It’s official: I am over the idea of having more kids. What happened is we got pets.
Yeah, the pets are cute. But they’re rodents: gerbils. And I have to feed them and worry about them and keep their cage clean. I have to be responsible for them; ew! I’m so over responsibility. And my heart — it’s already full, and my attention – it’s run out of span. I don’t want to give away any more love or attention you see; I want infusions of them myself. But here we are.
On the one hand, the animals crawl across my fingers and I’m like, Should I be touching these rats?? But on the other hand, I first saw them at the pet store, cuddling inside a teeny little ceramic house shaped like a strawberry. And also – I get excited every time I remember they’re there.
Fuzzy, the blonde one, is energetic. Jelly, the gray one, is less so; he likes to hang. I have a feeling that one day Jelly will let me cradle him between my two cooing palms.
I really wasn’t in the market for any pets; I mean, I’m still getting to know my plants. But the kids – the kids!! – they were relentless. We were in Florida for February break, eating dinner at this superfun Mexican restaurant, and they both started crying at the table, of all places! “We want a d-d-d-d—dddooggggg,” they wept. I was like, “Have you tried this guacamole???!”
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you shouldn’t get a pet you can’t take care of. And I. Can not. Take care of a dog; not just yet. If I could choose any pet, it would be a pair of backyard peacocks or a cat — a cuddly one I could adopt; whose personality we already know. But peacocks are noisy and my husband is no Cat Dad, and we decided we should start with a more — how shall I say this — short-term commitment.
And so, two months prior to our February Florida trip — a month before the holidays, out of the goodness of my heart – I’d ordered a sleek bright white terrarium and a family of milky white designer snails, to be imported all the way from Germany.
But 60 days later, they still hadn’t come and then, the week before we went away, I received notice from the United States Government that my snails had been confiscated at customs!
This was both a bummer, and a relief: See, I knew that I could take care of snails because I’d had one as a child. His name was Slimy and I loved him; we kept him in a Kosher pickle jar and fed him lettuce. He lived for more than two fulfilling years.
But — Slimy had been just one snail; not a whole family of them. And a few days after I’d ordered my German expats, the thought occurred to me: What if they breed???
“Can you please ensure they’re the same sex?” I wrote in an after-order email to the snail company. But I didn’t get a response, (prolly because they only spoke German). I panicked. I turned to the internet and read, to my snowballing horror, that most land snails are actually hermaphrodites – who can impregnate themselves!!!!
I pictured myself scooping snail eggs by the handfuls and releasing them, day after terrible day, into the woods in my backyard.
And that’s when I read that this particular species of snail I had ordered is – what have I done – invasive!!
This meant my options for the then-en-route snails would have been to:
A) Throw thousands of snail eggs down the toilet,
B) Start my own snail sanctuary,
C) Farm escargot, or:
D) Release them into the wild and wipe out three-quarters of my neighborhood ecosystem.
Praise be, my tax dollars got to work, and the United States Government protected me from my own bad judgment. I sure hope the snails made it back to Germany cozy and safe.
Once the guac and chips were cleared, I came clean. I told my now lightly-whimpering kids the story of the family of snails they would never meet. I told them that there was a sleek white terrarium at home, just awaiting a living occupant. And they stopped crying, wiped their cheeks, and ate their goddamn quesadillas – “Those cost good money!” – and we started brainstorming ideas for their new pet.
After days of discussion, we settled on gerbils. And since gerbils like company, we got two. My daughter and her friend even compiled their very own Gerbil Manual! This made me feel good because it meant the responsibility of taking care of the pets wouldn’t fall on me, (lololol baahaahaaa not funny).
So now, we’ve got two new members of our family.
While adorable, these gerbils absolutely careen throughout my house. They roll, ensconced in their clear plastic ball — smashing into walls and furniture like they aren’t even there!! It’s like they are filming a scene for Jackass!! These creatures generate mayhem. It’s like they are — it’s like they are children!!
And, as predicted, I resent this chaos and responsibility. I can barely manage myself and now I need to manage two new, additional, dependent, mess-making beings? Come on.
But what am I supposed to do about it now — take them back to the pet store?? I’ve already tried! I’ve asked the kids three times: “Are you surreeeee you want to keep them?” And single every time, the kids say yes!! They’ve formed a bond with Jelly and Fuzzy — a bond that I don’t understand.
I mean, how does one wanna get close to these things, who burrow beneath mounds of shit-infested bedding?? They’re like as smelly and foreign as a newborn, but with pointy claws and teeth! What if they hurt me, or hurt my kids? What if they hurt each other — I’ve heard they can fight to the death! I can’t let my guard down to trust them; let alone love them.
Plus, it’s not like they reciprocate my care with a kitty’s nuzzle or a peacock’s beauty to the eyes. I don’t really understand where unconditional love is supposed to come from, anyway.
I worry that these gerbils will sense my aloof, reluctant heart, and that this sad fact will harden their hearts, too: What if my love deficiency makes them more dangerous??
