Yeah, I know I know. I've been missing from Fiskateers and my blogs have been silent for days, despite my promises to report on CKC (it will still happen! I have SO much to share!)
First, I was very busy caring for Glitter, one of my 5 wonderful rats. A couple of weeks ago, she started sniffling and her sisters were isolating her. Poor girl was being bullied into living in the litterbox, so I moved her to sick bay--a small cage I use to keep a sick animal isolated and close to her food and water at all times--and started her on echinacia to hold her until her vet appointment. Sometimes a little tinctiture of echinacia is enough to scare off the sniffles, but she didn't do so well. By the time her appointment came up, she was having porphryn staining on her hands from wiping her nose. For those of you who aren't familiar with rats, their snot (and saliva and tears) is bright red, which often scares first-time rat caretakers to freak out, thinking their rat is hemmoraging horribly. My girls are very enthusiastic groomers, licking the heck out of each other's fur, playing "beauty parlor" with each other (it's a 24/7 slumber party in their cage with all that estrogen) so they are typically a shade pink anyway, but this was clearly out of the ordinary, almost like she was wearing little red wrist gloves. Gross.
Apparently, the stress of being in a new place didn't do her much good, because she declined dramatically during her vet visit, poor baby. Her vet, the caring and knowledgeable Dr. Lori McKinnish at Dixie Trail Animal Hospital, diagnosed her with pnumonia, so I started her (Glitter, not Dr. McKinnish) on antibiotics and began hand feeding her a nutritional "milkshake" (strawberry soy shake--she loved it. It became difficult to get her to let go of the syringe to refill it, she'd bite down on it and hold it so firmly!) and baby food via an open-ended syringe. Every feeding was a complete mess. I'd clean her eyes, nose, and paws to clear off the mucous before feeding her, and minutes later she'd be covered in sticky pink soy shake.
She seemed to improve, getting feistier, even nipping me when I wiped her face with a wet towel. She began pushing the food away when she was done, drinking from her dripper bottle on her own. I was happy. It looked like we were going to win this one.
But she plateaued. She suddenly couldn't use her paws. She was sort of throwing herself around--a weird hopping when she did move, like her limbs didn't work below the wrists and ankles. I had to block her with my body to keep her from throwing herself off the towel she was lying on, and off the edge of the bathroom counter in an effort to "walk". She was rubbing her nose further down her wrists. Her feet were always crossed. I worried she had had a stroke. She could no longer use her "hands" at all. Oddly though, she seemed really happy and not in distress. She bruxed and boggled (think purring to the nth power) with every meal, every cuddle. Sometimes I'd swear she was smiling. I began to wonder if something had happened to her brain from the fever. Was she just responding like some of the dementia patients we used to visit with Revco, when we did therapy dog work? Some just seemed--distant but euphoric. Honestly, if you have to lose cognition, it does seem like the way to do it. On the other hand, she could still protest my sponge baths, so it was hard to tell. The question loomed: how do I decide when treatment is futile? How do I choose for her whether she wants to be let go or if she would rather have hospice care and be allowed to die on her own schedule? Occasionally, I even thought she might make it, though in retrospect, I think I was being over-optimistic in desperation.
There were several nights when I sat with her and cried, telling her goodbye and I'd miss her so much, since I was certain she wouldn't make it to morning. And yet, there she was the next day, ready to eat, grab a bath, etc. She made a painful and pitiful sight, sometimes having fallen out of her blankets, lying on her side on the floor of her cage when I went to check in on her. Those were the moments when I felt like a monster for not rushing her to the vet to have her put down. But then, a few minutes later, she'd be bruxing and lazily watching me as we went through her routine, wiping her eyes clean, filling syringe after syringe with the food she relished so enthusiastically. Should I really take these moments away from her when, for all her limitations, she seemed content to experience the little time she had left?
She wasn't the first animal I have encountered who, as far as I could read from them, wanted to die on her own schedule and take her time saying goodbye to the world. For what it's worth, I do animal communications, and usually I find a clear point where most animals indicate that they are done. They've had it with their body, the discomfort, or pain. They are tired and want the assistance euthanasia offers. Honestly, I find this easier to relate to. I never enjoy that final trip to the vet, I cry and miss them terribly when I carry their remains home to my little pet cemetary, but I normally feel like the right thing was done. They clearly were ready, and the vet and I performed an important final mercy.
For me, it is much harder to feel confident about continuing life when it becomes clear that it's ending. I worry again and again if I am doing the right thing. Am I sure they aren't suffering? Could I be doing more to make them comfortable? Is their quality of life being seriously compromised. As a long-time animal rescue worker and vegan, you'd think killing would be much more difficult than not, yet I am always second-guessing my decision. Are you sure, little rat, that this is what you want? Are you hurting? What if you change your mind and I can't get to a vet quickly because it's 3 a.m. on a Sunday? How can I leave you to take care of myself, to work, to do the things I have to do to keep my life moving while I know you are dying and this may be the last time I see you alive? It's the not knowing in some ways that makes it so hard.
Well, Monday afternoon, Glitter passed on. She was just a young little girl so that made things even more disappointing. Why couldn't we save her? She had been such a playful girl, so open to exploring. None of her sisters had been sick, why did she decline so quickly? Perhaps the greatest heartbreak was that she never got to be reunited with her sisters. They are an incredibly closely bonded mischief (It's what a group of rats is called. Really.) so I hate that they only know that she became sick and disappeared, never to return. I hold hope that perhaps they knew. That they perhaps heard her ultrasonic commiunications across the house where she was living in quarrantine. I know it's a long shot. Ultrasound is easily blocked, but her sisters seem to have forgiven me. In order to avoid spreading illness, I hadn't been taking my healthy girls out, only talking to them across the room, since I was constantly handling Glitter and had become tired of the constant clothing changes. I swear I have laundry hip-deep between sticky towels and rat pee covered t-shirts. Scott took over feeding and caring for Spider, Fuzz, Twinkle, and Kitty (and most of the other animals) while my life centered around the needs of Miss Glitter. So after her death, I wasn't certain how I would be accepted upon my return. Was I a nuturing friend, or brute death, snatching their sister away?
I feel lucky and a bit humbled. The girls greeted me with open arms (because that's how they have to grab the bars of the cage for tummy tickle time!) Strangely, even my shiest girls, Spider and Fuzz, who are usually only interested in each other, ran out to see what the commotion was all about and gave me a big rattie hello, climbing up and down the bars like a little albino monkey. Kitty was "talking" up a storm. She has a distinctly low pitched voice, clearly audible to humans, well below the ultrasonic register that is typical of "rat talk". I was forgiven for my inabiliy to heal Glitter. Or perhaps I was never blamed. Maybe they knew something from the start that I didn't about her illness and my fallibility, my humanity. I can't make miracles happen, but I'm not supposed to either. I did my best. I made her comfortable and helped Glitter make the most of her final days, even when it felt, to me, like slowly picking at a painfully fused band-aid. One tiny tear at a time.