August 12th, 2009 23:06 EST
A reflection upon the death of my first pet
I never expected my first pet to be a mouse. In fact, I didn`t even expect to own a pet until I moved out of the house, thanks to a busy schedule and an unfailingly obstinate mother. Actually, it was more so the latter that prevented me from raiding a pet shop at age 13, P.E.T.A. style. My mother has always loved animals--mainly chubby animals, fat animals, and morbidly obese animals--but she complained about the time, care, and space they required.
Above all, I knew she was afraid of growing emotionally attached to creatures whose life spans were so much shorter than her own. Not that she hadn`t experienced the misery of premature separation before. She was raised with scores of cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, and even owned parrots and an owl at one point. Yet with the joy of caring for fluffy, needy beings comes the pain of watching them fade and eventually pass away to their kibble piles in the sky.
More than one of her pets faced a particularly tragic death, including a German shepherd who swallowed a firecracker. Surely my mother wanted to shield her three daughters from such hurt as much as she wanted to shield herself. I spoiled that plan, however, thanks to a chance occurrence in my tenth grade science class.
I`m not sure what I was doing in Mrs. Pease`s class when a student popped into the room announcing that she had discovered a mouse in the hallway, but it definitely became a second priority in a matter of seconds. Down went my pencil and up went my eyes. When Mrs. Pease asked who wanted to take the mouse home, my hand shot up faster than a tick vaults to an open wound. It was impossible to ignore my enthusiasm and it helped that Mrs. Pease liked me.
Like a true nerd and goody-goody, I had a high average in the class and belonged to the Environmental Action Club, the same activity that Mrs. Pease oversaw after school. She had no choice but to present the purple-lidded plastic case into my grubby hands. Apparently, the Biology department had been selling lab mice earlier that day to raise money for new supplies, but it seemed like someone had bought this mouse only to dump her in the hall garbage can. The student stumbled upon the mouse still stuck in her case, making the most pathetic expression a mouse is capable of stretching across its whiskers.
The mouse still seemed very young, but not so young that it was pink and hairless. Its coat resembled Holstein cows, white with black patches, which is why I later on called her my "cow mouse." I gazed into the rodent`s beady black eyes and vowed to adore her for the rest of her 2.5 year lifespan. She gazed back, looking ready to nip off my finger. I noted her swollen nether regions and named her Algernon (like the short story, novel, and bad made-for-TV movie, "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes) because I mistook her for a boy.
The rest of the afternoon, I shut out the tiny voice that warned me of how upset my mother would be when she saw "a rat" in the house. I shoved a few dandelions into her case, showed her to my delighted sister, stroked her back when I caught her off guard, and waited until it was time to go home.
No single word describes the expression on my mother`s face when I showed her the new cat food. She wanted to look stern despite the girlish squeal I knew brewed within her voice box. I endured a lecture about how selfish I`d been in not asking permission first, how I`d have to take on all the responsibility, how the mouse was probably dirty. To further demonstrate her parental disapproval, I wasn`t allowed to bring Algernon into the house for three whole days.
That is an eternity for a kid dying to smother her first pet with affection. Algernon had to sleep outdoors in her case, nestled in the grass of our front lawn. My mother said she didn`t want the mouse to bring mites and diseases into the house. Again, I spotted traces of the emotional cocoon she was sewing around herself. The cocoon dissolved quickly enough, though, and Algernon was welcome into our house. Algernon had to remain on the back step by the basement for a while but eventually earned her place in the living room. My mother was finally willing to gain and, therefore, lose another pet.
The next fourteen months of my friendship with little Algernon were perfect. The fifteenth month was not. My sisters, mother, and I fed Algernon a wide variety of scraps, but soon observed that Algernon liked almonds above everything else. Not only did Algernon pounce on almonds, but she also assumed a play bow like a puppy when she wanted to snuggle. Algernon tore up toilet paper tubes with a passion, crawled up the sleeves of our shirts, and temporarily hid in our hair.
Every pet owner thinks his pet is the cutest, the smartest, the most obedient, and the most attentive, but in the case of Algernon, she really was. No other mouse, at least no other cow mouse, in the world had more personality. And because I saw human qualities in Algernon, rather than those of a fleabag vermin, seeing her go was especially hard.
In her last days, Algernon was fat. I could assign a euphemism, like "pleasantly plump," but that would be dishonest. When she sat down, her rolls of fat pushed out from under her and formed a pillow of fur and flesh. She gained weight because we, so thrilled to watch her grasp something between her paws and nibble, overfed her. Algernon was also confined to a small case and could not properly exercise. What`s most difficult to admit is that Algernon was probably sad, too. Since mice are social critters, they can`t be very happy living alone for long. But Algernon never had another mouse companion during the whole time she lived with us.
The combination of unfavorable factors took a toll on her body and whatever amount of self-esteem a mouse possesses. She began to walk slowly until she barely moved at all; she only trembled slightly at the sight of her beloved almonds. Any trace of a smile that once flickered in her rodent face fluttered into oblivion. Algernon steadily wavered out of character and became a shivering, sickly creature at the edge of life. She even stopped play-bowing.
One of the most vivid memories I have of Algernon also happens to be my last of her. It was her death, which passed right before my eyes one afternoon after school. As usual, I huddled beside her case to tickle her dark ears and taunt her with a snack. It had become an undeniable and comforting routine that allowed me to escape my teenage worries and anxieties. Even though I realized that Algernon was rapidly losing the pages on her proverbial calendar, I never expected her to go so soon. One moment, she was curled up like a hen atop her nest of eggs.
The next moment she was as shriveled as an insect curled up on a dusty mantle. She convulsed right before me and then froze completely. Her eyes were eerily exposed, her eyelids peeled back as far as they could go. It was the first time I had ever watched someone I loved die. I stared at her for a minute before announcing, "Algernon`s dead." My mother, who was in the kitchen, and my sisters, who were in the dining room, allowed a minute of silence to hover. Algernon`s death had touched them, too. Even though we had all anticipated it, that doesn`t mean it was any easier.
I picked up my darling Algernon and cupped her limp form in my hands. I pictured all of the teeny organs inside of her, all the organs that functioned ten minutes prior, suddenly surrendering. It didn`t seem fair that such a sweet animal`s heart would betray her.
The next day, my father buried Algernon in the backyard. We stuck a make-shift wooden cross above her grave, though we had never asked Algernon about her religious beliefs. I assumed that she, like all animals but Man, was too close to God to bother with churches or temples. There was no cow mouse to cuddle with that day after school, no black and white rodent to perk up at the sight of almonds. Her case lingered in the living room. Everything that had been there during her life--the shredded toilet paper tubes, the ceramic water dish and matching food bowl--moped around with her.
It sat there for several days before anyone emptied it. Algernon had no swallowed a firecracker or gotten run over by a car. Instead she died a peaceful, mundane death. Regardless of how she could have arrived at death, I know I would have mourned the same way.