Sometimes I’ll watch them roll in their ball, crushing crackers beneath them, and I find myself floating above the scene, musing: “This is all so bizarre…” and I wonder if that feeling-thought will ever go away.
Though it did occur to me, once, that this type of stupefied alarm creeps up on me when I watch my children, too: It’s like, “Oh my God, they’re alive — and they’re my responsibility!” And a fear washes over me.
I wonder if this feeling kindaKINDAkindaKINDA resembles Postpartum Depression: where there’s maybe a stranger in your home whom you must love, but you resent, and you’re afraid of, but must take care of, but feel detached from. My love is blocked.
Maybe a similar dynamic blocks some love from reaching my children too. Maybe their hearts are being hardened also, by my habit of self-protective coldness that is out of my conscious control.
But their hearts aren’t hardened just yet. My kids wept for these pets because, unlike their mama, they do feel like they have extra love to give. It seems they have the NEED to give, and share, some nurturing love. And, while I don’t have it in me to be a gerbil mom, I think I do have it in me to be a gerbil grandma.
I’ve decided that I don’t *think* Fuzzy or Jelly are dangerous. Yeah, the sight of them batting at each other like two nerds in a schoolyard might spell certain doom, but I have only seen that behavior once and I’ve been watching, and it was probably just a tiff or a playful little spar — and people have those too. I suppose I’ll have to just pay attention to them and see.
I think that part of the burden of having kids (grandkids) is the paying attention; it just takes so much work. But I realized that the more I watch them, the less confusing the gerbils seem to be — and the less intimidated they make me feel. I guess that trust takes time and attention.
I suppose that it kinda makes sense the way they burrow into their bedding to feel safe: Snug spaces make me feel safe too.
I don’t think the gerbils feel safe with me yet, though. Jelly will only let me hold him for a minute. And Fuzzy — not at all. I wonder if they’ll ever trust me. I wonder if they could ever love me?
When I was little, I was taught that the difference between humans and animals is that humans have feelings, and animals don’t.
But I stopped believing this once Instagram came along and I started spotting all of these pictures of dogs smiling — (smiling!!) But gerbils?? Do gerbils feel love??
I don’t know if they love me, but they calm me. They come to me. Their little hands sprinkle my palms with love, and I want them to be content. So I’ve been feeding them carrots and lettuce (though not as often as I should), and I’m decorating their home — my decorative vision is “Contemporary Vacation Paradise.” So far, I’ve brought in a Carribean-blue Mikasa teacup; a ceramic water bottle shaped like a cactus; and a cozy, faux-wooden hollow log — an allusion to the California Redwoods.
I’m proud to say my kids have been quality pet parents, so far. They’ve been responsible: They mind the gerbils’ food and water and show them mostly sufficient attention.
And — more great news — in the process of searching Etsy for a “classy gerbil wheel,” I found my husband a t-shirt that says, “Gerbil Grandpa.” I ordered it, and it should be arriving soon: I don’t *think* that it’s coming from Germany.
Jelly died yesterday. It was very sudden. My husband was not surprised: “It probably had a heart attack,” he said, “That thing was lazy. Last week we put it in the ball for eight minutes and all he did was hang.” He might’ve had a heart problem all along. I’m afraid that I wasn’t paying close enough attention. I’m worried I was a neglectful grandma.
I knew that something was wrong the second I spotted him, lying there. It was early morning. He was pressed against the glass looking at nothing, unmoving. His fur was matted. (How can hair die, too?) I tapped the glass. Fuzzy scattered behind him. Fuzzy was in the cage with a dead man: his brother.
I backed away and stifled a squeamish scream. I got ready for work. Jelly might’ve still been warm; I didn’t touch him; I never coddled him between my palms. I hadn’t even bothered to say goodnight to him the evening before. I’d thought about it, but didn’t. I’d chosen not to show them love.
At the funeral in our backyard, with the cousins gathered round, we took turns shoveling dirt onto his grave — a custom providing closure that honors the deceased, by helping them reach the heavens.
“Goodbye Jelly,” my daughter said, “You were the first pet I ever had, and I loved you very much.”
“We’ll miss you Jelly,” I said, mostly-truthfully, and I turned to my daughter. “You were a very good mommy,” I assured.
“Where is Jelly?” my three-year-old nephew asked, after he took his turn shoveling. He will continue to ask this question for weeks.
I feel sad, but mostly mad: This is exhibit “A” of animals hurting my children; I wouldn’t say that I grieve.
Fuzzy, though, grieves – the signs are unmistakable. He doesn’t burrow; he stays in one corner of his cage, staring straight ahead, with vacant eyes, hands in front of his face, in shock… and alone.
And then, something happens: Watching Fuzzy in daily despair changes me… For the very first time, I can feel for him. For the first time, I feel with him. I can see there is a soul inside of him. Gerbils have feelings too. And I can connect with them.
Introducing gerbils to a new cage-mate requires time and strategy. You need to get a cage divider to separate them, then you switch them from side to side every day so they get used to each others’ scents and don’t, you know, kill each other.
We got a new gerbil, and named him Patches. Patches is CRAY, but Fuzzy likes him. Right away they laid next to each other, nuzzled into the divider, and rested. They played!!
