It has been a difficult week. I can’t go into all the details because of others’ privacy and family requests, but several individuals who meant quite a great deal to me and to my family passed away. Some in accidents. Some from cancer. The culmination in this week came on Thursday when I came down to discover my beloved little Attila was dead.
Three years ago, my husband and I purchased two orphan gerbils from different pet shops in celebration of our marriage and the start of our final year in law school. Attila was a slim blond gerbil with a white underbelly and large black eyes. He had a fierce disposition, and it took me almost two weeks to train him to come onto my hand without nipping me. At first, he dominated his adopted brother, Ghengis. We had to keep them separate for almost two months, trying to introduce them slowly. Playing with them. Holding them.
We split the large glass tank with chicken wire so that they could sniff each other and get used to one another’s scent. On weekends, we put them in a large tub with dried white sand to let them dig and play. By the end of the second month, the two were fast friends, though Attila was always the leader.
He was quite healthy as well. In fact, his strength proved to be a bit of a problem as he would often rearrange the tank in hazardous ways. He never showed any signs of illness, but on August 14, I found him on his side, motionless. As soon as I saw him, I knew he had passed. He was over three years old, and I had just cared for him the night before. I hope that it was quick and painless. His little body had already gone cold when James and I wrapped him up and took him out for burial.
Ghengis did not cope well with the death. Ghengis was always quieter and more timid than Attila, though he was a little fighter in his own right. When we found him at the pet store, he was a little on the sickly side. According to the pet shop worker, he had been alone for a couple weeks, which really isn’t good for gerbils. Someone had bought up two of his brothers, but she didn’t have room for a third gerbil. (On a side note, if you are ever purchasing gerbils, please don’t ever just leave one behind. It can be so challenging to reintroduce them to other gerbils, and yet they are social creatures.) The worker might have been playing on my sympathies, but regardless, we took little Ghengis home. He was about half Attila’s side with dark brown fur on the top with a black undercoat and grey stomach. His black eyes were a bit softer than Attila’s, but he was just as smart.
He swiftly decided that he liked being snuggled. It only took a few days to convince him that sitting on a hand was an excellent way to receive sunflower seeds and yogurt chips, two of his favorites. For the first few weeks, he was quite intimidated by Attila, yet he often crept along the side of the chicken wire to curl up alongside him while Attila slept. Though at first Attila responded harshly on the other side of the wire, he soon stooped protesting.
Sadly, little Ghengis struggled with his stomach for most of his life. The scent glands gerbils have on their stomachs sometimes become enflamed, and they may even rupture. Over the past few months, Ghengis’s glands had become severely enflamed, bleeding and seeping. We took him to the vet to get the necessary medication. He took it well. Whenever he lay down to sleep, particularly when he was recovering from the fever, Attila curled up on top of him and kept him warm. It seemed like Ghengis was recovering. But two days before Attila died, Ghengis stopped eating.
I couldn’t tempt him with anything. Yogurt chips and sunflower seeds no longer drew his attention. Attila had never enjoyed special treats, but that had been the one guaranteed way to draw Ghengis out from the lower tunnels. When I found Attila in the tank, Ghengis sat in the corner next to him, hunched up, his little head bowed.
After we returned from buying Attila, Ghengis became even more withdrawn. He retreated into an empty oatmeal container and refused to come out for food or anything. Even when it was time to give him his medicine, I couldn’t retrieve him. He remained in hiding for a full day, and I allowed it. I knew he needed to grieve, and I knew from talking to other gerbil owners that the loss of a cage mate is particularly traumatizing. But when the following day rolled around, I knew he had to be treated.
When I at last coaxed Ghengis out, he could barely walk. He had been chewing on his paws and his stomach. He’d also scratched his eye. My heart dropped when I saw him. He seemed to have deteriorated overnight. Tears choking me, I called the vet at once and then prepared a small box. Deep down, I knew what this meant. James scooped him up, and we took him to the vet.
The vet told us what we already feared. Ghengis needed to be put down. Even though he had not eaten for only a few days, he had lost too much weight. That alone he might have returned from, but the biting and the stomach injuries were just too severe. I tried to hold Ghengis to comfort him, but he bit me five times. James tried to hold him then, but Ghengis bit him twice. (It really wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Ghengis wasn’t strong enough to do much more than slightly cut the skin.)
The vet held him and gave him the injection. Then he let me comfort Ghengis. All I could do was rub his head. But it was like I was saying goodbye to both Ghengis and Attila at once. It only took a couple minutes. And holding him to say goodbye, I felt myself starting to break.
Objectively, there’s no reason why this little bundle of fur should have been what broke me down. After all, I have watched others buried this week, received disappointing news that will have a far greater impact on mine and my family’s long term plans. Yet somehow…holding that tiny corpse made me weep more than anything else. I had been strong through everything else. Through writing the tributes, comforting the families, and reminiscing over old times as well as imagining the times never to be had. Maybe it’s because those points weren’t about me. There were other people there who needed to grieve and who were in far more pain. But when dealing with Ghengis and Attila, it was just my husband, myself, and the vet in a little sterile room.