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The gerbil saga

January 20, 2014 - Betsy Bethel
Add this to the things I never imagined I'd do before I had kids: Have gerbils as pets.

And then this: Attempt to give a gerbil artificial respiration.

Emma's in second grade and has a class pet, a gerbil named Juliet. About a month before Christmas, she dropped the bombshell: She wanted a gerbil for Christmas. We already have a dog and a cat, but I felt of all the kinds of animals she could have asked for, a gerbil was probably the lowest maintenance. So I didn't discourage her. I told her Santa couldn't bring a gerbil, but I supposed he could bring the supplies; we could get the animal after Christmas. When her dad told her it's expensive to buy a cage, food, and all the trappings, she said: "No problem, Dad! Santa's bringing all that!" Haha, joke's on us. So she asked Santa for "stuff you need for a gerbil," and he came through.

For a month, Dave and I debated about how many gerbils: He kept saying two because everything he read said it's important that they have a companion. I said one because everything I knew about myself and my daughter said one is plenty! The day after Christmas, I called several stores to make sure they all had gerbils. We got to the store, and there were two gerbils in the cage. We took one out and the other one stood up on its hind legs as if he were looking for the other one. I immediately caved. OK, we'll take both!

Emma named them Sunlight and Midnight. Midnight was a little darker, a little bigger, a little calmer. I liked Midnight. Sunlight was a wild child. Sunlight got loose twice, cowabunga-ing out of my hands at the pet store and scrambling out of Emma's hands in her bedroom.

Disaster struck on the 11th day. It was a Monday, and I had the day off with Emma. I was getting out of the shower and told Emma she could bring the gerbils in to run around the tub. It was the first time I let her handle the gerbils without directly supervising. She retrieved Sunlight without incident. As I was towel drying my hair, I heard a scream and a cry and then: "Help me!" I ran toward her room as she ran out of it crying and holding Midnight out to me. I took him. He was not breathing or moving. I asked what happened, and Emma said she was trying to get him out of the cage and he kept wiggling away, and then she got him but he got away and fell a few feet onto a wooden surface. Emma was delirious. She ran into her room and then downstairs through the house, crying. I held Midnight close to my ear. No heartbeat. Emma ran to me with my phone, begging me to call the vet. I got the number of another vet that works on exotics and called, asking if it could be possible that the rodent was simply stunned and not dead. She said I'd have to bring him in. I was pretty sure he was dead. I told Emma we couldn't do anything. She ran away again. I looked at the poor little lifeless guy and I wanted him back so badly that I tried breathing into his little nose and mouth! It didn't work.

That day and the next were unbearable for Emma and me after Midnight died. We alternated between tears and mind-numbing activities like watching TV. Emma kept saying she wanted to go back in time. It still wasn't clear exactly how Midnight died. Did his little neck break when she was trying to scoop him up? Did she squeeze him too hard? Did he die from the fall? Or was it something else? Sunlight had already fallen twice, and I wondered how it could kill one and not the other. I berated myself inwardly for not being there when it happened. I felt as responsible, if not more so, than my daughter.

Wednesday started with tears and a refusal to go to school — her first day back from break. I made a deal with her to try to make it until morning snack, and if she still wanted to come home, she could call me. I didn't get a call until 2 p.m., about an hour before dismissal. I was conflicted. I had told her to call me if she needed me, and she did. But it was so close to the end of the day. She said she was really, really sad and wanted to come home. I asked if she thought she could stick it out. She said, "I don't know. What do you think?" I asked if she make it until 3 o'clock, only an hour away. She perked up and said she could do it. So I picked her up at 3.

She still cried on Thursday and Friday afternoons on the way home from school, but not in the mornings. She kept saying she wanted to go back in time, that she wished she had done things differently, that she wished he was still alive. I so understood. She envisioned him standing in the cage when she walked in her bedroom door, looking out at her with those beady little eyes. She imagined Midnight and Sunlight curled up in their little ceramic acorn together. She worried that Sunlight would miss Midnight and die of loneliness. I hated to hear it, but I was grateful for how vocal she was because I knew that would help her process it.

I was heartsick, for the gerbil and my little girl. But by golly, by Sunday, to my amazement, Emma was telling everyone she met that she got "a gerbil" for Christmas. No mention of Midnight. By Monday night, after I'd done a lot of research on the Internet and talked to a pet store employee and a vet tech at the same vet's office I had called the previous Monday, I determined that Midnight had been an older gerbil. (His teeth were much yellower and longer than Sunlight's, and his larger size and calmer demeanor both pointed toward this conclusion.) I told Emma my thoughts, and she asked if Midnight would have died soon anyway. I said I thought so. She playfully wondered if he was Sunlight's grandpa, since he seemed to care for him so much. I said maybe. At that point, she announced she was "over it." She missed Midnight, but she had accepted he was gone.

It's been two weeks now, and while I can still smell the little guy and feel his weight in the palm of my hand, Midnight doesn't appear to be on Emma's mind much at all. We are completely enamored of the gregarious Sunlight and are enjoying discovering all his little quirks. Emma has taken complete responsibility for him, and she is extremely careful with him. Naturally, there are even more safety rules in place than when we first got him, and she never handles him without an adult in the room. I hesitate to post this because I don't want to jinx us, but Sunlight and Emma both have adjusted beyond my expectations.

Thank God for the resiliency of youth!


Article Comments



Jan-23-14 9:57 AM

In the end I think this will end up being a learning experience for Emma, like so many other painful events in life will be, learning to deal with loss is difficult at any age. That feeling of responsibility for the loss of life is not an uncommon thing, I'm glad she dealt with it in a healthy way. That reflects very positively on your family!


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