Patches is more aggressive than Fuzzy. Sometimes he plays nice with Fuzzy, but sometimes it seems like he wants to attack him. I don’t have a good feeling about Patches. He bites me and I want to fling him away. Once in a while, I do.
Poor Patches’ problems might be all my fault: I ripped him from the company of his brother, at the pet store. I separated them. I’ve felt guilty about this for days.
But Fuzzy don’t care. Get a load of this: Fuzzy has begun SMILING -– smiling!! I caught it on my phone.
I think he smiles because he’s felt loneliness, grief and despair but now, he tastes relief!! Fuzzy is grateful. He crawls on me now, all the way up to the crook of my arm — he TRUSTS me, and I trust him!! I am smitten.
“Hey Fuzzy!” I say, when I walk through the door.
I. Love. Fuzzy.
The most exciting thing happened the other day. “Look!” I showed the kids, “Fuzzy is so happy he’s letting me hold him!!” For the very first time ever, Fuzzy lay stationary in my hands. His warm, soft body snuggled deep into the dip of my palm. We shared heaven.
The next morning, we noticed him stumbling; tipping over; eating with his eyes closed. And sleeping — gerbils don’t really quite sleep. We were blindsided — I sensed the tug of heartbreak, just when my love had finally kicked in. It became apparent why Fuzzy had laid nearly still in my hands; why he had wanted cuddles: he was feeling sick.
I hadn’t wanted such a short-term commitment as this.
“I think Fuzzy might pass away,” I warned the kids. They agreed. We held vigil. We sat beside him; I played him Jack Johnson and smiled lovingly at him. “Good boy,” I whispered between my lips. My daughter read to him from her Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.
And then — lo and behold, Fuzzy recovered!!! Come next morning he was running marathons in his wheel. That was close, I thought, and my gratitude for Fuzzy peaked.
Then he worsened again. I knew, that Fuzzy was going to die. Comfort your dying gerbil, the websites said. Hold them.
But I didn’t want to hold him: I didn’t want to hold a dying creature; that was gross. Gerbils are just rodents, anyway -– common rodents. And would he even know the difference?? Would it even matter to him that I cared?
I lowered my hands into the cage and scooped him; held him. Hi Fuzzy. I love you. I see you. Thank you. He looked angelic. I put him down gently and tucked him in. He squeaked by now, when I touched him. I wondered if he was in pain.
An hour or two later, while the kids and I played wiffle ball in the sun, he died.
His smiling face is the wallpaper on my phone.
Our theory is that Patches carried a respiratory infection from the pet store into Fuzzy’s cage. Or perhaps, a little cut on Fuzzy’s nose, put there most likely by Patches or the thin sheet of plastic separating them, led to an infection that took hold.
Whatever it was, the infection came for Patches, too, after Fuzzy died. Maybe it was transmitted through the cactus water bottle — which I washed thoroughly, I swear, but perhaps I should've tossed it out instead.
Upon first sight of Patches’ sickness, we brought him back to the pet store, where I’m hopeful they nursed him back to health and reunited him with his brother, who was still there.
I don’t exactly miss Patches. I do wonder, though, if he and I would’ve ever come to like each other; to trust each other; or even, maybe, to love each other. I wonder if he ever would’ve stopped biting me!
And then there’s this question: If I couldn’t ever trust him — if he’d kept biting me — could I still have come to love him – unconditionally, despite the annoyance and frustration and the bite marks and the disgusting labor I would’ve had to put in to clean his cage? Could I have loved him despite the fact that he might never have shown me love back?
Well, yeah. It’s possible. Unconditional love is not a pointed beam of infatuation or adoration that annoyance and anger can slice through and disrupt.
To me, it’s a diffuse, openhearted energy built of kindness and acceptance. It’s giving people — and animals — the benefit of the doubt. It’s acknowledging that every soul (yours too) is worthy of love, even with our “faults.” It’s feeling and broadcasting that love. I get it now. Where does unconditional love come from? It comes from the air — both around you, and inside of your breath.
It might seem like a burden or a bummer to love someone who disappoints you or doesn’t show you love back, but it doesn’t have to be: Slimy the snail couldn’t show me love back (that I could see), but boy did I love him. And loving him felt so good!
I didn’t want pets, ‘cause I was afraid they’d TAKE: my love, attention, energy and time. And often, like children, they do. But woweee, can they give.
I want infusions of love – it’s true. But guess what? When you give the type of love you need, it can reflect back to you like a warm bath of light in a large, womb-lit mirror.
And, as you might know, one of the best reoccurring surprises that comes along with every new kid (or grandkid) — is that with every child; with every new living, breathing responsibility, your heart expands. There’s no limit on how much love you get to feel.
I see now that I can offer more love and, even, more attention. But more time and energy? That time and energy are mine. (Plus, not for nothing, but my kids are finally old enough for me to bring out the marble coasters!!)
Nope, no babies or dogs for me. “But one day,” I told the kids, “one day you can get doggies of your own.”
Maybe I’ll get my cat.