventually take life.
In a clearing encircled by woods, the students lined up behind targets, drawing their bows, emptying their quivers. It was only the second week, but the instructor, Steve, had taken an interest in Henry and Princess Commando. Perhaps he appreciated that they took their lesson seriously- focusing on his direction, responding to the gentle position of his hands on their hips and shoulders- molding them into the archer’s stance. Steve turned to me with wide eyes after Henry hit the bull’s eye, “This kid’s onto something.”
Steve left us for a minute to find someone to take over his station. “I’m taking these four on the course,” he announced to his rotund, pockmarked replacement- pointing to Henry, Princess Commando and Steve’s 16 year old daughter and her friend. He motioned to me with his hand, “You can come too.”
Steve is not an imposing man- I could tell from our interactions last week. He would let me be the quiet observer and he would teach my children in a way that I would teach them if I only knew how to draw a bow. We followed him through the muddy ruts in the grass. Me and my city kids in our thin canvas shoes swallowed to the ankle in the earth. Soles and souls surrendering.
The woods were lush and swampy. The deeper we receded into the trees, the muddier we got. The more the mosquitoes buzzed in our ears- the more the children straightened their backs, falling into a natural archer’s stance.
We forgot for a moment.
A new world opened.
Princess Commando’s eyes were bright with fascination at the unfamiliar call of birds above us. A woodpecker’s staccato tapping reverberated steadily through the leaves. Steve challenged Henry to move further away from his targets. “I don’t think I’ll be able to hit them,” Henry worried. “Try,” Steve encouraged. And that one, gentle command, gave my children the confidence to focus, aim, let go. Steve’s daughter, already a seasoned archer, encouraged and celebrated each mark the children made and lightly teased at the arrows that disappeared into the woods. We felt enveloped and supported. Occasionally, Princess Commando would meet my eyes, her shoulders rising to her ears, her mouth tight in a forlorn pout. I’d nod in return, I know it hurts.
There was no score to keep. We lost and we gained arrows. We followed buck tracks. We sank deeper into the trees, into the earth. Breathing. Away from the motor babel of the city. Away from disquietude and conflicting feelings of home. Do we have to go back?
And then at the second to last target, as the kids retrieved their arrows, a grey mouse ran across their feet. The older girls shrieked. Princess Commando’s eyes chased after it- weaving in and out of the soft verdant carpet. There’s no pretending. There goes life. On and on.