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Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Dovey died a few minutes ago. I had, foolishly, just begun to hope. She finally seemed to begin to respond to the antibiotics and came out of the nebulizer this evening able to breath through her nose. She was able to shut her mouth…and then her eyes. She slept for nearly four hours curled up with her cage mates in their nesting box, all of them boggling and bruxing to have her back with them and no longer in distress. I know for a fact it was the first sleep she’d gotten in two days, and I’m grateful for it.

I’ve been very serious about subcutaneous hydration through this illness, and I suspect this is what gave her a second wind. Jack Nicholson was right: it’s the water. She was too busy trying to breathe to eat or drink at all, so there was no question about helping her stay hydrated. I could see its effect on her within minutes of injecting fluid under her skin. Her eyes would brighten, her breathing would relax, and she’d begin to show an interest in her surroundings again.

Water has a wonderful effect on the body. It keeps the organs functioning. It flushes and refreshes every cell and keeps the joints and skin supple. It aids in the breaking up and removal of deep-seated phlegm. And it just makes one feel better. I could see Dovey’s spirits improve after every hydration session. I warmed the solution to just above body temperature before I injected it, and I think Dovey sort of liked the warming presence of that sloshy bolus under her hip. It wasn’t there long, though. The body just sucks up all available liquid when it’s that sick. And her body was that sick.

Her lungs were just too damaged, inflamed and inundated with phlegm. Eventually, her airways closed up entirely. I mean entirely. I tried several mouth to nose puffs once I was certain that she was truly gone,  not in order to bring her back, but more out of morbid curiosity and distress than anything else. Her rib cage didn’t budge a millimeter. I don’t know how she lasted as long as she did.

Which brings me to the larger point. I should have put her down yesterday.

I was shocked when she made it through the night last night, and she spent most of the day today in an oxygen chamber at the vet’s. As soon as she came out of it, the heavy gasping began again. I knew in my heart it would come to this, gut wrenching agony for me, watching her gasp her last into the nebulizer mouthpiece and then dash about in a final frenzied search for oxygen. Eventually, she just settled into my arms and lost consciousness.

I should have put her down yesterday afternoon as soon as it was clear how sick she was.

She could have gone to sleep yesterday and just never awoken instead of fighting long hours only to succumb to the inevitable, a destiny her poor respiratory health has pointed to since she was a young doe. But she was my very first rat, my first one, and I just couldn’t face doing it in the light of day. I should have thought about how it would be in the dark of the night, when no euthanasia option was open to me. It would have been an easy decision if I’d any real inkling of what it would be like.

I will not do this again. A moderately sick rat deserves quality care and a chance to recover. A terribly sick doe deserves a gentle hand into that good night. Henceforth, my rats will get that gentle hand. There is nothing heroic about pointless struggle and prolonged suffering. Particularly not in a dumb animal that cannot comprehend death but can CERTAINLY comprehend suffering. This was my responsibility, and I just dropped the damned ball.

I’ve wrapped Dovey’s body in an embroidered handkerchief. I collect antique handkerchiefs as a tribute to my dissertation subject, King Richard II, who invented them. It seems a fitting shroud for a beloved pet. My rats smell like clean linen most of the time, anyway, as I am fanatical about keeping their bedding pristine and freshly laundered. The little bundle is resting on my chest as I type. In a few minutes, when the heat has left her body and I can bear to, I’ll set her aside. In the morning, I’ll bury her next to Lily and Blossom under the sleeping lily of the valley by the front stoop, where all my departed sweeties come to rest. In two and a half months, her life energy will return once again, present in the stalks of fragrant little white bells.

Rats don’t live as long as we’d like, or as long as they should. They are too intelligent and affectionate, too singular and responsive, for pet owners to accept such a short lifespan of them: one grows too attached. All three girls I’ve lost have died young of respiratory failure. It’s a terrible problem in the fancy. I would very much like to see that change, and I’d like to see that happen very soon.

Tonight, I’ll set Dovetail aside, play with the bumptious baby twins for a bit, which always makes me smile, give fat old Henslowe a cuddle since he’s up and running around, and begin the necessary process of shifting Tybalt, who is altered, back into the girls’ colony to blunt their grief at Dovey’s disappearance. Their distress is already palpable in their behavior, and this is not to be borne.

And then, finally, I’ll get some sleep, myself. My mind hurts, as does my heart. Any balm on offer will be a very good thing.