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Shugie's Last Day. Rats live their lives in the fast lane; which means, alas, that rat owners must come to grips with a rat's relatively short lifespan. Memento Mori, yes, but in the mean time, don't forget to Charleston!

People living in the medieval era concerned themselves greatly with an aspect of life referred to in Latin as Ars moriendi, which means “the art of dying.” The importance of dying with grace, both literally and figuratively, was expounded upon at length in a text from the early fifteenth century, also called Ars moriendi, which became a run-away best seller in Western Europe.

It’s easier to understand the desire to die properly when one considers that a mere 60 years prior to the publication of Ars moriendi, the Black Death blew across Asia and Europe, sweeping away somewhere between a third and a half of the entire population. Can you imagine waking up to a world in which half of the population of your own country–and everybody else’s–had died horribly and suddenly, in merely a matter of weeks?

Sixty years later, the plague was still burning through the populations of Europe and Asia about every ten years (taking a full 500 years to burn itself out), and people were both thoroughly accustomed to death and highly concerned that, when their time came, they could die properly and well–that there was a rightness to their departure from this life.

The Ars Moriendi, equal parts apologia and self-help guide, defends death as a legitimate and necessary part of life and makes a number of sound points that would have resonated deeply in the medieval mind, and certainly resonate in mine, to wit*:

  • Death has it’s benefits and shouldn’t be feared, since it is as normal as waking up in the morning. After all, we’re none of us getting out of this alive, are we? Ergo, if one must go, one should depart in style. Spiritual pride, despair, impatience, lack of faith, avarice–all of these make for an ugly death that will not only piss off God, but will also truly irritate those stuck at one’s bedside. In modern parlance, the dying should just suck it up and cope.
  • There are a number of very important questions one is obligated to ask the dearly departing, and also a number of things to be said that may give real consolation, largely having to do with an afterlife that doesn’t involve living in the same room, sharing the same latrine, and eating the same food, as one’s livestock.
  • If one is at a loss as to what a good death looks like, well…WWJD? Our Lord had a pretty impressive record of good behavior throughout his life, except maybe for that little dust up at the temple and maybe a touch of smart-assedness in his responses to the Pharisees; but certainly, “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” To the medieval mind, Jesus’s final hours were a class act, his death a nonpareil**, the ne plus ultra† of good deaths.
  • It is highly unfortunate to make an ass of one’s self at another’s deathbed, or (God forbid!) to upstage him. Those playing supporting roles should follow rules of good behavior in the spirit of thoughtfulness and in order to insure the quality of the experience for all concerned, particularly the star of the show.
  • If you can’t say something nice…then let someone else say it for you: within this book are prayers with a track record for making those expecting to join the choir angelic feel a little better about their upcoming audition.

What a sensible book. What a rational approach. What good ideas. Can you see why I’m so fond of those amazing medieval folks? They had such a healthy philosophy toward those embarrassing, unpleasant inevitabilities of life, things such as sex, farting, and deaths that required mopping up after. Our medieval ancestors were complicated people, but they didn’t complicate simple things the way their modern descendants feel compelled to. They were earthy, probably as much as anything because they were fully aware of how soon they would, in all likelihood, be returning to the earth. It’s hard to develop a rarefied sensibility when one knows one’s self to be, for all practical purposes, ambulatory mulch.


“Nice lecture, Dovey, but what has all of this to do with the death of a rat,” you might reasonably ask. Well, I’ll tell you. Shugies death wasn’t just a good death, it was a GREAT death.

There was a lot of good music, the early 20th century tunes the ratties seem to respond to so notably. Here’s a favorite, which we listened to a lot in these last days. You’ll smile and maybe tear up a little…but not much. Maybe listen as you read:


If I should die anytime soon, will someone please play this at my funeral? The world’s a better place for having had Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong in it. Got bless him.

Shugie had been doing really well in spite of the tumor under her arm and the large one in front of her back leg. It wasn’t until the back one started getting out of hand and making it harder for her to get around that I even considered that it might be time to think about taking a hand in her fate. Shugie would still climb up on her wheel and toddle along for a bit until last week. When she climbed up and just sat there, I knew it was nearly time. And when she couldn’t climb up at all and didn’t want to leave the nesting box, I knew that the time was at hand.

A good death trumps a bad life, any day of the week.

And what you can do to aid your pet in this direction is to arrange a death that is free of pain and fear and full of as much that is comfortable and familiar and loving and pleasant as can be produced.

Shugie got the works, the deluxe edition. Her last days were filled with fresh, fluffy linen, astonishing treats and all the bad for you things I’d mostly kept off the menu: twinkies, fried shrimp, popsicles, cookie dough. Inspired by the proper music, the girls rallied around Shugie. Even the irrepressible Bluebell managed to cool her jets long enough to do body-warming duty, which came to be crucial as Shugie wound down.

Everything settled into tranquility in the cage. I was so relieved I didn’t have to move Shugie away from the colony for some peace and rest. The youngsters desisted from their usual roughhousing and became impressive caregivers, bringing treats and offerings to Shugie when she didn’t feel like leaving the nest box, and even taking a turn as Shugie’s cuddle-buddy.

