My daughter wanted a birthday present that breathed. She did not want a doll, a badminton set, or even a stuffed collie that could whimper and bark. She decided, at age 6, that the year’s gift would be tailed and agile, full of thoughts and desires and hopes for greatness.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a musical instrument?” I asked, recalling the limp field mouse trapped under my childhood sink.
“No,” said Cooper, the birthday girl. “It has to be alive.”
I feared the day my two daughters would require more than one shared cheeseburger for dinner. The meal would come, I knew, as small people tend to become big. Even so, the thought of having to feed another undersized mouth shook my balance; it felt like too much to manage.
“Please, Mom,” my daughter begged. “You don’t want me to pet a goldfish like you did.” When I was Cooper’s age, my own mother wouldn’t let a puppy into our home, so I did the best with what was allowed, even if it meant swishing my hand around a bowl.
Permission was granted for another girl mammal to join the fun on Stanford Avenue. It would not be a hamster, given the breed’s notorious aroma. It would not be a guinea pig, since Penelope, the boy pig who lived with the cousins, ate up a mohair sofa while the rest of the family was at the movies. No, the lucky rodent would be a gerbil.
On the designated Saturday, my daughters and I went to the pet store. The saleswoman reached her arm into a cage and snatched a golden baby in her hand. Its head protruded through the ring of her thumb and forefinger.
“They prefer to live in pairs,” she said.
“You mean pairs, like two of them?” I asked.
My 7-year-old, Daphne, chose a gray one with a white diamond in the middle of her forehead, perhaps an emblem of distinction in the gerbil community. Maybe she was the queen—or, uh oh, the dunce.
The salesclerk put the sisters into a ventilated box for transport home. She gave advice on cage selection, reminding my children that the animals would need plenty of exercise so they would not get bored and chomp their way out. The girls chose one with a technicolor design. It had a running wheel attached to the back wall, two platforms with vertical tubes through which to climb, and a chute that fed into a translucent green chamber—the penthouse. The gerbils would have a lot to do. They might need sports bras.
I carried the cage (anointed 39-Hour Fitness) and the paper bedding. Daphne had the sack of food while Cooper held Goldie and Tiny, named in a brief and subdued ceremony near the bird aisle.
When I had my babies in Boston, I did not think I would be raising them on my own in Texas. I read about anger, and how it creates wrinkles on your forehead, and so embarked upon a journey of grace and restraint—or tried to most days. The added pressures of single parenthood brought a heightened sense of responsibility, but I resolved not to let unexpected work and worry derail my commitment to being the best mother I could be. Whatever served the children, I realized, would serve everyone. Somehow, I sensed that purchasing the gerbils would be beneficial all around.
Once situated in their new quarters, Tiny and Goldie investigated independently. We sat quietly on the piano bench to watch. I had done everything perfectly, my mother assured me, and I would do this perfectly, too. But mothers say these things even when they know they are not true. Regardless, I held myself to growing strong little women, independent and secure in their own talents and beliefs, aware of disappointment but appreciative of all that is good. I would try to set the example despite the fear that I would fail, or leave something out. Did I latch the car seat, properly explain the periodic table, hug them tightly enough?
A few weeks after the pets moved in, a friend of the girls came to visit, unaware of the excitement that had been percolating all morning.
“Our mom’s going to let the gerbils run around the bathroom floor,”
Cooper yelled as the little girl enter-ed. “It’s the first time. Can you hold a gerbil?”
The child twisted up the cuffs in her hands. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Do you have a pet?” asked Cooper. “In a cage? Not like a dog or cat or anything.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Are you sure?” asked Daphne.
“She’s not afraid,” said Cooper. “C’mon, let’s go.”
They walked the cage through the living room and into the hall bathroom.
“Should I come in?” I asked.
“We can do it,” said Daphne, closing the door.
“All right, but remember, catch them gently.”
“We know, Mommy.”
“Call me if you need me. I’ll be in the kitchen.”
I prepared a cup of tea and sat down at the table. The phone rang. “Hello,” I said.
“Hell-oooo, Mamacita,” came the response, melodic and festive.
“It’s you. Hell-oooo to you, Ali Marie,” I returned, equally ebullient. “How is the day?”
The daily dialogues with my oldest pal were not mere chat, but something more, little smashes of philosophy fired like neurons through the phone cable. As Ali began to answer, a scream tore out of the hall bathroom, and then another, followed by squealing, yelling, and thudding. I dropped the phone, ran, and pushed open the door without regard for untethered rodents. Cooper crouched next to the cage; Daphne stood over it waving her arms. Their guest had retreated to the corner of the room, where she wrapped herself in the shower curtain.
“I didn’t mean to,” Daphne kept saying, her knees shaking. “But it came off.”
“What came off?” I asked, rushing her hand to the sink. “Are you cut? Did your finger come off? What happened?”
“It’s Tiny’s tail,” said Cooper. “Look. It’s in there, in the pen-house.” She pointed to the top floor of the cage.
“The tail ripped off?” I yelled, aghast.
“I didn’t mean to,” Daphne said again.
“She grabbed the end, and when she picked it up, it came off,” explained Cooper. “You can see, it still has the fur on it.”
“Oh my god, look at it,” I said. “Girls, this is a living thing.”
“You said to grab the tail,” said Daphne, hanging onto my rib cage.
“From the bottom,” I said, “not the end. I told you, from the bottom only.”
“You didn’t say that.”
I know that I warned them. I had to have warned them.
“Is she going to die, Mommy?”
Tiny sat in the penthouse licking what remained of her appendage. She had blood on her nose. The casing of skin lay next to her, stripped off in a single uniform piece, like a tablecloth yanked from under a fully set table.
“I hope not.” I took Daphne’s face in my hands. “I know you didn’t mean to. I’ll call the pet store.”
Like other moms, I relied on my instincts when action was needed in a flash. If there was time, I’d call my own mother in New York, but often there was not time. Tiny had no time.
The phone rang as I bent to pick it up off the
floor. “Pamela Gwyn! What’s going on?” Ali asked. “I heard screaming.”
“The gerbil’s tail came off.”
“The tail? Completely off? Like, disconnected?”
“It pulled off like a glove. Daphne picked it up from the end. I think I told her not to.”
“Yeah, I did. I think.”
“I mean, I hope I did. It would be the thing I’d say, but sometimes you just don’t say the thing.”
The kids sat vigil on the piano bench. The rodent specialist at the pet store told me that Tiny’s tail would likely heal itself, though I should watch for infection. I felt delinquent while checking for discolored secretions during the following days and saw the incident as a warning. Going forward, I would remind my girls many times over about strangers in parking lots and hair dryers in bath tubs and boys with questionable intentions, because sometimes you don’t know what they know, and sometimes it’s OK to be annoying, and sometimes parents fail. I would try not to fail again.
A few days later, the exposed flesh turned black and fell off, leaving Tiny tinier but alive. Its absence, a phantom reminder of both my limitations and ideals, sat with me long after the incident. Tiny, though, seemed less shaken, the intact segment of the tail healing in a stump and serving her well for the years to follow.