Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pass the Pepper

A decade ago we bought two rats to begin the process of introducing pets into our family. Despite their unpleasant reputation, domestic rats generally do not bite and will not run when dropped like gerbils, making them appropriate pets for small children. At $3.00 per rodent, this seemed like a good place to start. One was the color of a latte with too much milk and not enough foam and the other had common black and white markings. They were considered medium size fancy rats; though I think the word fancy was used loosely. Medium size means the tails are thin enough not to have that pronounced scaly look and feel. Something about the large class of rats made me feel more like they had been freshly plucked from the New York City subway or were out-of-work cartoon villains. Our daughter named them Sandy and Pepper and they were absolutely adored. On one occasion, she placed Pepper, the black and white rat, on her shoulder and innocently declared "Her my beffriend!"

Early one morning, before anyone else had woken up, I made my way to the kitchen for coffee. I glanced at the rat cage to find Pepper looking especially asleep. Deeply asleep. My instincts implored me to wait on the coffee and check on Pepper. If perhaps she was departed I had better make a plan before that sweet little three year old awoke. A couple pokes of Pepper’s stiffened body and I knew I was in for a long day. I lifted the lifeless rat’s body out of the cage and placed it in a shoe box perhaps in preparation for some later ceremony and because, unlike goldfish, rats cannot be flushed. In actuality, I had no intention of holding a rat memorial service, because I had no intention of breaking my daughter’s heart with this news. I placed the shoebox in the garbage and started to hatch my plan. Upon waking, my daughter went straight to the rat cage as she always did and asked where Pepper was. Quickly- and to this day I am still unnerved by my ability to lie on my feet- I told her that our babysitter had taken Pepper to school for Show and Tell and that she would be back later. I cringed thinking about what I would have said had Pepper died on a weekend.

For the balance of the day I searched Northern California in a 3 hour radius to find a rat with color and markings similar to Pepper's. At the risk of sounding insensitive, it would have been markedly more convenient had solid colored Sandy met a premature demise. After hours of looking, dozens of shady pet shops and hundreds of miles driven I bought the closest thing I could find to Pepper. I placed the new rat in the cage with Sandy and was relieved to find out that they peacefully coexisted.

When my daughter came home from preschool she went straight for the rat cage, pulled New Pepper out, gave me a suspicious sideways glance and said "Momma, Pepper got paint on her!" She had noticed the one unfamiliar black spot on this rat's tail. I explained to her my emerging theory that rats get new spots as they get older and that this phenomenon had taken place while at Show & Tell, a no doubt maturing experience for any young rat. She silently examined New Pepper for any other signs of this incredulous transformation as I sat on pins and needles hoping I would not have to come clean. I would have relived, a thousand times, any past hurt in my life to avoid this one for her.

A few months earlier a bird had flown into a friend’s window and broke its neck. She brought her two year old outside to see the dead bird. There, in the mulch, they had a discussion- 30 year old to 2 year old- about life and death. For me, I decided to let the magic of childhood go on a little bit longer.

She finally accepted New Pepper and they had a few more years together. We did eventually have to address the issue when New Pepper died years later and my daughter was better equipped to handle the loss. In hindsight, she was exceptionally perceptive and may have known something was not quite right, but she let it go and enjoyed her pet. In the years that came next we tackled similar truths, like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, but never lost sight of the lesson that sometimes it is better not to overanalyze and just grab hold of the joy.

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