A word about euthanasia:

We can argue, if you wish, about the ethics of euthanasia for humans, of which I am a firm believer–but just step the hell back if you think there is an argument to be made for not putting animals that are in your care beyond their fear and pain. They have no understanding of living and dying and thus no opinion in the matter beyond not wanting to hurt. And since they don’t know what death is, they don’t fear it in advance. What they do fear is pain. If they are to have a good death, we must give it to them, before their suffering puts us both beyond heart’s peace.

There is, then, after all, no choice to be made, except one.

Ay, there’s the rub. No choice. Time’s up. Don’t mess about with your own guilt and sorrow and unresolved modern issues with death so that you forget, as the Ars Moriendi so pointedly reminds us, that it’s not about you–it’s about the terminally ill one, a soul that is suffering and deserves what comfort you can give, right damn now.

I dug a hole beneath an azalea that isn’t doing as well as the others.  As for Shugie’s shroud, I selected a classic Ritz Carleton dinner napkin with a lion in raised design in the middle. It seemed fitting for such a lion-hearted woman warrior. St. George slaying the serpent would have been even more apropos, but one does what one can in the time provided.  I would wrap her up like a little package when it was all over and set her in the ground to “go elemental,” as my chemist friend calls it.

Shugie spent her last night sleeping under a pile of girls in the nest box, with only her nose showing. In the morning, she got the daily vigorous baby-wipe bath that has become necessary once the tumors grew big enough to prevented her from cleaning herself properly. Then we had eggs, bacon, and toast with a few licks of V-8 to wash it all down, followed by a brief nap.

Later, I put on the irrepressible Lee Morse’ ripping “Yes Sir, That’s my Baby. ” You go, Lee:


And, with a whole armful of ecstatic girls, we danced the Charleston around the house, with me, admittedly, joining in the singing at the silly and awesome “Doot-Doot-Doodle-Doo” section, which got the dogs dancing, too, and the cat staring disdainfully down on us from the top of a bookcase. Can you dance the Charleston with your arms full of rodents and your alarmed neighbors staring through their window into your living room? YES SIR, you certainly can!

We were still giddy as I put the girls back in their cage and packed Shugie into their beloved “rat bag,” the warm and fuzzy little knitted purse-thing I hang around my neck when I want to keep a sick rat close but need my hands free. On impulse, I carried the CD player to the car with us. I didn’t cry. Instead, I hugged Shugie to my chest as we drove and sang along to Shugie’s absolutely favorite song, one which made her run circles in my lap in the old days, grabbing my cuff to get me to scuffle with her. If you don’t know Max Raabe’s  “Your the Cream in My Coffee,” you need to. It’ll make your day. Listen all the way through, and you get fireworks at the end (!):


The vet thoughtfully had everything set up when we arrived, and I didn’t turn off the music as we went into the surgical suite. Shugie’s song is so infectious that my vet laughed out loud as he got things ready, and the vet tech fell into a few Charleston steps with me while Shugie poked her head out of the rat bag to see what in the world was going on. It was great, very, very New Orleans funeral, which was, after all, the goal.

By the time we got to the chorus, we were all four in a very good place. I lifted Shugie, wrapped in her blankie and still bruxing along with Max, out of the pouch and placed the bundle in a plastic bin, about the size of a boot box, that already had a towel tucked into it for her to burrow into and feel safe–and she did just that. She was perfectly happy and peaceful as we turned on the gas, and she was out like a light in nothing flat. When she was completely under–and the vet kept the gas nozzle over her nose to make sure she stayed that way–it was a matter of one quick and simple jab to the chest, and she was gone. It took less time than her song to finish up.

The gas, by the way, is essential, and you must insist upon it if you ever have to euthanize a pet rat. Otherwise, their last experience in this life will be a giant hypodermic needle gouging into their little chest, probing for their heart, which even a great vet may or may not hit on the first try, God forbid. Not a pleasant thought, so spare yourself that. Gas. Gas, gas, gas. Oblivion first, then the needle: the rat’s happier, you’re happier, and as a result, the vet’s happier. You are doing your vet a service by insisting if he or she isn’t yet aware of the need.

What an astonishing rat Shugie was. If you doubt it, or think I’m biased, read her profile. Months of neglect in a feeder tank couldn’t finish her off, nor could a week in a cage with a full-grown python. She kicked death’s ass when it came for her too soon, but she departed gracefully when her time had truly come. And I helped her do that. That, to me, is a good death. And I’m so glad, for Shugie’s sake, and for mine.

Sweet dreams ’til sunbeams find ya, Shugie….I’ll dream a little dream of you.


Smarty-pants Pedagogical Effluvia:

* ” to wit” is a middle English phrase dating from the 14th Century; it was originally “to witen,” which means “to know.”

** “nonpareil” is also middle English, derived from middle French, meaning “without equal.”

“ne plus ultra” is just plain old Latin, meaning “the culmination of perfection.” Yep, Latin. Yawn. It just doesn’t have the bouncing exuberance of middle English, does it? Oh well, I guess SOMEBODY’S got to study it….